Monday, June 11, 2012

NBA Finals: Perspective on LeBron vs. Durant

Finally, the two folks the media and casual fans have set up against each other the last two years will meet in the Finals. LeBron James and Kevin Durant. And I will sit back and watch the predictable stereotypical comments.

“LeBron James embodies what’s wrong while Kevin Durant does it the right way”
“LeBron announced his Decision via ESPN. Kevin Durant did it via Twitter and went to the gym to hoop afterwards”
“The Super Team vs. the homegrown team constructed the old fashioned way – drafting/scouting”
“Kevin Durant is way more clutch than LeBron James” 

You see where I’m going. Despite some of that being true and some of it being opinion, it’s going to be all of this ad nauseam instead of more discussions about how they are perhaps the two best basketball players on the planet. Which they are.

But before we discuss both of them, let me remind you of the NBA circa 2007. Back when Kevin Durant was the best college player and I was fresh out of college, something was happening to the career of Mr. James.

In LeBron’s 4th season, he was 4th in scoring and led Cleveland to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. This was back when the East was so crappy that Cleveland’s record wouldn’t get them home court in the first round in the West.

May 31, 2007. A date that will live in Detroit infamy and NBA history. At that point, LeBron was still a great player but he hadn’t taken that great leap. In the middle of his 2nd postseason and tied 2-2 with the Detroit Pistons, he went crazy in Game 5.

He scored Cleveland’s last 25 points and 29 of their last 30. He hit the go-ahead layup with 2.2 seconds left. It remains one of the greatest performances in recent playoff memory. The 48 Special (48 pts, 9 rebs, 7 assists). At 22 years old, he singlehandedly ripped apart the Detroit Pistons dynasty in the Eastern Conference.

After Game 6, he led one of the worst teams ever to reach the NBA Finals where they were swept by a dominant Spurs team. Again, he was 22 years old and the NBA was destined to be his.

I say that to bring up two points. First, the whole LeBron isn’t clutch narrative is tired and as Bomani Jones has pointed out, it only focuses on the last two games of the 2010 playoffs and the 2011 NBA Finals. As I’ve told people, LeBron isn’t consistent in the clutch because obviously he’s got proof he’s done it before.

Second, it makes me wonder about Durant’s narrative. Durant has closed out four games this postseason in spectacular fashion. His 4th quarter explosion in Game 4 of Western Conference Finals was mindboggling as he led OKC to tie the series and watched as they eventually won it in 6.

But what happens if OKC loses this Finals?

Durant’s accomplished as much as any 23-year-old in NBA history. 3-time scoring champ. Most lethal scorer to enter the league in the last decade along with Carmelo Anthony. Growing as a defender. Arguably the best player in the Western Conference.

Perhaps only Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson since 1980 can say more as stars since they had multiple rings (LeBron won his first scoring title at 23 in 2007-08). He’s grown so much in the 2 years since the Lakers bounced OKC from the first round.

But what if OKC loses the Finals in spite of that?

At what point do people stop looking at Russell Westbrook, start looking harder at head coach Scott Brooks and start wondering what Kevin Durant lacks. Eventually people will turn on him because they’ve done it to everyone. They did it to Carmelo, LeBron, Kobe, Tracy McGrady, Isiah, Magic, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson (to name a few).

Heavy is the head that wears the crown or tries to chase it. 

Will people say Durant isn’t assertive enough when Westbrook creates off the dribble? Accuse him of having the David Robinson gene of being too nice when his game is murderous?

Perhaps he has the luxury of having a scapegoat in Russell Westbrook, who has quietly played much better as a point guard this postseason (cut down his turnovers, increased his assists). The luxury of a terrible coach who smart hoops fans have blamed the same way many blame Erik Spolestra for his flaws.

He also has the luxury of being a low-key individual with a great personality. When’s the last time you saw a superstar who wasn’t known for his talking? My mom couldn't recognize Durant if you showed her  his picture. Nearly every superstar had something polarizing. What polarizes those two??

It’s also worth stating that this is exactly the way America tends to pick and choose its Black icons. Low-key, acceptable to many, not braggadocious or showy. Think about the acceptable ones (Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Owens, Floyd Patterson, Barack Obama, Booker T Washington) vs. the ones they typically paint skeptically (Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather, Al Sharpton, Allen Iverson) who just so happen to more beloved by the Black community. It’s just an observation that has repeated itself in various forms.

Again, for the record. I enjoy Kevin Durant for those same reasons I just stated. I also am a fan of LeBron on the court and respect how he’s made moves off it. I don’t everyone picks sides in the way I claimed but I also see how typically good vs. evil discussions go and what code words are used. So pardon my skepticism.

Who knows how this will turn out over the next 2 weeks? 5 years ago, who knew after LeBron destroyed Detroit that his reputation would be where it is now? It’s why I see people embrace Durant and wonder what’ll happen if he doesn’t win a ring. Kobe was as clutch as anybody in 2005-07 and yet he was branded a bad guy/poor teammate/not a winner without Shaq.

As for LeBron, his basketball/personal reputation changed the day he made his Decision. It’s still mystifying because rarely does a free agent decision affect both. But I’m tired of hearing the over-dramatic reaction from fans/pundits on when he misses a late-game shot instead of appreciating those killer moments leading up to the mountain.

Nevermind that LeBron is probably right now the best all-around, 2-way player in the league. Nevermind that what LeBron did in Games 6 and 7 vs. Boston were exactly the kind of performances we’ve been waiting for (and folks quickly tried to dismiss them like the hypocritical drones they are). He guards big men and point guards, he can score on the perimeter, driving to the basket and is a better post-up man that he was two years ago.

All that matters to most folks is if he wins a ring. It's narrow and shortsighted.

It’s a greater sign of the times. An era where recent success and rings are more important than evolving one’s game. An era where we compare shortcomings, and everything instead appreciating brilliant players grow and watching teams’ strengths and weaknesses. We overanalyze every thing to death instead of turn up new leaves after we exhaust old ones.

It’s hurting the game overall because fans lack the nuance to evaluate it and it saps the fun out of why I got into basketball and what I’ve learned the last 5 years. Ironic isn’t it? Simpler times in 2007 before things slowly exploded into what we have now.

Right now, Kevin Durant is where LeBron was 5 years ago. All that Durant has done on the court has been matched by LeBron if not more. Durant has shown no fear of being a killer and wants that chance. Lest we forget, LeBron had all-time clutch performances in 2007, 2008 (Game 7 loss to Boston) and 2009 (averaged 38.5/8.3/8.0 in the ECF against a better Magic team).

The only thing aiding Durant is that he's doing it more recently while LeBron's point guard mentality has him wavering between killer and table setter.

Right now, both men stand on the verge of winning their first ring. LeBron is attempting to exorcise some of his recent postseason demons while Durant is attempting to do what LeBron couldn’t do in 2007 to a better Spurs team. They are mirror images of the past and present while affecting the future of their careers/NBA.

Time will tell how Durant’s reputation fares but I’ll be glad to remind people where it is now as his game continues to grow/evolve just like LeBron’s has. Until then, I’m looking forward to seeing how both of them perform on this stage.


  1. Ah! I can't comment on the athletic/sporting aspects of this. From my perspective, sports games have so many potentialities that chance and happenstance play just as much a part as skill and expertise.

    But from a psychological/social/cultural/racial perspective, your observations are on point. White America likes "the blacks" who don't remind them of their whiteness as much. There is something inherently threatening about blacks who demonstrate power and rise above, hence the cutting down/disregarding of some of the icons you mentioned. Going back to the Vogue cover from years ago, I'm reminded of the allusion to King Kong. There are reasons why (even subconsciously) the white supremacist culture can only accept blacks who either stay in their lanes, or adhere to the seven or so stereotypes. It's just their inherent response and they don't even realize it. When we understand the deeper reasons for why black superstars eventually get turned on, it makes sense.

  2. Bingo. There's obvious evidence that Blacks in the public eye have to act a certain way or that those who don't act a certain way get the side eye or short stick treatment. It's ultimately people like what appeals to them and what appeals is safe/non threatening as opposed to bold, brash and outspoken. Are there exceptions, yes? Consider that since LeBron took his independence, he's become more hated.

    Either way, we just have to be careful who folks tell us to hate or like. Consider the source and don't be fooled.