Does Kevin Durant Have a Higher Ceiling Than LeBron James?

Ethan Sherwood StraussNBA Lead WriterDecember 26, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12:  Kevin Durant #5 and LeBron James #6 of the United States celebrate in the Men's Basketball gold medal game between the United States and Spain on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympics Games at North Greenwich Arena on August 12, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Kevin Durant is an incredible player, but he's also an incredible learner. Durant may have entered the league with a naturally wonderful shot, but his dribbling was not befitting of a scoring wing, and his court vision was well below average. 

KD's had five seasons of a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. Through four of them, I assumed this to be an immutable flaw. He was never going to grow court vision. He was always going to lag behind some other "best player" on account of his lack of sight. 

This year, it looks like that assumption was flawed. With James Harden gone, Durant has grown as a passer, often creating for teammates while on the move. His passing awareness appears almost fueled by movement. KD is more likely to see an open man while racing down the court than he is from a standstill.

That's the next step for Durant: Can he become a threat in the way LeBron James was on Tuesday (at the 6:44 mark of this video) against Oklahoma City?

As for Kevin Durant's handles, he's got that now. Beckley Mason of and HoopSpeak saw the improvement back in the lockout summer of 2011. Durant has put a lot of work in on his dribbling technique, and you can even see some of the grueling dribble-specific exercises featured in his workout video with LeBron James, of all people: 

That's the problem, when trying to project whether Kevin Durant can reach a ceiling above that of LeBron: James is also a hard-worker who's done much to optimize his immense talent. 

While I would hesitate to underestimate Kevin Durant, as I've done in the past when not expecting him to become this kind of passer or dribbler, it's also hard to imagine KD topping LeBron's best seasons. LeBron's 2008-2009, 2009-2010, and 2011-2012 are some of the best years we've seen from anybody—Michael Jordan included.

In his first MVP season, at the age Durant is now, LeBron James claimed a 31.7 PER and .318 win share average. If that sounds like statistical gobbledygook, just know that no one has done that since Jordan in either category. James has also come close to those numbers in subsequent seasons while developing a more well-rounded post game. 

This year, Kevin Durant is currently notching a 28.2 PER and .284 win share average. He's close, but not quite in LeBron James territory. 

To declare Kevin Durant's ceiling higher than LeBron's, you are making the case that he can dominate in or above the level that Michael Jordan once controlled '90s basketball. Such a belief isn't crazy—it's just bold. 

I'm not quite there, though there's plenty of temptation to believe in KD's G.O.A.T. potential. He certainly has a tantalizing, unique combination of gifts. Durant's a hyper-efficient shooter who happens to be 6'9'' (in socks), with a near 7'5'' wingspan. He can play on the wing but rebound like a center. He can rebound like a center but pass like a guard. He can hit unblockable fadeaways like Dirk but demolish defenses in transition like LeBron James. 

He's just not the athlete LeBron was at age 24—or the defender. I would not be entirely shocked to see KD have a better career than Bron, but, back in 2009, LeBron's future appeared even brighter than Durant's does now. 

James' ceiling has always hovered high above the rest, so much so that the vast expectations have sometimes come back to haunt him. When people expect you to be the amalgam of Magic and Michael, your missteps aren't met with much forgiveness. Similar expectations haven't chased Durant because we collectively know that he possesses just a little less potential. Perhaps we're collectively wrong, but I'll defer to the wisdom of the crowds here. 

Can Kevin Durant have a better statistical career, more rings and a better reputation than LeBron? Sure. But James' ceiling is above and beyond that of even an uber-talent like Durant.