We need to get one thing straight, NBA friends: LeBron James is still the best basketball player on the planet.
The King had 29 points, 11 rebounds, 14 assists and three steals in a Game 2 loss to the Golden State Warriors where he got zero help from anyone other than Kevin Love. It was one of the best games we've seen from LeBron in the Finals — a performance the Cleveland Cavaliers turned around and wasted.
For any other player, such a performance would be cause for pride, if not celebration, despite the loss. For LeBron, such a failure meant answering questions about what's wrong with his team and how they can possibly stop the Warriors from here.
That's how lofty a standard LeBron has set for himself through the ages. We expect perfection, or else we prepare to devour a legend.
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Kevin Durant, meanwhile, stuffed the stat sheet on Sunday night with a game -high 33 points on 13-for-22 shooting, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals and five blocks. He was just two swipes away from the first Finals 5x5 in modern NBA history. And with his Warriors crushing the Cavaliers for the second straight game, a specific hot take popped up following Game 2: KD, not LeBron, is the best NBA player in the world.
Yes, optics can be a funny thing in professional sports.
None other than Paul Pierce posited as much in his postgame analysis, lending a champion's expertise to that opinion. You can understand why. In Game 2, Durant played at the very peak of his powers. He roasted the nets from deep, ran the floor for rim-rattling dunks, and played center, defending the rim like a modern-day Dikembe Mutombo.
When Durant's playing like that, it's hard to resist the temptation to call him the best player in the NBA. He's three years younger than LeBron, who has to slip eventually — and when he does, Durant is the logical choice to succeed him.
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Really, though, we need to understand what's going on here. Durant's not the NBA's best — not yet, anyway. His time will come. There's no need to rush.
He merely looks the part because of his unique situation with the Golden State Warriors.
Typically, a legendary, once-in-a-lifetime superstar has to put his team on his back. He's responsible for making the franchise work on both ends of the court and away from the arena. He's the face of the franchise under constant scrutiny. He answers to the media. He takes the blame when the team fails.
The Warriors, on the other hand, have gone out of their way to put Durant in the best possible position to succeed. KD is allowed to play a role in Golden State; his role just happens to be "MVP on a Leviathan of a team."
Durant gets to leverage all of the best components of his game to their maximum effectiveness, knowing guys like Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and even his coaching staff are there to pick up the slack.
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LeBron doesn't have that advantage, as stacked as his team is, so he's appearing to struggle relative to Durant. The Warriors focus their attention on the King, knowing his teammates won't step up as the difference; the Cavaliers have to try to put out a half-dozen fires on every possession, equipped with a leaky bucket and a busted pipe.
Are our memories really that short? LeBron is coming off of the heels of one of the greatest stretches in NBA playoff history. He's less than a year removed from becoming the only player to lead every statistical category for an entire NBA Finals. He's kicked down the doors on the "greatest of all time" conversation — and now he has to deal with people questioning his contemporary standing just because his Cavaliers ran into a superteam designed specifically to beat him?
LeBron has to be all things at all times for Cleveland, while Golden State never asks Durant to do too much. He's always in the right position, because his team makes sure of it.
That doesn't make KD better than LeBron, just more successful in the year 2017 — and more likely to take home the Larry O'Brien trophy.
The series isn't over yet, after all. LeBron might still prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's the NBA's best by leading the Cavaliers to another stunning comeback.
If he doesn't, and if the Warriors are right back in this dominant position next year, then we can start talking about the ascension of KD.