NBA Finals 2017: LeBron James vs Kevin Durant
One superstar is heading toward the twilight of one of the greatest NBA careers of all-time, highlighted by 3 NBA championships and 4 regular season MVP awards. The other is a dominant and perennial scoring machine, who has been criticized for his failures in the NBA playoffs – after 9 full seasons his hands remain jewellery-free.
They’ve been compared to each another in the past, but with the Cavaliers and Warriors set to tangle in this year’s NBA Finals, both will be endlessly scrutinized and measured against one another. Rarely do we get to see the top two players of a generation pitted against each other in the Finals, and what makes this match-up even more intriguing is the fact that both James and Durant play the same position.
With all of that being said, and with two full days until the Game 1 tips off, let’s take a look at which player will win this respective match-up and push their team a little closer to another NBA championship.
He’s not a scorer – nonsense.
Despite being the NBA’s seventh all-time leading scorer (and climbing) and the all-time leading scorer in the playoffs, somehow LeBron James earned the reputation that he is “not a scorer”. That label likely comes from the fact that James does not have what has become known as the scorers’ mentality – where a scorer will chuck and chuck until he sees the ball finally fall through the basket, James is more likely to abandon his shot and look for ways to involve his teammates.
With that being said, James is still one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, and this season’s performance during the playoffs is a reminder of why. Through the first 3 rounds, LeBron is averaging 32.5 PTS on 57% shooting from the field, 42% from the 3-point line, and has a scorching 67% True Shooting rate (a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account free-throws, 2-point shots and 3-point shots).
On the other hand, scoring is what Kevin Durant does, and he does it better than anyone on planet Earth. In fact, Durant might be the most dangerous scorer in NBA history with his combination of size, athleticism and shooting range. Durant is the fourth all-time leader in Point Per Game for both the regular season (27.2) and playoffs (28.4). For the record, James is fifth on both of those lists.
After joining the Golden State Warriors this offseason, Durant’s scoring production obviously took a hit as he now shares the ball with arguably the greatest backcourt in NBA history, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. That, however, hasn’t stopped him from recording elite scoring numbers. Durant has had a great run to the finals, averaging 25.2 PTS on 56% shooting, 42% from behind the arc and a ridiculous 67% True shooting rate.
Amazingly, James and Durant have posted identical shooting rates through the first 3 rounds of the playoffs, and this is not an anomaly. Even their career playoff shooting numbers look very similar:
What gives Durant the edge here is free-throw shooting. The charity stripe has long been the kryptonite to LeBron James’ Superman. While Durant shoots a cool 85% from the free-throw line in his playoff career, James has shot a very pedestrian 74%. Given that James has been to the stripe 1,941 times in his playoff career, that 11% difference cost him 206 total points.
Advantage: KEVIN DURANT
Unlike the first category, this one isn’t very close.
Durant is a pretty decent passer and playmaker, averaging just shy of 5 assists per game for his career. Unlike LeBron James, Durant has also played with an elite point guard for most of his career, which meant that Russell Westbrook and now Stephen Curry have more of the playmaking responsibilities. In the playoffs, his assist numbers drop dramatically and even in Golden State’s free flowing offense Durant has only averaged 3.7 AST during this postseason.
With that being said, Durant lacks the vision and mentality that it takes to get his teammates involved. A lot of his assists come from passing out of double teams, kicking the ball out at the end of a drive or, now that he is a Warrior, simply in the flow of the offense.
James on the other hand is arguably one of the best playmakers in the NBA. At 32 years old, James recorded a career high 8.7 assists per game, good for 6th in the NBA (and 1.7 more assists than his career average). For all of his scoring records and achievements, it has been James’ passing ability that has separated him from his peers. In this year’s playoffs LeBron has continued to find open teammates and is averaging 7 AST per contest.
Advantage: LEBRON JAMES
LeBron James has always been a great defender, however in recent years he has slowly regressed. Whether by choice to save energy for the playoffs, or simply due to aging, LeBron has seen his defensive numbers slowly slip across the board. With that being said, he is still an elite defender when he wants to be. Whether he is needed to defend a guard on the perimeter or asked to pick passing lanes and protect the rim, James has the ability to do it all when he so chooses.
Kevin Durant on the other hand has slowly developed into a great defensive asset for any team.
Although he is listed at 6’9”, Durant has admitted that he is actually 6’11 and measures in at 7-feet tall with basketball shoes. That length alone gives him a supreme advantage over other small forwards on the defensive end, but coupled with his quick feet and explosive athleticism, Durant has become an elite defender, playing for an elite defensive basketball club.
Durant has posted at least 1 block and 1 steal in 6 of his 10 NBA seasons, and in his first season with the Warriors Durant posted his best defensive numbers of his career with 1.6 BLK, 1.1 STL and a 101 Defensive Rating.
With that being said, during the NBA Finals, LeBron James is going to be engaged, he is going to be focused, and he is going to be locked-in defensively. During last year’s NBA Finals only one starter had a better Defensive Rating than James and that was Andrew Bogut. So although Durant is the more consistent defender, James is the better defender when he chooses.
Advantage: LEBRON JAMES
It is always difficult to try and compare players based on a merit that has no statistical measurement. Both players have hit clutch shots in the regular season and playoffs. Both players have won league MVP awards, and both players have led the league in scoring.
James however, has a psychological edge over Durant. Since entering the NBA, Durant is 5-18 (including playoffs and regular season) when playing against James’ teams. The only other previous playoff meeting between the two was in the 2011 NBA Finals when the Miami Heat took on the Oklahoma City Thunder, in which James’ team won in 5 games.
Since then James has gone on to win 2 more NBA Championships, collecting 3 in total to go along with 3 Finals MVP trophies. He has been to the Finals 7 times, with this year being his 8th such appearance. Durant, on the other hand, is making his first Finals appearance since 2011 and doesn’t yet know what it takes to win it all.
It may seem like we’re splitting hairs but when it comes to two players that are this great, the margins are thin. James is by far the more accomplished player, which should give him the edge coming into this series.
Advantage: LEBRON JAMES
There’s little doubt that Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the two best basketball players in the world, and although that might be the case, it’s Cleveland’s star who is the best player in this series - and in the world.
It is still doubtful whether or not that will be enough to lift LeBron James and his crew to the 2017 NBA Championship, but if we learned one thing from last season it’s that we should never bet against the King.
Verdict: LEBRON JAMES
Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know your thoughts on twitter – @awrashoo