It was always going to come to this. We just didn't know it would be like this.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant were always going to be locked in a battle for the title of world's greatest. It was inevitable from the moment Durant stepped into the league. Plenty of players create ideas of being legends, but James and Durant were as close to "sure things" as you would find coming out of high school and college respectively. When Durant entered the league in 2007, James was just beginning his rise to the top of the sport.
Durant's first Finals appearance was James' first Finals win. Durant's first MVP was the year after James won his last MVP. James and Durant worked out together in the summer for years.
When Durant hit the big 3-pointer to win Game 3 of the Finals and cement the unavoidable outcome everyone anticipated since the previous July with Golden State beating the Cleveland Cavaliers for the NBA title, Durant said he felt like the torch was being passed. However, the common consensus didn't shift. Durant isn't considered the best player in the world; James still holds that title. It's James being talked about as an MVP candidate this season, James dominating the conversation, James who is still the icon of the league. You can construct arguments as to why it's true or not, but what's way more interesting is asking: why is that still the perception in the basketball universe?
Why does this matter? Because if Durant can't take the throne after having beaten James heads up in the NBA Finals, the biggest basketball stage on the planet, how can he ever? Why does it not seem like enough? What will?
The Warriors Problem
When Michael Jordan took his place as the league's eminent force, he did so by beating first his hated rival Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons, who had stood in Jordan's way for years, and Magic Johnson's fading Lakers, as Jordan replaced Johnson as the face of the league.
For Durant, he beat James. Not just team vs. team, but James was unable to guard Durant for the first few games of the 2017 Finals. Durant legitimately outplayed him in June. If you just examine how the two are playing, there's a legitimate argument to be made that Durant is playing just as well, maybe even better than James, especially defensively. However, he's done so on the Warriors, a 73-win juggernaut which he joined in free agency.
Durant's first title was a moment of celebration and exaltation, as it is for any player. But there's a reason LeBron was happy when he won his first title in 2012, and cried when he won in 2016. It meant more to win a title in Cleveland. The title last year was anticlimactic, at best, for those watching. Again, Durant gets to enjoy the achievement he's worked so hard for as much as he wants. But the experience of watching Durant capture the trophy was wholly different from seeing it from Dirk Nowitzki, or even James despite having all that talent around him in 2012.
The real key to this isn't about the Warriors' talent, but about the reasons Durant joined an already finished product. Durant said this November he doesn't want to be a face of the franchise, and that he's not a leader. Can you be the best player in the league if your team isn't "yours?" That challenges convention in a way most won't feel comfortable. It doesn't mean it's wrong, but it does mean drastically redefining how we approach the conversation of world's greatest player. That's something we've done before; Kobe Bryant was not a player who made his teammates better (and most outright loathed working with him even by the admission of friends like Derek Fisher) but his drive, ability and determination still elevated him to the game's best for a short time. It does, however, require a very non-standard definition of who we believe is the best player in the league.
For Golden State, Durant is their best player ... but Stephen Curry is their most important player. With LeBron James teams, he is the best and most important player, the alpha and the omega. When Durant joined Golden State, he said in interviews he wanted to "be a part of something great." That's a lot different from "I want to lead this team to a championship."
The Risk Factor
Another contrast? James has lived his entire career on the edge of failure. He has a losing record in the Finals. His prime has overlapped with one of the most dominant eras of talent the league has ever seen, and it's rarely been his team on one of the juggernauts, unlike Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. Every playoff game seems like a new referendum on James' career, which is what makes his success and championships all the more remarkable.
Durant, on the other side of the coin, faces the same level of expectations and criticism that stars face, but it has always been tempered. He was too young in 2012 to be ready, a totally valid defense. Then injuries befell OKC, again, totally reasonable reasons he came up short. But along the way it became more about coaching, first Scott Brooks then Billy Donovan, and Russell Westbrook. OKC made four conference finals in six years, but for some reason, the idea persisted that Durant deserved more.
Now, there's no risk. It took bravery for Durant to leave OKC, because of the backlash he faced, but there was no risk in actually going. Yes, failing there would have been more spectacular than any other failure possible in his career, but it was also nearly impossible. He joined a team that won 73 games with the two-time reigning MVP and two other All-Stars, one arguably the best defender in the league who doubles as the team's best passer and the other the second-best shooter in NBA history.
There were ways this could have failed ... but they were so drastically unlikely.
The Overriding Problem
Of course, that doesn't have anything to do with how good a basketball player Kevin Durant is. That's what makes this conversation legitimately interesting. Durant is playing as well right now as anyone in the league. He is playing as well, maybe better, than he was in 2014 when he won MVP. James is having a career season thus far, after having a career season last year. Durant is not, because he shares the floor with Green, who rebounds, and Curry and Thompson, who score. Durant's biggest contributions outside of his scoring come from his defense, where he's been Defensive Player of the Year-worthy. Yet, he's still a masterful scorer, a brilliant passer and a great rebounder.
If you ask "Who's the best player in the NBA right now?" it's a fundamentally different question than "Who is the MVP?" James Harden and Kyrie Irving deserve consideration in the latter. But as to the former, there are only three real candidates: James, Durant and Curry. The presence of the latter two on the same team makes it impossible to tear their impact apart to figure out the answer. What we've learned from this stretch in history is that the best player in the league isn't just decided by who plays the best, or is capable of playing the best when motivated, just as MVP isn't dictated by who is most valuable to their team. There's context in how we evaluate those questions. Maybe that's fair, maybe it's not, but it's how it works.
Just as interesting a question is where this is headed. If Durant can win Finals MVP, beat LeBron heads up, nail the biggest shot of the series, be the best player on the best team -- one of the best we've ever seen -- and not lay claim to the title, can he ever as long as James is in his relative prime?
Durant doesn't have to care about these questions, and maybe if he rattles off four or five consecutive titles, which is entirely within the realm of possibility, the perception morphs as James starts to slide toward the end of his career. Had Durant stayed in Oklahoma City, and won a title, you could see a path to where he could lay claim to it. For now, though, the hierarchy remains. LeBron James is in a tier of his own, a legend chasing Michael Jordan's ghost. Durant's path to legend status will likely be built on a bridge of longevity, not narrative. We'll realize in 2-3 years that he's the league's best player with 3-4 titles, and no matter how easy it may be relative to the rest of NBA superstars, his position is what it is. There's a level of disappointment in that; we'll never get to see Durant overcome all odds and carry his team to an emotional title. That's not what he wants, though.
I've come to realize that Curry takes a great team and makes it an all-time historic team, and Durant takes a great team, and insures it is fail-proof. Curry raises the ceiling, Durant raises the floor. Durant's seemingly inevitable path to being regarded the best player, which he's not now even if he's a clear No. 2, will be through that same approach. The other options will disintegrate and fall behind as Durant just keeps pace. No triple-double seasons. No mind-altering scoring seasons like Curry's in 2016. No lifting a team beyond where it should be like Rose. Just continued excellence.
For James, he's not relinquishing the throne, and this matters for legacy. Durant beat him last Finals, and yet he still didn't relinquish the title of "best player in the world." That's a testament to what he's built, and how he continues to perform. There's an increasing chance that James may really get to go out on top. Play two or three more seasons, and even if he never wins a title again, it won't be held against him, because, well, it's the Warriors? What are you going to do?
He can retire, still considered the best player in the world even at age 35 or 36. James may not, he loves the game enough and clearly is in condition to play until he's 40 (or beyond) barring the injury which has yet to befall him. What's clear from looking at his relationship with Durant, though, is an element which is exceptionally rare and only held by the truly greatest players ever.
The debate over the best player in the world between Kevin Durant and LeBron James is over when LeBron James decides it is.