Wednesday, January 9, 2013

LeBron vs. Durant: Comparing the two best players in the NBA today



Within their first five years neither LeBron James nor Kevin Durant had won an NBA championship. Nonetheless, both proved in that short stretch that their ringless fingers could not hide one very obvious fact: they would ascend the ladder of NBA greatness in their careers. While enjoying the entertainment that both NBA superstars exhibit today, there is a very high likelihood that both will finish their career in the heart of the discussion for greatest NBA players of all time.

So how do the two best players in the NBA compare? Quite frankly, as you will see in their statistics, they are eerily similar. Here is a comparison of LeBron and Durant’s respective first five years in the NBA, both of which started at age 19:

Coming into the league, LeBron James was hailed as the next great thing. Gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school basketball player, LeBron was expected to be nothing short of the stature of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Conversely, many analysts questioned Kevin Durant’s relevance as a professional player. While LeBron had an NBA-ready body right out of high school, Durant’s physique was much more questionable. Whispers of bust surrounded the dynamic scorer who was 2007 College Player of the Year in his one year at Texas. Perhaps prophetic, in their respective drafts, LeBron was No. 1 overall and Durant was No. 2.

As their high selection suggests, both landed in cities with NBA teams desperately in need of a franchise player. At the time of James’ arrival, the Cleveland Cavaliers had missed the playoffs for five consecutive years. Outside of LeBron, little hope was on the horizon. In the Akron native’s rookie year in the league (2003-04), two of the top five scorers on the team included Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ricky Davis. Similarly, Kevin Durant came to the then-Seattle SuperSonics hoping to revive a franchise that had lost Ray Allen. The SuperSonics had one playoff appearance in the five years leading up to Durant’s rookie year.

In KD’s rookie year (2007-08), he scored about as many points as the second and third leading scorers on the team combined. But unlike LeBron, Durant would get some help over the next couple years as two more high draft picks, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, contributed to a turnaround in what became the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise.

Graph of Thunder and Cavaliers winning percentage. Rookie years of James and Durant
indicated with red points. Cavs 10-year stretch is 99-08. Thunder is from 03-12.



















Although LeBron had significantly more success in his rookie year than Durant, neither LeBron’s Cavs nor Durant’s Thunder made the playoffs for the first two years that both players were in the league. However, there was immediate hope that there would eventually be a turnaround. Both won NBA Rookie of the Year honors. Scoring titles, All Star appearances, and a host of other accolades followed in their first five years.

As if those trends don’t mirror each other enough, take a look at the regular season numbers they put up in their first five years:

Per game statistics
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Points
27.3
26.3
Rebounds
6.9
6.6
Assists
6.6
2.8
Steals
1.8
1.2
Blocks
0.8
1.0
FG percentage
.467
.468
FT percentage
.728
.878
Games played
390
380

The only significant differences are in assists (LeBron has the edge) and free throw percentage (Durant has the edge)…everything else is nearly identical. Going to advanced statistics helps differentiate a little bit more, but one beats the other in categories you would expect them to (LeBron in PER, Durant in eFG% and TS%). As a measure of the extraordinary beginning to their careers, only 24 players have a career PER above Durant’s 22.6. Eight had higher than LeBron’s PER (25.2).

Go to their playoff records and again, not much difference. Neither won a championship—but to put it in perspective, Jordan was not a champion until his seventh year in the league. LeBron made it to the Finals once and Conference finals twice. Durant has advanced one round deeper into the playoffs each year starting his third year in the league. Both had their own jaw-dropping playoff performances, as well. And like their regular season numbers, playoff stats are remarkably similar:

Playoff per game statistics
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Points
27.5
28.1
Rebounds
8.0
7.7
Assists
7.3
3.2
Steals
1.6
1.1
Blocks
0.8
1.2
FG percentage
.433
.465
FT percentage
.742
.854
Games played
46
43

But here, LeBron has the edge with a top-five playoff performance of all time in his first five years in the league. So, with all of this in mind, who was better? Stats and awards point to a wash but there are some unquantifiable differences that help provide a marginal separation.

LeBron James was an athletic monster who proved he could get to the rim at will and was a gifted facilitator. Durant, on the other hand, was a pure shooter whose length creates tough offensive mismatches. Defensively, LeBron was more polished than Durant even though the rebounding, steals, and blocks suggest equality. For one, defensive rating and defensive win shares both favor LeBron.

Durant is definitely the better pure shooter but LeBron’s overall game gives him the slight edge. And strictly in terms of performance, the then-Cavs star made more happen with less surrounding pieces. Kevin Durant needed Westbrook and Harden to make the playoffs. LeBron, in his first year making the playoffs had the help of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall, and Larry Hughes. So even though the Western conference is more competitive than the East, Durant had the luxury of playing with a host of other scorers and defensively-minded players. Bottom line: if your franchise needs a player and LeBron James and Kevin Durant are on the draft board, they would be taken in the same order that they were on their respective draft days.


If you liked this comparison, check out our series of comparisons that includes: Kobe vs. LeBron, LeBron vs. Jordan, Jordan vs. Kobe, and Kobe vs. Duncan.

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  2. At this point, that comparison isn't quite as appropriate/relevant in terms of OVERALL ability but I just might do a comparison of them in terms of scoring. Here's something that I wrote that is along those lines: http://bit.ly/durantvsjordan

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