LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA.
That’s an amazing accomplishment. He’s now 33 years old, and nobody that age should still be the best player in their sport. But here James is, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers on what should be yet another run to the NBA Finals. He’s averaging 27.8 points, 9.3 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game. His PER is 30.52, among the league-leaders. He’s shooting 56 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. By almost any measure, he’s having an MVP season.
And yet, his grasp on the “best player in the world” title is as tenuous as it has been in the last decade.
This is no knock on anything that James is or isn’t doing. But what has become increasingly apparent is that Kevin Durant has upped his level of play so dramatically that he has forced himself into the conversation.
Everyone knows Durant is one of the best offensive players in basketball, and this season has been no exception. He’s averaging 26 points per game, and that doesn’t do justice to how lethal a scorer he really is. He pulls down seven rebounds a game, and is one of the best passing forwards in basketball, averaging 5.1 assists a game.
Defense is where he has made significant gains on James. While LeBron is no longer as dynamic a defender that he was five years ago, Durant is the best defensive player in basketball right now, and it isn’t close.
He is spearheading Golden State’s defense and making the Warriors a team that’s great defensively on the perimeter and at the rim. Durant’s blocking a career-high 2.3 shots per game. He’s versatile enough to guard all five positions. At 7-feet he can swallow up ball-handlers on the perimeter and still recover and block shots if he gets beaten off the dribble.
If the season ended today, Durant would be the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, especially with the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard and the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert both dealing with injuries for much of the season. When you combine what he’s become defensively with his offensive prowess, Durant is without question the best two-way player in basketball.
The level Durant’s playing is propelling him ever closer to LeBron. James is still the ruler of the NBA roost, mainly because he is playing arguably his best basketball in a decade. And this can’t be discounted.
James has more offensive responsibility with the Cavaliers than Durant has with the Warriors. If Cleveland has success, almost everything offensively has to go through James on every possession. Durant plays with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. He has a luxury of running with dynamic playmakers that James doesn’t have. Energy-wise, that makes a difference, and it serves as a big reason Durant has been able to concentrate so much on being a difference-maker defensively.
At the same time, Durant deserves credit for actually taking the defensive part of his game as seriously as he has. It has made him a complete player. And that could make him an all-timer.
Durant was soft defensively when he came into the league. And after Wednesday’s win over the Jazz, he said he has been trying to change that reputation since 2012. He has gotten stronger, and become more steely mentally. He’s using his long arms to his advantage. What Durant is doing is impressive, because some of his contemporaries haven’t been able to match it. Curry. James Harden. Russell Westbrook. All are examples of game-changing offensive talents who still don’t get it done at the defensive end.
At age 29, Durant is playing at his absolute peak. He has already won an NBA title, and he’s likely to get another in June, because the Warriors are by far the best team in the league.
But can he pass LeBron as the best player in the world? I’ve always thought that wasn’t possible. But Durant has made it possible through his own improvement. It speaks well of him and his overall legacy. He could have coasted on his considerable talent, and that would’ve been enough for him to still be the second best player in the world.
That’s clearly not enough for Durant. He wants to be the best. And making that a question is good for the NBA as a whole. I, for one, want to see James and Durant go at it again this June for team and individual superiority.
NBA POWER RANKINGS
1. Golden State Warriors (28-7) • Won their first big showdown of the season against the Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Houston Rockets (25-8) • They’ve lost three straight, but much of the damage was done without Chris Paul in the lineup.
3. Boston Celtics (29-10) • Marcus Smart is one of the best role players in basketball.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (24-11) • Should be getting Isaiah Thomas back within the week.
5. Toronto Raptors (23-10) • DeRozan is quietly having an MVP season.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder (20-15) • Finally turning the promise of their roster into production on the floor.
7. San Antonio Spurs (25-11) • Still getting Kawhi back to full strength.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves (22-14) • Teague sprained his knee and is out indefinitely. Big blow for the Wolves to lose their point guard.
9. Denver Nuggets (19-16) • Trey Lyles is having the best month of his career.
10. Milwaukee Bucks (18-15) • Overcame a 20-point deficit to beat Minnesota.
11. Detroit Pistons (19-15) • Lose Reggie Jackson indefinitely to a sprained knee.
12. Washington Wizards (19-16) • Had a team meeting to address perceived selfishness.
13. Indiana Pacers (19-16) • Are 5-5 in their last 10 games, slipping to the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference.
14. New Orleans Pelicans (18-16) • This happened: Rajon Rondo recorded 25 assists in a game. In 2017.
15. Portland Trail Blazers (18-16) • Gutsy comeback win over the Sixers without Lillard.
16. Miami Heat (18-16) • To this point, they’ve been better on the road than at American Airlines Arena.
17. Chicago Bulls (12-22) • If they keep this up, playoffs may not be out of the question.
18. New York Knicks (17-18) • Jarrett Jack is not the long-term answer at point guard.
19. Philadelphia 76ers (15-19) • Ben Simmons is starting to come back to Earth a bit.
20. Los Angeles Clippers (14-19) • Getting Blake Griffin back earlier than expected from injury.
21. Utah Jazz (15-21) • The nightmare December schedule is over. How long will it take for them to recover?
22. Phoenix Suns (13-23) • Chandler’s game-winning dunk a candidate for play of the year.
23. Los Angeles Lakers (11-22) • Are trade rumors fueling locker room unrest?
24. Sacramento Kings (12-22) • Vince Carter can still play at the ripe old age of 40.
25. Brooklyn Nets (12-22) • Have lost seven of their last eight.
27. Orlando Magic (12-24) • They’ve fallen off a cliff after a hot start.
28. Dallas Mavericks (11-25) • The most competitive of the bad teams.
29. Memphis Grizzlies (11-24) • Tyreke Evans is enjoying a career-saving year.
30. Atlanta Hawks (9-25) • The only team in the league with fewer than 10 wins.