It is a question nobody would ask had Kevin Durant remained in Oklahoma City.
But since he left for the golden streets of Golden State two-and-a-half years ago—having since won two NBA championships and two NBA Finals MVP awards—it is now is a question that begs asking.
Is KD better than LeBron James?
We are not talking all-time status here. We recognize that 33-year-old LeBron’s resumé is greater than 30-year-old KD’s resumé.
But we are referencing the here and now, present sense of the evaluation.
Who is a better player during this 2018-19 NBA season?
We now have almost two months of data to go by, and this Christmas night, when LeBron’s Lakers square off with Durant’s Warriors, the world will get an up-close seat to judge for themselves.
|Kevin Durant||31 (35.6)||28.8||7.5||6.2||0.9||1.0||26.4||+4.83||.627|
|LeBron James||31 (34.9)||28.0||7.9||7.0||1.3||0.7||26.7||+5.46||.604|
Stats through December 20, 2018
Key: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; SPG steals per game; BPG blocks per game; PER Player Efficiency Rating; RPM Real Plus-Minus; TSP true shooting percentage.
Sources: Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN.com
KD and LeBron have similar scoring results without possessing either’s skill set when it comes to scoring. Durant is an uber-efficient scorer in any zone within 25 feet of the hoop, with a shot-chart distribution so even, he becomes so unpredictable because he is so predictable. KD can basically pull up and pop from anywhere at anytime. And you know it. Which makes him unstoppable. This season alone he is scoring 29 points for every 36 minutes per game he plays, making 56 percent of his 2s, 36 percent of his 3s and 93 percent of his 7.4 free throw attempts per game.
Meanwhile, LeBron is a different creature, while scoring at a similar 28 points per 35 minutes per game rate. That said, LeBron becomes more predictable because you know he is three times more likely to pull up for a three-pointer than he is to shooting a mid-range or long-2 shot. Similarly, LeBron is three times more likely to drive all the way to the hoop than he is to take a mid-range or long-2 shot. So while KD and LeBron may both be quantity and quality scorers (KD has a .627 true shooting percentage; LeBron, .604), we give the edge to Durant for displaying greater overall range to his uber-efficient shot selection.
This is not to slight Durant, who plays on one of the NBA’s two most pass-happy offenses in Golden State, but LeBron has brought his Magic Johnson-like game to Los Angeles to try to ignite Magic’s Lakers who have seen their offense stall to subpar results for six seasons running. This year, however, LeBron’s Lakers now rate 16thin offensive efficiency—an improvement at least—thanks to their new quarterback from the point forward position. Critics point out KD gets better as a playmaker every year, while LeBron gradually declines … and that may be true. The metrics agree with that assessment. However, those same metrics also tell us LeBron and Durant are the two best passing forwards in the game today, and despite the aforementioned statement, LeBron still ranks first (33.1 percent assist ratio; 13.1 percent turnover ratio) to Durant’s second (28.6 percent assist ratio; 13.1 percent turnover ratio), according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Gone are the days when young LeBron and young KD would play sustained aggressive defense in the regular season. During his 20s, LeBron earned six All-Defense honors, while the awards committee regularly ignored Durant, especially for his stellar defense played in his initial 2016-17 Warriors season.
That said, both are plus defenders still and become valuable contributors to their team, especially as rim protectors at playoff time. But it is tough to say that either the 33-year-old Laker or the 30-year-old Warrior is standing out on D more so than the other. The 6-9, 240-pound Durant gives the Warriors the additional rim protection they need, while the basketball-savant LeBron gives his young Lakers the vocal coach on the floor that their defense so desperately needed.
If you asked League general managers to pick the three best leaders in basketball today, we think they would answer, “LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.” So to say either LeBron or KD has a leadership edge on the other is a tough call to make. After all, one man is a three-time NBA Finals MVP while the other is a two-timer. They have won multiple gold medals—both Olympics and World Cup—for their country and both rate on anybody’s all-time top 20 list. When you get right down to measuring sticks, those are the standards that best measure team greatness.
Durant may have caused a weeklong media storm when he said the media creates a toxic environment around LeBron whenever he plays. But that has nothing to do with LeBron’s leadership skills, nor does it affect his team’s work on the court. Same is true in Golden State. More than a month ago, Draymond Green questioned Durant’s commitment to the team in a heated verbal on-court altercation. But all things being equal, that too had no great effect on the team. Once Curry returned to the lineup, the Warriors returned to winning as it always had.
Still, Durant—especially in his current will-he/won’t-he re-sign landscape before free agency this summer—loses some points in the category. LeBron has proven to be an unquestioned leader with unparalleled gravity every year since coming to the League. He’s taken every franchise he’s played for to the Finals and while early, appears to be on a similar track with the Lakers. Off the court, LeBron has made similar impact, with his commitment to Akron children with his I Promise School and other charitable programs.
History shows us that NBA stars tend to decline annually in efficiency from ages 28 to 34 before they drop dramatically at age 35 and beyond. There are exceptions to the rule that sustained greatness past their mid-30s (most prominently, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Stockton). We bring this up because LeBron turns 34 at the end of this month and we were willing to concede this category to the younger Durant as a result. However, we have not seen any sign of an age drop-off from LeBron, so instead we will assume King James is one of the aforementioned exceptions to this rule. After all, the 6-8, 250-pound Laker does invest $1.5 million annually into keeping his body in tip-top form. Thus far, we must say the investment is paying off.
Because of the three-year age discrepancy, there probably will come a time when the elder LeBron sees his game hit strong decline faster than Durant’s game does. Hopefully then, LeBron handles the situation with class and dignity, and perhaps then we all will admit Durant has finally replaced the king as the undisputed best forward in basketball today.
However, that day is not today, as LeBron still holds a slight edge, enough that we can keep the LeBron vs. KD debate ongoing. Going into the season, many picked Durant to supplant LeBron for the throne, but LeBron has managed to stave off Father Time.