Kevin Durant could be the greatest player in the world. At almost any other point in NBA history, his 31.5/5.5/7.8 (points/assists/rebounds) pre-All Star game numbers would make him just that. Plus, his MVP case is compelling before one even considers that he has his Oklahoma City Thunder in first place despite Russell Westbrook’s absence. Yet, the question remains: is LeBron James willing to let the regular season MVP title slip from his grasp for only the second time in the past six years?
Few people would venture to say that Kevin Durant is currently the best player in the NBA; LeBron James will have that title until Durant personally beats him in the Finals while averaging 45 points per game and holding James to 45 points total. Barring injury, James is guaranteed to be the king of the NBA for at least another three years.
How is James’ status so certain? Put simply, Kevin Durant is the best offensive player in the game and a slightly above average perimeter defender; James on the other hand is the second best offensive player in basketball and the best perimeter defender in the world.
The Thunder and Heat are two of five teams in the league who have a legitimate chance at taking home the poorly named O’Brien Trophy. If David Stern were still commissioner, I would expect some questionable calls in the playoffs to nudge the Heat and Thunder toward an insanely marketable Finals matchup, but with the ever-smiling Adam Silver in office, perhaps we can predict a more equitable postseason.
The general consensus is that the number one requirement of a potential championship team is the ability to make defensive stops in the fourth quarter. This litmus test is especially helpful in the loaded Western Conference, which has several potent offenses who would fail miserably if asked to stop LeBron James or Dwyane Wade from scoring with the game on the line.
The upstart Phoenix Suns are incredibly well coached and fun to watch, but I can think of just a couple of guys I’d rather have guarding Durant or James than small forward P.J. Tucker. Similarly, as much as Blake Griffin’s defense has improved this season, the Clippers will be unable to advance past the second round if his performance resembles his putrid guarding of Zach Randolph in last year’s playoffs.
Applying this rule to the Golden State Warriors is tricky. The formerly embarrassing defensive team added Andre Iguodala, thus giving them a lockdown defender at three positions (along with Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut). Still, the adequacy of those three cannot fully compensate for the inadequacies of Stephen Curry and David Lee when competing against lethal combinations like Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge or Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
My elimination of the Houston Rockets from the ranks of serious contenders is highly nuanced and statistical: I think Dwight Howard is a loser and I refuse to believe anyone who quit on his team like he did could drive a team to the NBA Finals.
Thus, we are left with three teams capable of contending in the West: the Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers. Since the Trail Blazers look out of place on this list, let’s try to eliminate them, shall we? But Lillard is among the most skilled offensive guards in the league and Aldridge is somehow the best post-up big man in the game. And as unheralded as Nic Batum, Wes Matthews and Robin Lopez have been up until this year, they are all very competent two-way players. So as much as I’d like to say that the Blazers magic season will have its limits, I can’t say that it will.
I’m not going to regurgitate the Spurs’ postseason resume, so I’ll leave it at this: if Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are healthy, you should feel uncomfortable picking against them up until the Finals.
The East is far more simple. There are two undeniably great teams and several unrelentingly mediocre ones. Only the Pacers of Indiana stand in the Heat’s way and they boast one of the most dependable starting fives in recent memory. They are strong where Spoelstra’s club is weak (they have the best center in basketball in Roy Hibbert, whereas the Heat have one true center on the roster and his name is Greg Oden), and they are strong where the Heat are strong (Lance Stephenson and Paul George were put on this earth to guard Wade and James). Should the teams meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, in the words of Troy Aikman and countless other football analysts, “there will be no love lost!”
This leaves us with six potential Finals match-ups based on my 100% a-statistical formula, one of which will provide us with the most compelling player vs. player matchup since Magic and Bird. Just thinking of Durant and James guarding each other for seven games has me salivating for the sheer number of articles we’ll be blessed with about how this series will affect both of their legacies.