Not since the salad days of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1980s has the NBA seen two superstars simultaneously performing at such insanely high levels as LeBron James and Kevin Durant are right now.
The former has been hogging the headlines of late for his historic string of six straight games with 30 or more points on 60-plus percent shooting from the field. The latter has simply continued about the business of securing his fourth consecutive scoring title amidst an offensive season for the ages.
On Thursday night, they'll face off for the last time until (possibly) the 2013 NBA Finals, when the Oklahoma City Thunder host the Miami Heat in the final game before the All-Star break for both teams.
So far, LeBron has owned KD head-to-head. James' teams have won eight of 10 regular-season meetings, including a 103-97 nail-biter this past Christmas. Here's a look at how they've stacked up against one another in those 10 games (via Basketball-Reference):
And in five postseason meetings, four of which went LeBron's way in the 2012 NBA Finals:
What we see appears to be an amplification of more "natural" strengths and weaknesses between the two in the postseason. LeBron becomes the more aggressive attacker, getting to the line and forcing his primary defender (KD) to pick up fouls far faster than he normally would.
Durant, for his part, is plenty effective piling up points from the perimeter. Both turn the ball over with greater frequency, due in part to using a greater share of possessions as well as to the tightening of the opposing defense over the course of a seven-game (or, in this case, five-game) series.
Then again, neither of these statistical comparisons is all that reflective of where basketball's two preeminent players stand today.
James has evolved into a "power guard" who punishes his opponents with a burgeoning post-up game in the paint and a sharpened three-point shot from the perimeter, in addition to his requisite skills as a ball-handler and distributor. As for Durant, he's left behind any notion of himself as "just" a mild-mannered spot-up shooter to become a scary-efficient scorer who strikes fear into the hearts of his opponents on a nightly basis.
And, ultimately, these samples are still a bit too small to derive anything all that definitive from them.
Before we delve into the really gory details of how these two measure up right now, let's have a cursory glance at the overall basics so far in 2012-13. We'll omit the per-36-minute stats, since James and Durant garner such similar playing time.
In both cases, the raw numbers are stunning. LeBron is third in scoring, fourth in minutes, seventh in field-goal percentage, eighth in free-throw attempts, 11th in assists, 12th in steals, 18th in three-point percentage and 26th in rebounding. Durant's relative rankings are similarly impressive—first in scoring, second in free-throw attempts and free-throw percentage, second in minutes, 11th in three-point percentage, 17th in steals, 23rd in field-goal percentage and 26th in blocks.
Which is to say, LeBron and Durant both sit among the top 30 in no fewer than eight major statistical categories...and that they're both incredibly versatile on both ends of the court.
It's no wonder, then, that they're Nos. 1 and 2 in Player Efficiency Rating, which is an aggregate of those stats tracked by modern box scores. LeBron once again leads the pack with a PER of 31.29, with Durant bringing up the "rear" at 29.24.
At a glance, it's easy to discern that LeBron is more of a facilitator than Durant. He's dishing out nearly seven dimes per game, which is right around his career average. KD has certainly stepped up his game in this regard, with a career-best 4.4 helpers, but he remains well behind James in the realm of creating shots for others.
To be sure, this has plenty to do with different roles for each, along with disparate skill sets. James is the hub of the Heat offense, and he has diversified his repertoire to include passing out of the post in addition to finding guys off the dribble from the perimeter. Durant has taken on more creative duties since James Harden's departure, but he still relies rather heavily on fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook to initiate the offense and spread the proverbial wealth.
Clearly, the edge in "Point Guard-ness" belongs to LeBron. James' superior pure point rating (PPR)—which takes into account assists, turnovers and pace—drives home this notion further.
What about scoring, then? How do they compare in this regard? Aside from the obvious, overarching themes that both score a ton and do so with incredible efficiency, that is.
They both rank among the top 10 in the NBA in true shooting percentage, which accounts for three-point shots and free throws. Durant is fifth overall with a percentage of .657, compared to LeBron's mark of .636, which checks in 10th.
KD's advantage makes intuitive sense here. He gets to the line more often and shoots a far higher percentage than does LeBron, as detailed earlier. Durant also takes and makes more threes than his South Beach counterpart.
A point driven home by their respective shot charts:
Notice how LeBron (top) takes nearly half of his shots at or near the rim—46.4 percent, to be exact. That's a remarkable share of "easy" shots for a player who used to butter his bread from the outside. James' next-biggest share of shots comes from the left block (7.6 percent), which makes sense considering his new-found love of and proficiency for posting up.
Durant's certainly no slouch in this regard. More than a third of his attempts have come within eight feet of the basket, with another fifth from the "ring" between eight and 16 feet away.
What's most intriguing about Durant, though, is the extent to which his shots have been spread around the floor. He takes long twos and corner threes sparingly but feels free to fire away from the top of the key and on each wing, in addition to his usual artistry from within 16 feet.
For those of you who like pie, here's a rather colorful breakdown of each player's shot distribution:
Now, take a look at how Durant and LeBron perform from each zone, and you'll begin to understand why they take their shots from where they do:
There are two big takeaways here:
1. LeBron probably takes so many shots at or near the rim because he's really, really, really good at finishing from there. His 73.1 percent mark on shots within eight feet of the basket is tops among all players with at least 30 attempts in that range, per NBA.com's stats database. Again, we turn to LeBron's superior size, speed, strength and athleticism, which allows him to drive to the rim at will and bully defenders on the block.
If you're LeBron and you have those attributes at your disposal, it would behoove you to rack up easy shot after easy shot.
2. KD's more egalitarian distribution likely has something to do with his ability to shoot accurately from so many different spots. Grantland's Zach Lowe came to a similar conclusion, albeit using more sophisticated (and more exclusive) data.
Durant shoots at or above the league average from most anywhere on the floor. Better yet, he seems to understand how to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses in this regard. He's attempted 101 shots combined between the four zones in which he shoots worst. That comes out to a relatively measly 10.8 percent of his looks spent in his least accurate areas.
Evidently, LeBron and Durant approach scoring differently. James is a bruiser with blinding speed who's best served banging bodies around the basket. Durant, meanwhile, is a tall, wiry leaper who can get to the cup, but whose height and smooth shooting stroke allow him to soften up opposing defenses from wherever he pleases.
On the whole, though, these two appear to be trending toward a convergence in brilliance. Both are on track to become basketball prototypes: smart, athletic players with size who can do it all offensively (dribble, pass, shoot, post up, etc.) and man all five positions defensively without fouling.
To that end, James has become a far more dependable perimeter shooter, and Durant is improving as a passer. LeBron has been one of the NBA's best defenders since at least 2008-09, when he earned his first All-Defensive selection. Durant has improved considerably on that end and figures to earn some defensive accolades of his own in short order as a result. Both have also taken up residency in the low post, but LeBron is currently well ahead of Kevin's curve in that regard.
Which is to be expected of a guy who's approximately 45 pounds heavier and nearly four years older, as LeBron is in comparison to KD.
But that's what's "scary" about Durant—that he's as good as he is now, with so much upside yet to be exercised and time in which to do so. KD still has yet to fully mature, be it physically or emotionally. The work he's put in so far has made him stronger, and his experiences in the NBA have toughened him up to the point where he's now a far cry from the "Mr. Nice Guy" on the court that he was up until recently.
To be sure, LeBron might not be done improving either, at least if his recent run of success is any indication. If James wants to stave off Durant's heel-nipping, he'll have to continue to sharpen his outside shot and his low-post game while blowing up the box score as he has for the last nine-plus seasons.
Or, better yet, he can just keep winning, perhaps even at Durant's expense. LeBron will have another opportunity to do just that on Thursday night, with others—at the All-Star Game and, perhaps, in the NBA Finals—soon to come.
Because as these two superstars surely know, the only stat that truly matters in differentiating the best from the rest is that which is measured in wins and losses.
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