Heading into Game 5 of the NBA Finals, here’s how 28-year-old Kevin Durant’s career statistics stack up against three of the top small forwards of all time:
Career Playoffs Advanced*
PER 24 (26.9 with GS this postseason)
TS% 58.5% (.669 with GS this postseason)
WS/48 .189 (but .275 with GS this postseason)
Advanced Career Playoffs
Advanced Career Playoffs
Julius Erving [includes first 5 seasons (through 1975-76) played in ABA]
Advanced Career Playoffs
While Durant’s time with the loaded Warriors this season has hurt his scoring average, the numbers show above his actual shooting efficiency has skyrocketed. He’s also averaging a career-high in rebounding (8.3 per game) and blocked shots (1.6) while averaging a career-low in turnovers (2.2) per game. And, of course, Kevin Durant is winning at a higher clip than ever before.
“He’s probably going to win a title this week and he’s inordinately happy [according to] everyone who knows him well” NBA analyst Kevin Arnovitz said on Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast. “He’s the happiest he’s ever been professionally. He’s a guy who’s one of the best in the world at his craft who hadn’t really had a choice where to work, which firm to work for and under which circumstances. I think we’re going to see more of this—until the league decides we’re not going to have a max salary under the cap structure, so if you want Durant you’re going to have to pay him $80 million out of the $110 million available under the cap, and you’re not going to have room for another guy like that.”
Arnovitz added: “It started with LeBron in 2010. Stars are realizing that their value is driving the league and they want their work situations to be of a certain kind. It wasn’t that Durant wanted to stack the deck,” Arnovitz said. Kevin Durant “wanted it to be an attractive market, he wanted to play with a certain temperament of guy and he found a place to work that he really likes.”
Golden State has much on the line when it faces Cleveland on the road in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Still ahead in the series, a loss won’t cost Golden State its season. But it will extinguish any lingering hope the team’s fans have of laying claim to Greatest of All-Time status over the ‘96 Bulls. The Cavs are 2-point favorites on Thursday night, according to online NBA sportsbook odds, but they can likely keep M.J.’s Bulls safe by simply not losing by more than 25 points.
Read on to see how.
At its core, matching great NBA teams across eras against each other is a quixotic task. Important rules change, leading the way to an evolution of the game itself. For instance, the game which the Chicago Bulls dominated in the mid-90s was a more physical one where defenders could hand, forearm and body-check their opponents. In that time, a zone defense was an illegal one. You had to either guard your man straight up or double the man with the ball.
All this changed in the early to mid 2000s with new rules that forbade all the rough defensive tactics as well as eliminating the “illegal defense” rule itself, allowing only a defensive three-second violation to remain. Essentially, this meant that zone defense was now allowed everywhere except in the paint. These rules led to such profound shifts in the fabric of the NBA game that it’s best to divide the “modern era” of basketball into separate epochs: pre-zone and zone.
Stu Jackson, former executive vice president of basketball operations for the NBA, and other leaders wanted to create more free-flowing offenses. Looking back in 2009, he told NBA.com “With the rule and interpretation changes, it has become more difficult for defenders to defend penetration, cover the entire floor on defensive rotations and recover to shooters.”
“This has provided more time for shooters to ready themselves for quality shots. With more dribble penetration, ball handlers are getting more opportunities at the rim. Additionally, teams now realize the 3-point shot is a great competitive equalizer, so they are taking more.”
By far, the best team of the zone epoch has been this season’s Golden State Warriors, a team which has exemplified the three-point evolution to which Jackson referred better than any other. This year the Warriors shattered multiple offensive efficiency records, won 73 games in the regular season — most all-time — and are ahead 3-2 against Cleveland in the 2016 NBA Finals.
But are they better than the best pre-zone team — the ‘96 Bulls?
It’s official. Afterward, he discussed becoming the first MVP to not start a single game preceding the Finals: “We all say God has a way for you, a purpose for you, and I accepted it.”
In fall of 2010, fans of the Turkish basketball club Besiktas welcomed through the doors of their home arena the most famous “AI” in American team sports – the one and only Allen Iverson. While Iverson’s tenure in Istanbul only lasted 10 games, his late-career stint abroad generated significant headlines across the world.
Just months before, though, another “AI” sat in the bleachers of Besiktas’ home arena. This AI, Andrew Iguadala, had been teammates with Iverson on the Philadephia 76ers and was forever battling the moniker of, well, “the other AI.” Although a first rate talent, Iguadala was in many fans’ minds a perpetual afterthought, an All-Star without any identifiable All-Star skill or trait beyond sheer hustle, defense and court smarts.
In August 2010, I was in Istanbul to report on the FIBA World Championships and thanks to the help of fellow writers like Brian Mahoney and Chris Sheridan, I found myself in Besiktas Arena during a Team USA practice to do interviews for the Associated Press and other outlets. After leaving a horde of TV cameramen buzzing around Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, I noticed Iguodala in the stands by himself, reading.
I introduced myself as a writer. He studied me for a second, and soon asked where I was from.
“Arkansas,” I replied. Iguodala’s eyes lit up. “I was going to go there,” he said, and he briefly explained he’d signed a national letter of intent with the Razorbacks before Nolan Richardson was fired and Iguodala decided to go to Arizona instead.
That connection seemed to loosen Iguodala up a bit and I then asked him about the book he was reading. He showed me the cover of “The Alchemist” and told me it was about a young man’s personal journey in search of his “Personal Legend,” and went in to what that meant. Admittedly, it’s pretty mystic but boils down to “something you have always wanted to accomplish.” Like tens of millions of others, it was clear the book’s author Paulo Coehlo had captivated Iguodala with the notion that each of us have a quest, a calling and, in the end, a kind of destiny to fulfill.
Fast forward five years and it appears Iguodala may be on the brink of fulfilling his own “Personal Legend.”
In these NBA Finals, the 6’7″ small forward has arguably been the most important player on the court for Golden State. The longtime “other AI” is at last becoming “the AI” despite in the regular season playing off the bench for the first time ad averaging career lows in points, rebounds and assists. Yet in Golden State’s first three games, when the Warriors needed it most, it was Iguodala among all the Warriors who played with the most passion, pace and confidence. Most importantly, he has played the strongest individual defense on LeBron James and that defense has been a big part in James’ breaking down at the end of the last two games.
Iguodala’s significance in the Warriors’ title run was never more explicit than last week when Golden State, which had been heavily favored entering the series according to sportsbook online betting, fell down 2-1. Searching for a jolt, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr inserted Iguodala as the starter in place of Harrison Barnes. The move has ignited two straight wins and a flood of meme-y Iguodala highlights:
With regular season MVP Steph Curry getting off to an historically bad Finals start, it was Iguodala more than any other Warriors player who stood as the team’s top MVP candidate following Game 4. An NBA Finals MVP for him would be historically notable and precedent-breaking in many ways. Here are a few:
1) Iguodala would beis the first Finals MVP on the same team as a healthy regular season MVP. Yes, Magic Johnson did win it as a rookie in 1980 during the same season his teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got MVP honors. But Abdul-Jabbar suffered an injury late in that series against Philadelphia, clearing the path for Johnson – a point guard, mind you – to step in at center with a Game 6 magnum opus that to this day staggers the mind.
2. Iggy would beis the first Finals MVP since Wes Unseld in 1978 to average less than 10 points a game in the regular season. (Even Celtic Cedric Maxwell, who was nicknamed “Cornbread” by Arkansas assistant coach Melvin Watkins, averaged 15 points a game before stealing thunder from a young Larry Bird to win the 1981 Finals MVP)
3. He would beis the first Finals MVP who did not start a single game during the regular season.
4. He would bemay be the first Finals MVP who didn’t finish at No. 1 or No. 2 on his team in points, assists, blocks, rebounds and steals during a championships series (Currently, he ranks at No. 3 in all those categories for the Warriors – a testament to his versatility).
In the end, it’s likely the man at the top of a few of those rankings – Steph Curry – will continue to shoot lights out as he did in Game 5 and secure Finals MVP honors if Golden State wins the series. And it’s likely, after a brief turn in the limelight, Iguodala will go back to being an afterthought in the minds of many NBA fans.
But no matter what happens, the Springfield, Ill. native’s series-altering energy, hustle and savvy in these Finals shouldn’t be forgotten.
Years from now, expect his play these last few games to be central to the legend he is building.
Commemorate the Warriors’ historic run with this one-a-kind design:
Like Dr. J, Bird, Magic and Jordan before him, there is a timeless quality to LeBron James’ game. Future stars will be bigger, stronger and quicker, but we won’t again see his specific combo of skills, flow and panache.
There is also a timelessness in his life story, a tale of hardship, perseverance and camaraderie which seems to stay fresh no matter how many times it’s retold. With every twist of his career, each rendition gains an extra layer of meaning. The latest example, a 30-minute TV show, premiered Sunday night on Disney X D. It highlights the joyous reception James received from his hometown community of Akron, Ohio as he enters a Savior 2.0 Era leading the nearby Cavaliers from conference bottom dwellers to championship contender.
The show, the first in a series named “Becoming” about the lives of popular athletes, spotlights the neighborhoods in which LeBron grew up and his alma mater of St. Vincent – St. Mary High School. Much of the material will be familiar to LeBron fans – the hard-knock beginnings in a single-parent home, early dominance on the AAU circuit and finding lifelong friends there who would form the nucleus of one of the greatest prep basketball dynasties ever.
While the themes are familiar, it appears this is the first time some of the footage shown from James’ elementary and middle school days has been made public. It helps the video was co-produced by ESPN Films and James’ own Springhill Production Company, which has an office in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. “Becoming” is meant to appeal to younger viewers, but this show’s sharp production quality and rare footage make it worth any NBA fans’ while.
While this episode – which premieres on ESPN November 7 – is the latest LeBron bio, there have been a handful of accounts which involved direct access to James and his inner circle.
Each one offers something new – fragments of anecdotal gold not found in the others that are worth recalling as James and the Cavaliers start the 2014-15 season as the feel-good story of the year. Here are some of the most interesting:
Book: The Rise of a Star: LeBron James
Author: David Lee Morgan, Jr.
Publication Date: 2003
One reason James became so good, so fast, was that a former Division I head coach pushed him early on. Keith Dambrot, former coach at Central Michigan, was James’ high school head coach during his freshman and sophomore years.
Less known is that a woman coached James during his freshman season. Amy Sherry, a two-time MAC Player of the Year from Kent State, was one of two paid assistant coaches on Dambrot’s staff. It has taken 15 years, but the NBA is now following suit. In August, the San Antonio Spurs hired Becky Hammon as the league’s first full-time female assistant coach.
It seemed everyone wanted a piece of LeBron his senior year. He got calls seeking his presence from the likes of The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show , Good Morning America and Live with Regis & Kelly. A packed schedule meant LeBron often had to say “no.”
Comedian Martin Lawrence sought more than just a guest spot, according to Morgan, Jr., then an Akron Beacon Journal reporter. Lawrence’s production company called about a movie Universal Studios would finance. Although LeBron hadn’t yet announced he was skipping college, Lawrence’s movie would star him as a baller going directly into the NBA from high school. “Even LeBron laughed about this one.”
Pre-NBA LeBron was a beast of historic proportions in both high school and the summer circuits. Among his most impressive feats came after his sophomore season, when he dominated two age groups at Pittsburgh’s prestigious Five-Star Camp.
He excelled in his own age group and the one for rising seniors, playing in both leagues’ All-Star games. “No one has ever played in both before LeBron, no one has done it since, and I doubt if anyone will ever do it again,” said Howard Garfinkel, the camp’s longtime director.
Until that point, Garfinkel had seen about 125 players from his league eventually make the NBA. James was in the mix for best prep player he’d ever seen, but another No. 23 edged him out. “I’m not going to say he’s the best, because I saw Calvin Murphy score 34 points in an All-Star game one night, then have to travel to Allentown, where he scored 62 points in 29 minutes the next night in a major All-Star game. On the next level, you have Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins.”
Murphy, a 5’9” dynamo who would go on to star for the Houston Rockets in the 1970s, became the first Hall of Famer to wear No. 23 throughout his career.
In terms of basketball talent, Arkansas is in a golden era, producing elite players at a clip not seen in decades. But when it comes to national team recognition, the state is in a bit of a drought. Since 1996, only one native Arkansan has made a U.S. senior national team. In recent years, two of the state’s best young players – Anton Beard and Malik Monk – were in the running to make junior national teams at the U16 and U17 levels but were both cut multiple times. Monk’s most recent exclusion, which occurred last weekend, is the most surprising.
Monk, a consensus Top 15 player in the class of 2016, had a memorable summer torching foes as a headliner with the Arkansas Wings in Nike’s prestigious EYBL circuit (essentially, the Champions League of prep basketball). The 6’3″ shooting guard broke scoring records and put up 40 and 59 points while making a strong case that Arkansas, for likely the first time ever, is home to the nation’s most electrifying high school player*. The Arkansas Wings founder Ron Crawford, who has coached in the U.S. youth developmental system, said last week he believed there was “no doubt” Monk would make the U17 national team.
But after a three-day audition in Colorado involving 33 players, Monk was among the first cut. If the experience becomes a valuable lesson, this isn’t necessarily bad thing for Malik. He strives, after all, to become a world-class point guard, and none other than John Stockton – one of the top point guards of all time – was cut from the 1984 Olympic team. Monk already is one of the most athletic prospects we’ve ever seen at the guard position. Two of the most freakishly athletic forwards in the history of the game, Charles Barkley and Blake Griffin, were also cut from national teams.
Stockton, Barkley and Griffin all bounced back from their disappointments to become NBA All-Star caliber players. For Monk to one day do the same, he’ll have to keep improving. He must become a more consistent shooter and better decision maker, his older brother Marcus Monk said. “He’s really been working on his distribution as far as his passing skills and making better decisions with the ball. He’s improved in that area some.”
But Malik isn’t yet the well-rounded player his coaches and (potential) national team coaches want him to be. In the five games he played in the EYBL Finals, the only standard statistical category he led the Wings in was points (18.8 ppg). He finished second in blocks (0.4) and assists (2.6), third in steals (1.6) and fifth in rebounds (3.5).
Honing shot selection, though, is the biggest task right now. Squaring off against fellow Arkansan KeVaughn Allen, Monk scored 40 points on 14-for-20 shooting against Memphis-based Team Penny. But in the other four games, he shot 11% from 3-point range and 21% overall from the field.
Marcus Monk has been working on helping his brother cut down on bad shots. They break down film of his game to sharpen Malik’s court awareness and make him a better teammate, Marcus said. “It’s more discussion as far as how to read screens and looking at that second and third level of defense. Like a quarterback, you know.”
In early July, Monk had a chance to learn firsthand from one of the world’s most efficient basketball players when he attended the LeBron James Skills Academy. James is “really active with his camp. He takes time with all the players,” recalled Marcus Monk, who attended the event as an observer.
On Wednesday night, LeBron James had unquestionably his worst playoff performance as a Miami Heat. He bricked eight of his ten shot attempts, turned the ball over three times and mustered only four assists and two rebounds. According to a measurement devised by John Hollinger, the O.G. of basketball advanced statisticians, it was the second-worst playoff performance of James’ career. Not surprisingly, the four-time MVP’s struggles were a big reason Miami lost 93-90, failing to close out Indiana on the road.
This dud, of course, was an exception. Heading back home for Game 6 tonight, Miami is still a 7-point favorite according to the top books at sportsbettingpal.com. James, who has for the most part been superlative throughout the prime of his career, is still expected toemphatically did lead them to a fourth straight Finals appearance. His success in May and June is a big reason the two-time NBA champion is at age 29 already considered one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
But is he the best?
We’ll have a good answer within a few years, and along the way every piece of evidence will add or subtract from that final verdict. So far, James’ career highlights have been just as impressive as other G.O.A.T. candidates. But lowlights should count, too. Here’s how James’ Hindenburg of a night compares to the worst playoff performances* of his rivals to the all-time throne:
If LeBron is to one day be widely considered the game’s greatest player, he needs to first lock down the all-time first team small forward spot. That means pushing aside Larry Bird, who won’t go down without a fight in more ways than one. LeBron already has more overall MVPs, but this season he failed to be the first player to pull off an MVP three-peat since Bird did it in 1984-86.
The worst game of Bird’s playoff career in his prime years wasn’t as bad as James’. Both men have excuses. On Wednesday night, James couldn’t stay on the floor and get into a rhythm, not with the refs blowing the whistle on him five times and a certain “Ron Artest-Stephen Jackson-Jamaal Tinsley Molotov cocktail” blowing into his ear. In 1985, with Boston up 3-0, Bird showed up for Game 4 with his right index finger badly swollen. The official stance was it happened in Game 3, but an unidentified eyewitness claims Bird injured the hand while throwing a haymaker in a barroom fight a couple nights before.
Whatever the case, the injury might have cost Boston a title. Bird shot 42% from the field after the apparent incident and in the Finals the Celtics fell 4-2 to the Lakers.
You can’t blame Knicks point guard Mark Jackson for sticking it to the crowd. He was feeling good. In Game 2 of a series in which New York was favored, he’d just stolen the ball from his Airness – so why not have a little fun and mock Jordan’s signature gesture? M.J., after all, was looking human as Jackson and “Jordan stopper” Gerald Wilkins were en route to limiting him to a career playoff low 15 points with their full-court press. Jackson couldn’t help but stick that tongue out.
Chicago head coach Doug Collins showed Jordan the tape of Jackson’s jauntiness, and that was all she wrote. Chicago wiped New York out 111-88 in the next game, and despite that Game 2 statistical black eye, Jordan ended up averaging 35.9 points, 9.5 rebounds, 8.4 assists and shooting more than 52% on field goals in the 6-game series. Talk about a bounce back.
The next series against Detroit saw Jordan’s second-worst playoff performance thanks to a famously aggressive Pistons defense that left no shortage of bruises.
How tough was the defense Jordan had to score on?
Fast forward to the 52 second mark in the following film. Watch Detroit’s Dennis Rodman literally push Jordan to the ground after a shot attempt:
Jordan just lays there, becoming at one with the pain, while nobody seems to notice. No complaining. It’s playoff time – pain is to be expected. Contrast this with the way James tried to bait a foul from Lance Stephenson at the end of Wednesday’s game and instead ended up flailing wildly while airballing a three-point attempt that could have helped Miami knock Indiana out. James is a better passer than Jordan ever was, yes, but he’s also a far superior flopper.
The nearly 7’3” Abdul-Jabbar is the most prolific scorer the league has ever seen. And with a baseline sky hook extending to 18 feet, he had the most unstoppable go-to move known to man. All the same, Abdul-Jabbar had his spots – and he usually preferred them to be closer to the basket. A defender who could push him off those spots gave his team a chance.
That’s exactly what happened during the 1973 Playoffs when Milwaukee, led by Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, were upset by a balanced Warriors squad featuring Rick Barry, Cazzie Russell and the 6’11” Nate Thurmond.
Throughout the series, Thurmond continually beat Abdul-Jabbar to his favorite spots on the floor and worked hard to to cut down on entry passing angles. As a result, he held Abdul-Jabbar to an “unheard of” 42% on field goals, 11 percentage points below his norm, according to Bob Ryan’s 1975 book “The Pro Game.” Abdul-Jabbar, who averaged at least 32 points a game in three of his first six postseasons, averaged only 22.8 in this one (along with 16.2 rebounds). After the series, the Bucks’ Jon McGlocklin said: “I think it’s disgusting. To me, we’re a better team than they are, but they played harder as a team. They were smarter in the playoffs than they had been in the regular season, and we weren’t nearly as smart or as hungry.”
Abdul-Jabbar said Thurmond was the best defender he ever faced.
James must leapfrog two active players in achievements before he is widely considered the greatest of all time. They are:
After winning Game 2 of the Finals, Bryant and the Lakers arrived in Auburn Hills three games away from winning their fourth title in five years – a stint of success that would have surpassed even the Chicago dynasties of the 1990s. In a pivotal Game 3, though, Kobe didn’t exactly grab the bull by the horns. Instead, the long-armed Tayshaun Prince harassed Bryant into missing all four of his first half shot attempts. Bryant didn’t score until connecting on a third-quarter jumper to close Detroit’s lead to 54-42.
“He had a hard time shooting,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said afterward. “This is a tough background to shoot in, it’s a different one, and the basket, he had a few things that didn’t go down for him; didn’t get to the line too often.”
This game was the start of a miserable stretch run for the most talented NBA team to not win a title. The Lakers featured four future Hall of Famers, including Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone (who was hobbled by a knee injury in the series). The coaching staff featured two Hall of Famers in Phil Jackson and Tex Winter.
Of course Tim Duncan would manage a double-double even in the worst playoff game of his prime. What more would you expect from a player who puts up excellence with such predictability that he’s bestowed the nickname “Death & Taxes”?
Like James in Indiana, Duncan was shackled by foul trouble in this one – a Game 3 on the road. After playing five first half minutes and scoring four points, Duncan was absolutely atrocious in the third quarter. The Nuggets’ Marcus Camby played a role in his missing all eight of his shots. In the end, though, Duncan’s teammates (i.e. Ginobili) picked up the slack and the Spurs rolled, winning the series and eventually the 2005 title.
While James never had the opportunity to lock horns with Bryant in the Finals, he and Duncan have gone at it twice. Both all-time greats have notched their belt at the other’s cost, and it looks like a deciding Series III could be in the pipeline for this June. Whichever player leads his team to victory in that series would have a big leg up on the other in future G.O.A.T. arguments.
In the end, even if Indiana shocks the world and wins the series, James’ Game 5 clunker will be tiny asterisk on a glorious career. Even if he were to never play another game, James has already become a legit contender in the Greatest of All Time conversation.
Still, his accomplishments from here on out could clearly push him to the front of the line. Those achievements will boil down to the cold numbers: number of titles, gold medals and MVPs won; total number of points, rebounds and assists, as well as win shares and true shooting percentage.
As fans of certain players, we love to fixate on the good. But we should look at their worst of times along with the best when trying to paint a complete picture of that player’s overall greatness. Just because the lowlights are scarce doesn’t mean they should go unexamined.
It’s evident James’ playoff lows are worse than his rivals for greatest of all time status.
*I only looked at performances from ages 25 through 29. These are prime years in most players’ careers. Plus, I didn’t want to extend points of comparison past LeBron’s current age (although he has played more NBA playoff minutes than most other 29-year-olds).