Point counterpoint: LeBron vs. Durant

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NBA fans have witnessed great play on a nightly basis this season, with both LeBron James and Kevin Durant playing some of the best basketball of their careers. LeBron has two rings and four Finals appearances under his belt, and looks as hungry as ever for another title; Durant has kept the Oklahoma City Thunder at the top of the West without his All-Star running mate, Russell Westbrook. This week, two writers weigh in on who they think should win the 2013-2014 NBA MVP award.

LeBron

Although Kevin Durant is having a season for the history books, NBA fans should not forget about four-time (and reigning) Most Valuable Player (MVP) LeBron James, whose season has been nothing short of spectacular. The MVP award is often mistaken for an “Offensive Player-of-the-Year award,”  but the truth is, while fans often value a player’s offensive output more than his defensive skills, the game is played at both ends of the court—stopping your opponent from scoring is just as important as putting the ball in the net.

LeBron has been named to the NBA All-Defence first team five times; and while past achievements shouldn’t influence future ones, LeBron continues to be considered one of the NBA’s premier defenders. Unlike Durant whose slender frame hinders him against quick guards and tough forwards, LeBron—a 6’ 8”, 250-pound behemoth—has the speed and strength to cover the fastest point guards and biggest forwards. LeBron is an imposing defender, and although Durant’s defensive game is certainly improving, LeBron is still in a class of his own.

The two superstars are much more closely matched on the offensive side of the ball. With Russell Westbrook going down early in the season due to injury, Durant had to shoulder more of the scoring load. The league’s leading scorer has done so successfully by averaging over 30 points per game. While this number is beyond impressive, statistics like this have been seen before—LeBron has reached similar totals in his career. This year, however, LeBron is currently shooting 57 per cent from the field. Rather than score 30 points per game as he has done in the past, Lebron seems to be trying to make the players around him better, while resting his body after three consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

The most common comparison to LeBron is NBA Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson. Whereas Johnson played point guard in his career, LeBron has been just as impactful as a facilitator despite playing as a forward. He averages 6.5 assists per game—almost a full assist more than Durant, whose team is just as good as the Miami Heat, even without Westbrook. It’s no coincidence that after coming to Miami, Michael Beasley has seen his shooting percentage rise from a putrid 40 per cent in 2012-13 to an above average 50 per cent this season playing alongside LeBron. The same can be said for Rashard Lewis, whose shooting percentage rose 29 per cent after joining the Heat in 2012.

It’s too easy to look at the league’s top scorer and simply assume he’s the MVP. The league’s best and most impactful player took his talents to South Beach four years ago. LeBron is the NBA’s MVP because he is an unstoppable force on offence, but more  importantly, the 250-pound forward is an immoveable object on defence.

Aaron Rose

Durant

To say that Kevin Durant has been on a tear this past season would be an immense understatement. A “tear” describes moments when players go on high scoring runs or stretches in which they display flashes of brilliance. The perennial All-Star’s performance has not just been a flash in the pan, but rather an exceptional, non-stop, scorching show of excellence since the season’s opening tip.

If one were to ask me who I believe is the best basketball player on the planet today, I’d likely answer LeBron James without a second’s hesitation—but that would be a completely different topic than the one at hand. The talking point here deals with who is more deserving of Most Valuable Player (MVP) honours this season, and no one merits that accolade right now more than Durant.

Durant is a model of consistency whose level of greatness seems to elevate exponentially every game, and is currently averaging a stat line of over 30 points, nearly eight rebounds and 5.6 assists per game, while shooting over 50 per cent from the field. It’s safe to say that these aren’t ordinary numbers. Durant is not only scoring more, but also rebounding the ball better than James.

While LeBron does have a significant edge in the battle for highest field goal percentage, that particular department seems like a frill if you consider the landslide that exists between both players in just about every other measurable statistic. As it stands, Durant is currently shooting over 40 per cent from three-point range and 87.1 per cent from the free throw line. On the other hand, LeBron is shooting a lower 37.1 per cent from long distance and a rather pedestrian 74.6 per cent from the charity stripe.

Not enough? Allow me to divulge some of the league’s advanced metrics for a second. The Player Impact Estimate (PIE) is an estimate of a player’s overall impact and contributions to games they have played in. Though the discrepancy between him and LeBron is minute, Durant leads LeBron and all players in the NBA with the greatest PIE of 20.6. LeBron’s PIE currently sits at 19.5. The defensive rating (DefRtg) is used to measure how many points a player allows per 100 possessions; Durant’s defensive rating of 101.0 trumps James’ rating of 104.4. Though LeBron has the better offensive rating, Durant owns the net rating category, which combines both measures and accurately reflects a player’s ability on both ends of the court. Last but not least, Durant owns the NBA’s highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 30.64—which is the all-in-one number that boils down a player’s entire contribution into a single number.

Not only has Durant led his Thunder squad to a better record than the Heat so far, but he has been able to do most of his damage without his partner in crime, Russell Westbrook. All thanks to Durant, the Thunder now own the second seed in a mightily competitive Western Conference after going 22-8 without Westbrook. It could even be argued that Durant is getting the job done with an inferior supporting cast to LeBron’s. At the end of the day, the MVP trophy remains Durant’s award to lose.

Dan Gilbert

Editors’ Pick: Durant

LeBron is clearly on his way to becoming an all-time great, with his two-way play this season elevating his teammates on the Heat. However, Durant has reached a new level of greatness, setting a new precedent for all-around play by leading the Thunder to a battle for the top seed in a tough Western Conference. Furthermore, he has done this without Russell Westbrook for large chunks of the season, and posted scorching stats along the way. Look for Durant to be your 2013-2014 regular season MVP.