"Let's say you've got 40 apples on your tree. I could eat about 30 of them, but I've begun limiting myself to 15 or 16. Let's take the wide-open three and the post-up at the nail. Those are good apples. Let's throw out the pull-up three in transition and the step-back fadeaway. Those are rotten apples. The three at the top of the circle, that's an in-between apple. We only want the very best on the tree." — Kevin Durant, four years ago, to Sports Illustrated
On Sunday night, moments after Kevin Durant eviscerated the defending world champions for the second time in four nights, Paul Pierce, swept up in the intoxication of a budding dynasty, declared on national television that the world has a new best basketball player.
He's wrong. Despite Durant averaging 35.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 2.5 blocks while making 56.3 percent of his shots, 50 percent of his threes, and 90.9 percent of his free throws, LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA Finals, the NBA, and the known universe. He notched a triple-double in Game 2 and is playing like a tank driven by Lewis Hamilton.
The gap between these two heavyweights—maybe the very best we've ever seen at their natural position—is more narrow today than ever before. But it's impossible remove the outside factors—supporting cast, playing era—from the comparison.
Elected most-likely-to-succeed James as the NBA's best since he took the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Finals in 2012, Durant has been widely accepted to be—off and on, thanks to multiple surgeries and Steph Curry's supernatural surge—the world's second-best player.
Now 28 years old and the most dominant force on perhaps the greatest team ever assembled, he is possibly at the peak of his first-ballot-Hall-of-Fame powers, posting numbers that rival or exceed James' postseason output at the very same age. If these Finals hold, and Durant continues to dominate his individual matchup with LeBron while his Golden State Warriors thump the Cleveland Cavaliers two more times, it won't be ludicrous to take a closer look at the (highly subjective yet forever titillating) superstar standings before next season's opening night.
James and Durant are, in a vacuum, flawless players right now. They're mirroring one another in this series, each serving as a fulcrum for just about any lineup their respective coaching staffs run. (They butted heads at center when Golden State decided to throw Durant at the five after Draymond Green picked up his fourth foul just four minutes into the third quarter.) Between the two, Durant is the better defender and rebounder, as was displayed in Game 2, when he uncurled his wingspan to swat perimeter shots in help situations, and rejected a Kevin Love turnaround—almost all resulted in Warrior points a few seconds later in transition.
When a 50-50 ball flies off the rim, Durant is a lock to grab it himself or tip it to a teammate. Save Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis, he can soar higher than just about everyone else in the league. Meanwhile, James can singlehanded make a G-League castoff look serviceable on the sport's biggest stage; those "smartest passer ever" conversations that were once hyperbolic may now be over.
But in a league where offense rules, Durant is already the superior all-around scorer and displays far more confidence beyond the arc and in the mid-range, whether pulling up off the dribble or launching one on the catch. He's made 63 percent of his long twos and 42.6 percent of his above-the-break threes in the playoffs. Those numbers are unfair in a video game, and there's essentially no strategy to bring them down. Defenses just have to hope he misses.
Here's where the conversation bogs down: Detaching James or Durant from their environment, role, and supporting cast is impossible. These contextual factors add dimensions to a discussion that's already complex and difficult. Kyrie Irving, Love, and the group of outside threats up and down Cleveland's roster make James' life easier, but none come close to rivaling the effect a transcendent two-time MVP like Curry has on all his teammates, especially Durant.
As we've seen in these Finals, whenever Durant and Curry screen for each other (on or off the ball), it puts the defense in an impossible situation. One only needs a split second and a millimeter of space to kill you. The other is a seven-foot grenade launcher.
Switch, and there's a definite chance either Durant or Curry will have at least one mismatch to exploit. Traps are useless unless a third defender rotates over with perfect timing, and even then there'll be an open spot-up shooter in the corner after the first pass catalyzes their attack.
Here are two numbers that help illustrate the general disparity in how LeBron and Durant operate: the percentage of shots that are unassisted and their respective assist rates. Each chronicles the playing style of their respective organizations. Golden State gushes with unselfish, intelligent passers who've helped unlock Steve Kerr's vision of an offensive system where everyone feels connected and useful. It's picture perfect. There's almost too much ball and man movement, with more space than necessary for any NBA player (let alone two of the five best in the world).
In these playoffs, 44 percent of Durant's shots are unassisted, which is exactly 20 percent less than LeBron, whose assist percentage is also nearly double Durant's. If this sounds like James' degree of difficulty is much higher than KD's, that's because it is. Creating your own shot is a lot harder than having someone else do it for you.
While James needs to get his supporting cast going, Durant can focus on firing off as many clean catch-and-shoot missiles as he wants. When those get boring or the defense alters their coverage, he'll seek out a back-door lob or set a ball screen and force his opponents to hurt themselves. Easy-opportunity looks in transition have never been more plentiful or glorious—so much of his individual attack is against a panicked opponent that's backpedaling on their heels. He rarely finds himself going one-on-one against a lock-down defender.
Going back to the quote that hangs atop this story: the fat has officially been sliced from Durant's already-lean game. Every apple is delicious, and there's no downside to ignoring the bruised ones that grace his plate. The duties he shouldered in a previous life are now delegated to an excellent complementary cast that's plenty capable of carrying them out at a level the sport's never really seen. The sum of Durant's net rating in his previous six postseasons is +17.8. His net rating in the 2016-17 playoffs is +20.6.
He is a great all-around player, but it's impossible to accurately dole out credit for his efficient numbers. How much of all this is due to Durant being awesome and how much of it's because he doesn't have to run pick-and-rolls, set teammates up, or initiate offense almost every time his team finds itself in the half-court? This doesn't mean Durant is incapable of performing those responsibilities—according to Synergy Sports, he ranks in the 100th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler on possessions where he shoots, passes, draws a foul, or turns it over—but volume matters. In that regard, a sizable gap remains between James and everyone else.
It feels like a million years ago, but Durant didn't suit up for two games during Golden State's first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, and they still won both by a combined 35 points. When he's on the floor without Curry in these playoffs, the Warriors' net rating is -6.7. As awe-inspiring as he is, how much should it matter that the Warriors don't "need" KD like the Cavaliers need LeBron?
The answer to who's better is simple. But what we're learning in this series is that Durant has never been closer to eclipsing the icon he's chased for the majority of his career. And even with all the benefits of playing with this superteam, Durant has separated himself from every other superstar who deserves to be in this conversation. It's only a matter of time before he also passes LeBron James.