It's still early, but with LeBron James around, could a title elude him?
Updated: March 11, 2013, 3:02 PM ET
By Neil Paine | Basketball-Reference.com
LeBron James, Kevin DurantNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesWith LeBron James in front of him, is Kevin Durant destined for a career of "bridesmaid" status?
Frequently in this space, I've touched on the relatively deterministic nature of the NBA when compared with the three other major North American sports leagues. Simply put, the high number of possessions and small number of players on the court cause basketball to be the most predictable sport on our landscape. This is why the better team wins any given basketball game with far greater frequency than it does in baseball, football or hockey.
That's especially good news if you're the best player in the NBA, a fact that's been borne out by six decades of pro basketball history. The lineage of the league's best players, from LeBron James backward is filled with superstars who also led their teams to championships, almost single-handedly exerting their influence on the league and bending it to their will.
By contrast, having the best player in baseball or hockey leads to a championship with surprising infrequency, and even the NFL's marquee quarterbacks have a much lower "batting average" in championships won than the NBA's top stars. (For every Tom Brady and Joe Montana, there's a Joe Flacco or an Eli Manning -- and that's not even mentioning the Trent Dilfers or Brad Johnsons of the world.)
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All of which brings us to Kevin Durant.
Durant, almost all of us can agree, is: (A) a generational type of talent, and (B) almost certainly not the best player in basketball. As even the most casual of observers can tell you, James is playing at a level so high that everyone else is relegated to merely battling for second place in the pecking order of NBA stars. In fact, James has reached that rarefied zone of being the league's unquestioned alpha dog, a place previously reserved in the minds of basketball fans for names such as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and few others (even Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had each other; Bill Russell fended off Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson for the better part of a decade).
This might have happened sometime last season -- or, more likely, after an offseason spent processing the new reality of James and the Heat as reigning champions. Whenever it happened, the overwhelming consensus is that James is the league's No. 1, with Durant left chasing the runner-up slot.
In most sports, such designations are usually cosmetic appellations at best, but in basketball they tend to have real repercussions. James' Heat might very well fail to win the crown again, but NBA history is littered with repeat champions led by the league's best player, and Miami's recent performance has confirmed the preseason notion that the Heat are the team through which all roads to a title run. In baseball, the reset button gets pressed -- the San Francisco Giants are one of no fewer than a baker's dozen of contending teams, any one of which could win it all without us batting an eyelid. However, basketball is more like the boxing landscape of yesteryear: To be the new champ, you have to knock the old one out.
That means Durant could very well join the timeworn list of the NBA's second-best players, all of whom could have won at least one title (often more) were it not for the No. 1 player denying them for years and years on end.
Jordan's career is particularly notable for locking lesser stars out of the championship club. Between 1982-83 and 1990-91, 19 actual or probable (defined as greater than 50 percent Hall of Fame probability, according to Basketball-Reference.com) Hall of Famers made their NBA debuts, excluding Jordan. Among those players, just eight won a ring without help from Jordan, and some of those championships were of dubious contribution (Mitch Richmond averaged 1.5 PPG in the playoffs for the 2003 Lakers; even David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, and Gary Payton got their rings as veterans in support of younger superstars).
Meanwhile, the star power of the Hall of Fame-caliber players left ringless by Jordan is blinding: Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller … the list goes on and on.
Always a bridesmaid?
Player Debut Rings w/o MJ
James Worthy 1983 3 3
Dennis Rodman 1987 5 2
Hakeem Olajuwon 1985 2 2
Joe Dumars 1986 2 2
David Robinson 1990 2 2
Clyde Drexler 1984 1 1
Mitch Richmond 1989 1 1
Gary Payton 1991 1 1
Scottie Pippen 1988 6 0
Dominique Wilkins 1983 0 0
Ralph Sampson 1984 0 0
Charles Barkley 1985 0 0
John Stockton 1985 0 0
Patrick Ewing 1986 0 0
Karl Malone 1986 0 0
Chris Mullin 1986 0 0
Reggie Miller 1988 0 0
Tim Hardaway 1990 0 0
Drazen Petrovic 1990 0 0
As the most analogous modern player to Jordan in terms of sheer dominance, James casts a shadow that looms similarly large over the careers of Durant and his contemporaries. The previous generation -- most notably Kobe Bryant (in his post-Shaq incarnation as the Lakers' undisputed No. 1) and Dirk Nowitzki -- got their rings in the brief window before James started making good on his vast potential in the playoffs. Players who debuted in the LeBron era might not be so lucky if he follows in Jordan's footsteps and puts a comparable stranglehold on the Larry O'Brien trophy.
This isn't just a rare phenomenon with Jordan or (potentially) James, either. The presences of O'Neal and Tim Duncan stymied Kevin Garnett for most of his prime. Robinson and Ewing each had Olajuwon in their paths. And who knows how many rings Chamberlain would have were it not for Russell? In each case, being second-best wasn't good enough to break through because it's so difficult for NBA teams to win a seven-game series against even a slightly superior opponent.
Among team sports, this "bridesmaid effect" is somewhat unique to the NBA, and again, it all stems from the nature of the sport. Perhaps a better illustration is a comparison to individual sports: in this metaphor, basketball is like tennis but baseball, football, and hockey are like golf. Barring age or injury to the top player, the world's second-best tennis player has a low probability of winning any given tournament with the best player also in the field because there are few upsets -- all roads lead through the No. 1 player -- and the more skilled competitor wins a tennis match overwhelmingly often. This is why, in sports such as tennis and basketball, you see certain players come up short against dominant competition again and again. There's the distinct feeling that the perpetual bridesmaid must "wait out" the reigning champion, seizing upon age-related decline, to have a chance at winning.
Conversely, although we sometimes see the same names pop up from time to time in golf's majors, more often the case is that winners fluctuate wildly from tournament to tournament. Periods such as Tiger Woods' dominance in the early 2000s are the exception, not the rule, because favorites face such a smaller sample and there are so many more sources of variance than for their counterparts in tennis. In golf, as in team sports other than basketball, there is very much the sense that "the field" outweighs any given competitor's probability of winning a tournament, simply because of said variance. You don't have to wait for the best player to decline for a chance at winning; sometimes you can beat him head-to-head through sheer chance alone.
Durant's one edge -- his age
In some ways, it's too early to declare that Durant is fated to the predicament of the perpetual bridesmaid. He's still just 24, and could plausibly continue to improve -- this season alone, his game has taken off further into the stratosphere than it was just a year ago. Likewise, decline could befall 28-year-old James at an earlier age than any of us would expect, opening the door for challengers to the throne.
Based on normal aging patterns, James likely has reached his peak already and is playing at or near his best right now (statistically, he's actually slightly below his maximum output of 2008-09 and 2009-10 at the moment, but he has essentially plateaued at an incredible rate of production over the past five seasons), so there's nowhere to go but down for the league's best player, especially as he enters his early 30s.
Meanwhile, Durant still projects to have several years of growth left, particularly after a 2012-13 campaign that saw his production continue to push upward from an outstanding 2011-12. It's possible Durant's upward arc could cross paths with James' downward trajectory within five or six years. Could the 2017-18 season be Durant's sweet spot, in his age-29 season?
Theoretically, Durant would be in his prime, just as James is now. By then, James should be in clear decline in his age-33 season, and there's no guarantee Wade or Bosh will have anything left by then, nor whether James still would be playing with them. Fact is, that sweet spot could come even earlier if things break right for Durant and wrong for James.
Having said that, James has such a huge edge on Durant and everyone else productionwise that he could lose 15 percent of his value and still be ahead of Durant. That means we shouldn't be surprised if the first decade or more of Durant's career plays out in parallel against James', with LeBron getting the better of him in terms of ring count simply because he continues to be the game's most dominant player.
In some sports, there's no shame in being second-best because sometimes you even get lucky and win anyway. Unfortunately for Durant, basketball just isn't one of those sports.
I think Durant is going to win 2 titles in his career and LeBron might end up with 3. They are going to battle it out for the next 5-7 years and it's going to be exciting to watch but I just don't see Durant/Westbrook NOT winning a title based on how good and how young they are.
As for Derrick Rose, I'm not sure if he'll be able to snag a title away from LeBron or Durant.
LeBron James is the best player in the planet right now but things change quickly. Remember a year ago? He was hated around the League and was doubted to death about even winning a &$#%#&@!' chip. It's way way way too early.
Also this "James has such a huge edge on Durant and everyone else productionwise that he could lose 15 percent of his value and still be ahead of Durant." seems a little bit far-fetched because LeBron is in a huge hot-streak right now that naturaly and inevitably will end or at least calm down a little bit. Heck couple months earlier Durant was in the first place of the MVP race. Things are constantly flowing, and it's just wrong to crown LeBron (for example) like this cause even a guy like Chris Paul can take the League by storm and win 2 chips in a row with the Clipps, something not out of this world if he returns to pre-injury from and a couple of other guys pick up the slack.
Sorry for any bias towards LeBron i sincerely do not do this on purpose , as i am a Durant/Kobe/CP3 fan and it comes naturaly :p
I think Durant will get at least 1 ring in the "LeBron era" which, being a few years younger than him still opens up the potential to win some once LeBron has moved on. This season, he is in trouble because his team lost Harden, and haven't really improved at all while the Heat and Spurs look just as good if not better as they did last year. It is going to be hard for any player to beat LeBron for the next 5 or so years, but Durant has the best chance to do it.
What I am wondering about OKC is, if they let Martin go, and amnesty Perkins (long overdue) could they make a run at like Monta Ellis? have him take the 6th man role? Not sure if that's an ideal fit but maybe that his destiny to be the poor mans James Harden. I still would prefer to see OKC find someone who can be really unselfish and take some ballhandling duties off Westbrook, but this FA class really doesn't have that. That's why I've suggested they look at Michael Carter Williams with Toronto's pick. At the very least, I'd like them to bring in some kind of scorer at the two. Redick, Mayo, JR Smith, someone like that.
As far as Rose goes, I absolutely think he can win a title. As long as he is with Thibadeau, he has a great shot. And really, there's no reason the BUlls won't be the 2nd best East team for the years to come. He needs a 2nd star. Although it'd be hard to get one this offseason with there cap structure, I think amnestying Boozer is overdue (they got rid of all those bench players for veteran minimum guys, no way they should be paying the luxury tax) and I think they should explore the idea of trading Deng for Pau Gasol. I think that trade makes a lot of sense for both teams. Deng is good, but he's not great, and Butler has made him expendable. The Bulls also have this to hang their hats on: Rose is only 24. He could be at his absolute peak in 2016-2018, around the time they will probably be picking in the top 3 with that Charlotte pick (could potentially get a star there) and around the time they will finally be blessed with Niko Mirotic's presence. I'm not saying the Bulls are in great condition, but if they get rid of Boozer that'd be a start and they have a great coach, a great superstar, and some young assets both on the team and coming in the future. Good trade chips too if they want to make a big move for someone like Kevin Love.
Any way you look at it, the pecking order for rings over the next 5-7 years is James, Durant, and Rose, in that order. At least to me.
I think Durant can win a title but I think someone in the East would have to knock out the Heat for it to happen. Personally I just cant see KD beating Lebron head to head for a title
Kind of ridiculous to bring this up when he has only won 1 championship so far.
Durant , Westbrook and Derrick Rose are just 24 and James Harden 23, LBJ didn't win his first chip till he was 27. Lebron would need to have a monopoly on the next 6 or so championships to lock out those guys. That's certainly not a given. Wade is on the down hill slope of his career, Bosh is good but not great, and the rest of the team is pretty old too. Not to mention that he's been fortunate to have been relatively healthy for so long, what happens when an injury happens?
As far as contemporary players go who I could see getting locked out of a championship (because the window of their prime is within the next 3 or so years), Carmelo, CP3 and Dwight pop into my head. But if those three don't win a title it's not going to be solely because Lebron's excellence.
Dunno why you got negged. I agree with everything you just said, and I'm a firm believer in LeBron's talent. However, one ring does not mean he's a lock for the next several.
This article is plain stupid. KD could have more rings than LJ in 3 years, who knows? James has one ring so far and he's 28, for God's sake! I'm speechless.
Their teams are in different Conferences so they are not even blocking their respective routes to the finals, LeBron is the best player on the earth but to cement his greatness he needs to win more titles and repeat or create a dynasty. I fully expect the Heat to win again either this year or next and what happens after that depends on the 2014 FA options of the big 3.
KD I would predict will get a title in his career at the Thunder but when and how many I would not like to say beyond I would expect one in the next 5 years.