LeBron vs. Durant: Who will be king?

Originally Published: February 20, 2014
By J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez discuss the rivalry between LeBron James and Kevin Durant.


J.A.: There's only one thing LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant could use: a little more Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. James freely admits that Durant is the time he sets his watch to. "The way he plays the game every single night is very inspiring," LeBron told Steve Smith in his sitdown interview with NBA TV. "It's motivating."

But Durant said he's tired of the comparisons and wished everyone could just be enjoyed on their own basis. That take and his "Servant" nickname are the only two shots Durant has missed lately.

Magic, Bird, Michael and Kobe all welcomed the comparisons. They did it themselves. They had specific people whose stat lines they sought first in the box scores. It didn't mean they demonized their rivals. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell used to have dinner together before their legendary battles. There's a way to compete without hate.

In their last meeting, Durant showed he's willing to engage LeBron in an individual duel. But just as boxers spend months promoting their fights, basketball players should help the hype as well. Durant should admit that LeBron has what he wants, and he's coming to take it from him.

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Just as boxers spend months promoting their fights, basketball players should help the hype as well. Durant should admit that LeBron has what he wants, and he's coming to take it from him.

" -- J.A. Adande

Israel: You sidestepped "The Servant" thing way too smoothly. This needs to be addressed. It's bad enough when guys give themselves nicknames -- especially considering The Servant sounds like an insult rather than a compliment -- but it's even worse when The Servant's chief rival/contemporary is nicknamed King James. When we put King James and The Servant side by side, the picture is certainly not of two people of similar stature.

We get it, KD, you serve people. That's fantastic. But unless you're in a movie about dancing in street battles, it just doesn't work. Just lose it. And don't try to adjust it, either, because if you go with The Server, then people are going to expect you to bring them french fries.

It's clear that Durant is relishing in the idea that he may be surpassing LeBron as an individual talent. The look on KD's face as he dropped bucket after bucket on LeBron in Miami was unmistakable joy. LeBron essentially matched Durant, but KD looked better doing it and his team dominated the final three quarters of that game.

Durant definitely wants what LeBron has. He just knows better than to outright speak of it, although he seemed pretty clear in an SI preseason article about being tired of being No. 2. Is it weird to you that these two appear to be at such a high-level battle against each other yet they occasionally train together in the offseason?

J.A.: It doesn't bother me that they train together. They spent the summer of 2012 together on the Olympic team, so what's a few more days of workouts? Besides, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird hung out at the peak of their rivalry to shoot that classic Converse commercial. (I don't know what's more preposterous about the ad: the personalized California license plates, suggesting Magic rode in the limo from L.A. to French Lick, Indiana; or the notion that he'd make that drive wearing his Lakers uniform and warm-ups the whole time.)

I've said this before and I'll repeat it here: LeBron and Durant will be a better rivalry than Magic and Bird. It won't have the same impact on the league, but in basketball terms, it's better because they spend more time guarding each other. Magic vs. Bird was really Magic vs. Dennis Johnson and Bird vs. James Worthy and Michael Cooper. Durant and LeBron will literally have to go through each other to win.

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No one makes [LeBron] feel relatively helpless defensively like Durant does. And he doesn't like it.

" -- Israel Gutierrez

Israel: LeBron and Durant have already finished 1-2 three times in MVP voting, with LeBron winning all three (Kobe Bryant finished second the other time LeBron won MVP). But you don't have to be a résumé to recognize LeBron is also motivated by Durant's leap this season. Just look at his last three games. LeBron has eclipsed the 35-point mark in three straight -- his longest such stretch with the Heat.

Durant has been wowing with his scoring. Think it's a coincidence that LeBron is pumping up his scoring numbers? Thursday's game will feature some serious determination from those two. Because while KD was enjoying scoring on LeBron in Miami, you could see LeBron stewing. No one makes him feel relatively helpless defensively like Durant does. And he doesn't like it.

I am a little surprised by the conversation already turning to the MVP race being a coin toss again because LeBron had three great games. He'll have to have a great four or five weeks to really surpass Durant in MVP voting, in my mind. But LeBron might actually be helped by the return of Russell Westbrook. Adding an All-Star back to OKC's roster inevitably will lessen Durant's opportunities. Durant will have to be as efficient as ever to maintain his recent pace with Westbrook back and taking 15-20 shots.

J.A.: Maybe LeBron is so eager to pump up Durant because he realizes the higher Durant's status, the more points LeBron can gain by beating him. If Durant wins the MVP this year, he could retroactively enhance LeBron's rerésumésume. LeBron could claim NBA Finals victories over a future MVP in 2012 and a former MVP (Tim Duncan) in 2013. If Durant wins the MVP, LeBron could get the opportunity to knock off a reigning MVP in the Finals this year, the way Michael Jordan did with Charles Barkley in 1993 and Karl Malone in 1998.

LeBron is enough of a historian to realize rivalries boost greatness. In boxing we overlook great champions such as Larry Holmes when they don't have a true foil during their primes. For all the genuine, mutual respect between LeBron and Durant, LeBron's heightened awareness of the ways his statements reverberate through the media makes me think any praise he offers has some degree of calculation behind it.

Israel: Does it matter how LeBron paints it? Because if Durant has surpassed LeBron as the best individual player in the league -- anyone willing to say it out loud just yet? -- who's to say LeBron can overcome Durant and OKC? LeBron said before the season that, even though we're tired of hearing it, he got better this offseason. Well, so did Durant. And his improvement has been more significant than LeBron's -- at least based on what we've seen through the first two-thirds of the season.

So why would anyone assume Durant will fall back and let LeBron catch him? And if these two teams were to meet in the Finals tomorrow, who are you picking? I'm thinking Thunder. Point is, LeBron doesn't have time to waste calculating how his legacy will be painted. He simply has to call on all those improved skills (as he has the past three games) for the rest of this season and postseason and hope it's enough to surpass Durant. Because if the Heat lose to the Thunder again tonight, Miami will be looked at as far from a favorite to win it all. And that's a place it hasn't been in a while, despite how Indiana has played this season.

J.A.: I'd pick the Thunder in a Finals matchup between these two as well, which means I'd pick Durant to outplay LeBron head-to-head in a series. That represents a huge leap, because at the moment I still consider LeBron the better player, even if I feel Durant is having a better season.

A Durant victory in June would make them even in their Finals matchups and opens the door for Durant to eventually surpass LeBron when we assess their total careers. Keep in mind, Durant is four years younger than LeBron, so pulling even now would be like a runner making up the stagger on the first bend of the track.

Think of how much LeBron had improved over the past four years, especially in field goal percentage, and imagine what Durant could do over the course of an Olympic cycle. Mathematically, Durant projects to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer. But his play could end up altering the subjective discussion of all-time great players. We might even talk about making room for Durant, not LeBron, on a certain South Dakota mountainside.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.

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