Kevin Durant is great and all, but LeBron James is the smarter superstar, right?
With all due respect to Durant, James is probably this generation's greatest player. Not only that, but he was smart enough to know that he couldn't fulfill his destiny without adequate help.
Way back in 2007, instead of signing a four-year extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James opted for three. In all, the Cavaliers had seven years to find James a Russell Westbrook, and general manager Danny Ferry just couldn't get it done.
Call James whatever you want for his decision to take his talents to South Beach. You can call him "disloyal," since the Cavaliers did everything—short of building a championship roster around him—to keep him. You can call it "cold-blooded," since James blindsided the people of Cleveland and the Cavaliers organization with his decision to defect.
One thing you can't call it, though, is "dumb."
Despite his reputation and Q Score taking a massive hit in the aftermath of the Miami move, James is now an NBA champion and has come full circle. In the modern free-agency era, only he and Shaquille O'Neal can boast winning an NBA Finals MVP trophy after leaving their incumbent team.
LeBron is in an ideal situation he created and should be able to compete for championships for years to come. That is, assuming Heat owner Micky Arison is willing to pay the luxury tax for a few more years and Dwyane Wade's knee holds up for the long haul.
And despite having the physical tools and skills necessary to dominate the field of competition every night, James has always put his team before his legacy and takes over games on his own terms.
As great as Durant has been thus far in his young career, he hasn't reached James' level.
One of the most overlooked and under-appreciated characteristics of a champion is knowing when, where and how to dominate. It’s a fine balance that, in my basketball lifetime, I have only seen Michael Jordan perfect.
Amazingly, Jordan knew when his team needed him to facilitate and find the likes of John Paxson and Steve Kerr for open threes or Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley for baseline jumpers.
Jordan knew when his Chicago Bulls needed to go shots-a-blazing in a shootout or win a defensive joust. He willingly scored 45 points or held the likes of, say, Reggie Miller to a miserable shooting night.
Simply put, Jordan knew how to win. He knew when to stand up and when to fall back.
Since Jordan retired, James is the only player who has truly mimicked that type of game control.
Although Kobe Bryant is a greater champion than James, it’s no secret that balance has long eluded him. There's too much alpha male in his being.
Durant, on the other hand, in an attempt to be a good teammate and support his close friend Russell Westbrook, shies away from declaring himself Batman and demanding that the team’s offense flows through him.
James is the quintessential balance.
Thus far this season, the Heat haven’t been the buzzsaw that they can be, but this is a team pacing itself and waiting for the playoffs. Once you have become a champion, your perspective changes, and right now, that’s what we’re witnessing.
After 10 years in the league, James knows that.
For Durant, after just six, he’s still learning.
To this point, Durant is deserving of the attention, accolades and expectations that have been thrust upon him. But while he’s ahead of the curve, he’s not a smarter basketball player than LeBron James.
I spoke with James and Durant about one another when covering the 2012 NBA Finals. Their respect was mutual and their admiration bilateral.
When it was all said and done, it was James and his Heat that were victorious and held the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
The Thunder locker room, full of silent bodies, was empty and lifeless after Game 5.
Durant, tucked in a corner, responded to text messages until it was his time to speak at the podium.
“It hurts to go out like this,” he said.
After that, with Westbrook by his side, it was a long, silent walk to the bus. All the while, Durant must have been consumed with thoughts of how to get better.
Well, for starters, he’ll need to take a page out of James’ book. Though he can’t match LeBron’s brawn, he can mimic his brain.
He needs be more demanding and assertive. He needs to know when and how to control the game.
As Dwyane Wade embraced Durant with the Larry O’Brien Trophy tucked underneath his arm, Wade told Durant that he knows they’ll meet in the Finals again.
He lost to the smarter player in James. But if the basketball gods are real, we’ll have the pleasure of watching the Thunder and Heat battle for an NBA title at least once more.
Maybe then, Durant will have learned and the outcome will be different. Only then can anyone say he is a smarter superstar than LeBron James.
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