The gap is obviously closing, if there was ever much of an actual gap in the first place.
In terms of public perception, Kevin Durant is finally catching up to LeBron James.
Now, Durant won’t be crowned anything above LeBron until he crowns himself and raises his own banner, but at least in terms of just how we view the two players on current merit, there isn’t much separation anymore. Durant is the clear leader in the MVP race, and seems to be wrestling away a few LeBron disciples in the process.
But the general feeling still remains that LeBron is the better player. Why? Championships aside — and that’s a hell of a thing to push aside, I realize — the most common explanation for LeBron is the defensive end. Durant is an average defender, LeBron is a great one. Or so that’s what people assume.
Because here’s the thing about defense: So much of it is in the eye of the beholder. It’s reputation based, and in order to build that reputation for yourself, you’ve got to get multiple people saying at once, “Hey, he’s a really good defender.” That’s what Paul George did by checking Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James in the Eastern playoffs last season. Because of it, he’s going to be considered a top tier defender for life. That’s the way it works.
Durant’s been trying to overcome the opposite. First, he’s skinny. And skinny guys just don’t look like good defenders. It’s defensive prejudice, but it’s reality. Second, he was a pretty bad defender his first couple seasons. He had this written about him. He could really only guard one position, and often struggled doing it. He got muscled, he got taken off the dribble, he got lost on baseline picks, he got caught ball-watching. He clearly cared a little too much about the other end.
But he completely dedicated himself to becoming a complete player during the 2010-11 season. The offense wasn’t going to slip, but defensively, he wanted to be great. And with all those tools — the athleticism, the length, the size — Durant had the makings of being a really good defender.
Now? Durant’s a good defender, maybe even secretly a great one. A lot of people either are choosing to ignore that fact, or are still living off past reputation. The numbers everywhere say it. And if you watch KD play, you can see his energy, effort and focus on that end are at an incredibly high level. For instance, he guarded Kyle Korver for a lot of the second and third quarters last night. And he hounded him. I don’t recall Korver even getting off a shot with Durant on him.
In isolation, Durant has figured out how to use his outrageous arms, and stupidly good lateral movement to make it near impossible to get a clean look against him. (Opponents are just 9-43 this season in isos on KD. That’s absurd.) Dare I say that one-on-one, Durant may be one of the two or three most difficult players to score on in basketball.
But again, the assumption is that Durant plays one end, while LeBron plays both. Let’s look:
Steals per game Blocks per game Defensive rebounds per game
Durant 1.5 0.9 7.4
LeBron 1.3 0.3 6.7
But those are just surface-scratching stats.
(Steal percentage is an estimate of the number of possessions that end with a steal when the player is on the floor, same thing goes for block percentage, defensive rating is points allowed per 100 possessions when that player is on the floor and Defensive Win Shares are an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player from his defense.)
Steal percentage Block percentage Defensive rating Defensive Win Shares
Durant 2.0 1.9 99.7 3.0
LeBron 1.8 0.7 103.9 1.8
Some Synergy stats (note: PPP stands for “points per play” meaning that’s the average number of points each player allows in those situations):
Overall Isolation Spot-up P&R Ball-Handler Post Up
Durant 0.78 ppp (34.3 FG%) 0.48 ppp (20.9 FG%) 0.85 ppp (32.1 FG%) 0.54 ppp (33.3 FG%) 0.73 ppp (37.5 FG%)
LeBron 0.86 ppp (38.3 FG%) 0.92 ppp (42.1 FG%) 0.92 ppp (34.5 FG%) 0.58 ppp (35.7 FG%) 0.81 ppp (47.1 FG%)
And then there’s this: The Heat this season when LeBron is off the court are allowing 98.0 points per 100 possessions. With him on the floor, 103.9. The Thunder are allowing 96.7 with Durant off, and 99.7 with him on. For LeBron, the only worse defensive rating on the Heat for players that have appeared in 30 games is Michael Beasley, at 106.4.
So, is Kevin Durant a better defender than LeBron James? Not saying that, nor implying it. I do think we can agree LeBron may have slipped a little on that end this season, whether because of coasting, boredom or something else.
But because defense can be so subjective, and our biases play such a big part in telling us what we think we’re seeing, we need the numbers to cut through some of the B.S. Yes, our eyes are important. The most important thing. We don’t know how to exactly measure and quantify good defense. Something like steals don’t tell the story for Tony Allen. And on/off numbers, defensive ratings or Win Shares don’t always either, because he has to play with four other guys that might have sucked on the defensive end. But for the “Watch the games!” crowd, here’s the thing: Nobody watches every game of every team. That’s why we’ve got to have the numbers, and smartly blend them together with what we’re seeing to try and get a clearer view of the entire picture.
There’s also the chatter about Durant “not taking the challenge” against elite players. The citation for LeBron is that he locked up Derrick Rose in the Eastern Conference Finals. Does Durant not get the same credit for doing that to Kobe in the second round two playoffs ago in the fourth quarter? And what about in the Finals, when Durant was torching the Heat for 30.6 a game on 54.8 percent shooting — why was Shane Battier the one defending Durant the bulk of the time?
Keep this in mind, too: LeBron is 29 years old, Durant is 25. We’ve been comparing the players for the last few years, for good reason, but Durant is only now starting to come into the prime of his career. LeBron’s past achievements and seasons are more than enough to not only place him firmly on top of the current NBA heap, but to maybe etch his name alongside some of the greatest players ever to play. Durant’s not there yet.
The point is this, though: Kevin Durant might not be a better defender than LeBron James, but the gap on that end of the floor isn’t a chasm anymore. It’s closing — or possibly even closed – and with Durant’s rise in so many other aspects of his game, falling back on the “but LeBron plays defense!” argument is weakening by the day.
The ringzzzzzz one, though? Feel free to keep using that one. Until further notice.