Could Durant Touch Jordan’s Legacy?

Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Put down the tar, keep the pitchforks at bay, and consider this: at the age of 25, Kevin Durant has already made his case for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Don’t buy it? Look at his credentials again.

  • Four time NBA All-Star
  • Three-time NBA Scoring Champion
  • All-Star Game MVP
  • NBA Rookie Of The Year
  • Naismith College Basketball Rookie Of The Year
  • Four-time All-NBA First Team
  • Team USA Olympic Gold Medalist (2012)
  • Team USA FIBA Gold Medalist (2010)
  • Career totals of almost 14,000 points, 3,500 rebounds, and over 1,700 assists

If Kevin Durant was to be abducted by aliens (presumably as a prelude to stealing his powers à la Space Jam) and never played another minute of NBA basketball, it would be difficult to make the case against his Hall of Fame Career. There are many less decorated players in Springfield, and very few who aren’t this accomplished this early into a career. For what it’s worth, basketball-reference.com’s Hall of Fame Probability calculator lists Durant with an 85 percent chance to make the cut.

Unfortunately, Durant has yet to grab one of what made Jordan so great — six championships — and has already blown it in one regard (Jordan was famously undefeated in the NBA Finals.) But the two players are closer to peers than it might seem, especially when we compare them to each other during the early years of their careers.

Photo Courtesy of Arnold Inuyaki, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of Arnold Inuyaki, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Consider this a full disclosure — I’m writing this with my Chicago Bulls 1996 NBA Championship hat proudly affixed to the top of my head. For my money, Michael Jordan was and will always be the greatest basketball player of all time because I was young and impressionable when Jordan was on his rampage. I am incapable of forcing myself to think otherwise. That said, take a look at these averages for two players over their first seven years in the NBA (per 36 minutes.)

Player 1: 30.4 points,  5.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists. 52 percent FG/28 percent 3PT/ 85 percent FT. 21.6 FG’s per game, 8.9 FTs per game.

Player 2: 25.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists. 48 percent FG/39 percent 3PT/ 88 percent FT. 17.9 FG’s per game, 7.8 FT’s per game.

So, Player 1 shoots almost four more shots a game (to score five more points), isn’t nearly as good from three-point range, and isn’t quite as good at rebounding but makes up for it in assists. They’re not exactly interchangeable players, but you could probably put one in for the other without seeing a catastrophic difference. Player 1 is Michael Jordan from 1984-1991. Player 2 is Kevin Durant. This feels yucky.

Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison, licensed through Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison, licensed through Creative Commons

Numbers don’t tell the entire story, of course. By Jordan’s seventh year in the league, he had the edge in All-Star Votes, MVP awards, scoring titles and, by 1991, a Finals MVP. Jordan’s career numbers may be absurdly underrated against the Air Jordan legend. He really was just that good.

On the other hand, Jordan was 27 when he won his first championship. Durant’s still only 25 — a difference explained by KD’s status as a one and done college player, while MJ spent three seasons at UNC. That’s two years of athletic growth that could be spent in pursuit in NBA championships, so it’s plausible that Durant will have the edge by the time he hits the same age.

Assuming that Durant remains on his regular season trajectory and wins an MVP, as well as his fourth scoring title, he’ll still be lagging behind Jordan, but only slightly. If the Thunder are able to make enough noise in the post-season to win a championship, Durant will have a Finals MVP as well as a championship ring a full two years before Jordan. That makes the conversation more interesting.

Until the inherent problem with “the next” appears. Any time there’s a “the next” in sports, it’s running up against deeply held mythos and childhood pantheons that define a fan’s relationship to that sport. That’s the real reason people freak out when they see LeBron James putting himself on a basketball Mount Rushmore, because they know – deep down – that they’re not ready to have LeBron displace a Bird, or a Magic, or a Kareem.

No one will ever be the next Michael Jordan because Jordan arrived at the perfect apex of communication technology and privacy. Does anyone want to be like Mike if it’s common knowledge that he’s a single-minded jerk? Jordan is famous now for being pathologically competitive — in a bad way. Then, Nike and his other sponsors were able to twist his relentless “Will to Win” into the image of the perfect athlete. Now, Jordan would never survive being made fun of on Twitter, let alone being followed by TMZ.

Kevin Durant’s never going to be like Mike because it’s impossible to be like Mike. He might well end up achieving more on the basketball court, but that will do little to satiate the entire generation of basketball fans that will never be able to wrap their mind around the idea that he could ever supplant Jordan as the G.O.A.T. Even if he does, we’ll be stuck clinging to our walkers and shouting “get off my lawn” as the new-schoolers patiently correct us — again — about how Durant was obviously a better player than His Airness.

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