Wes Goldberg (editor, AllUCanHeat.com) and Andrew Kennedy (editor, ThunderousIntentions.com) emailed back and forth, discussing the state of the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder and, more specifically, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. What resulted was a lot of ideas and two stories.
This is Part 1. Check back for Part 2 later this week.
Wes: Once upon a time, LeBron James and Kevin Durant were considered neck-and-neck for best player in the NBA. Now, after two championships and two MVP awards for LeBron, it’s hardly a conversation anymore. I think KD needs to do more than win a championship and an MVP to get on LeBron’s level.
Andrew: I feel like when they were neck-and-neck, it was because LeBron wasn’t living up to his potential/people being too hard on him. On the flip side, Durant was at a point in his young career, where he was doing nothing but improving and it felt like LeBron might be leveling off (to a point that weirdly might not be good enough to win a title).
LeBron definitely is the best player in the NBA right now, no one is debating that anymore. But I don’t think the gap between he and Durant is as great as people think it is (it is a large gap, still).
The level LeBron is at right now is an all-time level and in his prime. If he keeps it up a little longer, he should be able to surpass Larry Bird on the all-time starting lineup as the best small forward ever (or maybe Duncan if you want to consider LeBron a PF). I don’t know that anyone expects Durant to one day go down as a better player than LeBron, which means he would never get to the level LeBron is on right now.
So what it will take for Durant to surpass LeBron will be LeBron beginning to decline, while Durant keeps improving. LeBron will always be the more all-around player (which will always make it hard to make a case for someone being better than him), but Durant can become a more all-around player and establish himself as the best offensive force in the NBA and still be better than LeBron one day.
If it’s 3 years from now, Durant averaging 29-8-5 and shooting 50-40-90 and LeBron is at like 24-8-8 and not quite the beast he is now, and the Thunder are the better team and competing for titles more so than LeBron’s team, I could see most deciding KD is then the better player.
The question is, when will LeBron start to decline? What will it look like? And how much better will KD get?
Wes: Anyone who has been watching the NBA for a long time knows we have never seen anyone quite like LeBron just from a physical standpoint. The dude is 6-9 and can go from 250 to 270 pounds as quickly and as easily as Caterpie evolves into Metapod. He bikes to shoot around and sometimes even to games for goodness sake.
But being a power forward will wear down on him, no matter what. I think his decision to improve his jump shot now is a sign of the future. If he can rely on a midrange and three-point shot, then he won’t have to rely as much on his post moves. He shot over 40 percent from three this past season and has said his next goal is to master the midrange jumper, which he used to ice Game 7 against the Spurs. By making hit jumper a deadly and efficient part of his game, he is avoiding the crossroads-of-sorts that Dwyane Wade is facing now.
As far as KD goes, I think you nailed it. He won’t be the brutal defender or rebounder that LeBron is. He doesn’t have the frame. To be fair, the only reason they are compared is because they are the two best players in the game, not because either’s game is comparable to the other’s. Asking Durant to go to the post like we did LeBron is ridiculous. The man is a lethal shooter and slasher. Let him be him. What Durant and LeBron have in common is that both facilitate the offense well. If Durant can get near LeBron’s level as a facilitator, then maybe we start having the conversation again. It will be when KD reached his prime and LeBron reaches his theoretical twilight that they may switch positions as the first- and second-best players in the league.
However, if you ask either of them what is more important, both would say winning championships. I fear the James Harden trade may have closed the window on that core’s title chances what with the West being so deep. It’s too much to ask for someone to replace Harden — they were hoping Kevin Martin could and he couldn’t. I think Brooks has to seriously rethink its system to win the West, and some of that has to do with giving Durant more authority on the court and taking Russell Westbrook off the ball at times.
Andrew: LeBron’s improved jump shooting is scary. I do think that a huge reason why he is shooting such a high percentage is he really gets to take pretty open shots because defenders are scared of him driving, a luxury many don’t have (not taking anything away from LeBron here, it’s to his credit). And he continues to prove he has one of the best basketball minds in the league with his decision-making and recently, taking nothing but high percentage shots. But while it’s nice for him to improve his jumper, it will never be pure, and when his athleticism starts to go and wings can stay in front of him and crowd him more, those jumpers should become more contested. He’ll probably need to be able to score more from the post, which is something he’s been efficient at, but still doesn’t look natural.
As far as KD progressing, I’m worried he’s getting a little too caught up with trying to imitate LeBron. This always happens in the NBA, players try to imitate whoever is the best in the game, like Kobe trying to be MJ. I would prefer KD becomes almost like a Dirk-Kobe type, posting up at the high post a lot, distributing from there and just killing it rising up over players for shorter jump shots than what he takes now, and still getting to the line a ton. KD handling the ball on the perimeter like how LeBron does now is fine for now, but there’s a lot of wasted movement and energy out there and redundancies with he and Westbrook.
And back to what I mentioned before, you don’t have to be the best all-around player in the NBA to be the best player. If KD becomes just a better version of Dirk in his prime, that should be enough to bring MVP’s and championships to OKC.
And for the Harden trade, it definitely hurt their chances of winning a title in the immediate future. But the Thunder still have the best young core in the league. KD and Russ may both be top 5 players in the league from like 2014-2018, that’s usually enough to win a title. Then you have Ibaka who is still getting better and a bunch of other young guys like Lamb who could develop into something nice too.
Brooks does need to change things up though. The Thunder don’t want to get left behind with some of the offenses teams like the Heat and Spurs are running. The simplistic sets still work for OKC with Russ and KD being such great isolation scorers, but a lot more could be done with the talent on that team. My dream is them becoming Dirk and Terry on steroids and looking like those past Dallas teams.