National Columnist

LeBron or Durant? Before choosing, look whose game's improving most

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Durant has stepped up his game during the Western finals as he becomes a playmaker for OKC. (Getty Images)  
Durant has stepped up his game during the Western finals as he becomes a playmaker for OKC. (Getty Images)  

SAN ANTONIO -- For the past week, I've been fending off the question. Well, more than fending it off. I've been dismissing it. Scoffing at it. Amused by it.

The question:

If you were starting an NBA franchise, who would you rather build around -- Kevin Durant or LeBron James?

For the past week, when people would pose that question on radio spots or in the press room, it seemed silly. Durant or LeBron? Are you kidding?

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LeBron -- obviously. Durant's a scorer, a great scorer, but LeBron could score at Durant's level if he wanted. That was my answer. Plus, LeBron rebounds more, creates more, defends tougher. LeBron's better, and to be honest, it's not all that close. That was my answer for a week.

And then I saw Durant in person during the Western Conference finals. And let me tell you, it's close. Really, really close. Whisker-close -- because Durant has improved his game. The stats say that, but this goes beyond the stats, as this sort of argument always does. It's a matter of feel, matter of opinion, matter of taste. You like ketchup or mustard? Coke or Pepsi? Durant or LeBron?

It's that close, and that by itself is a revelation to me, because like I've said, until I saw Durant in person for the first time this season, I didn't think it was close.

Before the Spurs-Thunder series, I covered three games between the Pacers and Heat. I saw LeBron at his best, Games 4 and 6 in Indianapolis, so it's not like I've caught LeBron in a lull. I caught him at the top of his game, and still I say Kevin Durant has closed the gap in a way I didn't expect.

And look, it's not just me. Twice this week, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich volunteered the following about Durant: "He's arguably the greatest player in the world."

Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said basically the same thing Monday night: "He's either the best player in the world, or one of the top three or five."

Top three or five? Obviously. Best in the whole world? Possibly. Maybe. As silly as that sounds, even to my own LeBron-loving ears, that's the truth. Durant's game has evolved in ways that have caught up to LeBron in some respects, and surpassed him in others.

Before we get to those areas, let's concede up front the spots where LeBron is better: As a defender. As a passer. As an athlete. LeBron has all of that over Durant, and probably always will.

But Durant has something over LeBron, and he always will: Durant is a better shooter. LeBron can really shoot it, obviously, but Durant is in another class. LeBron's a B-plus shooter, maybe even an A-minus shooter, but Durant sets the curve. He's pure on a Larry Bird level, just ridiculous. No matter how hard LeBron works at it, he'll never catch up. Either you're pure, or you're not. Durant is. LeBron's not.

But Durant is catching up to LeBron as a playmaker. He's not there, and probably never will be, but he's closing the gap. His game has evolved so much that it no longer does Durant justice to call him a scorer. He averaged 3.5 assists a game this season, little more than half LeBron's 6.2 average, but in five games against the Spurs he has upped that to 5.4 per game. He throws alley-oops to Russell Westbrook, makes diagonal passes to Thabo Sefolosha in the corner, and breaks down defenses by attacking, drawing defenders and slipping a bounce pass to Serge Ibaka for a dunk.

As a rebounder, well, Durant now does it as well as LeBron. Durant averaged eight rebounds per game this season, similar to LeBron (7.9). He doesn't defend like LeBron, but he's not the liability he once was, a weakling who couldn't stand his ground against small forwards. Durant now weighs 235 pounds, and if you haven't noticed, notice now: He almost never hits the floor anymore. He's not the physical marvel LeBron is, not a bully, but he's no longer an easy mark -- and he shares LeBron's passion for defense.

"Kevin can score with the best of them -- ever -- but he wants to be a great defender," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "That's really taken our team to another level the last three years, and we're going to keep improving on that end because of Kevin."

So that's most of it. Factually speaking, Durant is a better shooter than LeBron, and statistically speaking he's a better scorer. He's a similar rebounder. He doesn't defend or create at LeBron's level, but Durant is gaining ground in both spots. Given all that, LeBron's better, right? It's close, but he's better. LeBron's not just the MVP, though he is, but he's also the guy you'd take if you were asked, "Who would you build a team around, LeBron or Durant?"

But there's another category, and it counts. Maybe it counts more than the other categories -- maybe more than the other categories combined.

Durant is more clutch than LeBron. Durant's a closer, a finisher. While the world was waiting for LeBron to inherit from Kobe Bryant the title of Game's Best Closer, Durant snuck up and took it. The title's gone. It doesn't belong to Kobe anymore, and it might never belong to LeBron. Not while Durant's around, closing out games and getting better at it.

This is an area of the brain, and Durant's brain is more powerful than LeBron's. Not necessarily when it comes to intellect, basketball or otherwise -- how do you measure that anyway? -- but when it comes to mental toughness, confidence, poise under pressure.

How do you measure that? Well, you watch. And you've been watching LeBron for years. You know what he's all about when the game's close in the fourth quarter. By and large, he stops being the bully, the intimidator, the superstar. By and large, LeBron is most comfortable in the fourth quarter of a tight game being another one of the guys -- creating shots for other guys, not wanting to shoot a jumper unless he has to, and not wanting to go to the foul line, with the game at stake, at all.

LeBron's a great player, but he's no closer. He's no killer. Durant? He's cold-blooded. And he's greedy. He spends the first three quarters of games fitting in, sharing the ball, trusting teammates and making the right basketball play. But if the game's close in the fourth quarter, he goes into Kobe mode. He becomes Allen Iverson. Every shot is a good shot, if Durant's shooting it. That's his mentality. He has won three games in the playoffs with shots in the final 20 seconds, and that doesn't include Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals when he scored 16 straight points late in the fourth quarter to help beat the Spurs.

Afraid to go to the line? Durant wants to be on that line, he needs to be on that line. His belief in his shot is total, and with good reason, which is why you'd be hard-pressed to do better than Kevin Durant if you were starting an NBA team today and could pick any player in the world to build around. LeBron looks better, runs faster, jumps higher, fills the stat box with a few more numbers than Durant.

But with 10 seconds left in a close game, Durant's the guy you want shooting the ball. So forget what I said last week. Forget even what I wrote earlier in this story.

Give me the power to start an NBA team from scratch? Give me Kevin Durant with my first pick. I'd like to have LeBron, sure. I'd like to have the most talented all-around player in the game.

But I'd rather win.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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