Owning the SF Position: LeBron and Durant
The NBA has seen many signature small forwards dominate the hardwood with their multiple skills. Indeed, a terrific three-man should be great and efficient scorer, solid defender, good rebounder and have the ability to play multiple positions. By virtue of their size and skills, they should be able to score from any spot on the floor and also find open teammates when the situation calls for it.
This explains why basketball historians and fans are all fond of players such as Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Dominique Wilkins and Scottie Pippen to name a few. These small forwards weren’t only great players, but they are all probably part of the top 50 players of the NBA’s rich history given their skill level and accomplishments. Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics should probably make a cameo on this list to some extent, but his career may well end up getting overshadowed by some of his contemporaries.
Baylor was the forward of the 1950s, Erving owned the 1970s, Bird was the guy of the 1980s, Pippen took over the 1990s and Pierce may have owned part of the early 2000s. But this current decade will belong to two small forwards alone: LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
As it stands at this moment, LeBron sits alone on the small forward throne and with good reason. The Akron native has accumulated two league MVPs, two All-Star Game MVP trophies, five All-NBA 1st team selections as well as three All-Defense 1st team selections.
So far this season, James has been impressive even by his own standards. Indeed, the knock on the Heat’s small forward was that he had all the gifts in the world, but refused to put them all to good use to help his team win. Between the size, athleticism, quickness, speed, court vision, ballhandling and scoring ability, fans have always demanded that he brings more to the table; and so far this season he has.
LeBron has been nothing short of amazing with his usual all around game, but this season he has added a new wrinkle to his arsenal: a more refined post game.
James still spends some time out on the perimeter, but less of his time is now spent firing away from long-range with defenders in his face. Granted, he is still prone to the occasional heat check, but for the most part he has made a concerted effort to get himself into the paint for high percentage looks. Also, with touches down on the block now a routine play call for LBJ, he is getting more opportunities to get closer to the basket and keep defenses off balance.
The former Cavaliers’ star has developed a rather potent hook shot that he will at times turn to in the post as well as a solid turnaround jump shot that few thought he would ever incorporate into his repertoire. MySynergySports tells us that the former two-time All-Star game MVP is converting 53.9 percent of his shots attempts from the post so far this season.
And yet, he is more than scorer.
The two-time league MVP is a terrific passer that understands how to get his team into its offense and also understands how and when to get the ball to his teammates for easy looks. And to top it all off, James is a world-class defender capable of singlehandedly shutting down a high-scoring opponent given his immense physical skills as well as his basketball IQ.
In short, James owns the position and may be well do so going into the next decade. But he shouldn’t get too comfortable sitting at the top because Oklahoma City’s star is right there trailing him.
Two of the biggest criticisms of Durant (especially by me) have been that he does a poor job of creating for shots for his teammates and that he struggles to get open with the game on the line as defenses clutch and grab him with referees swallowing their whistles.
Although he is not yet perfect in both departments, he has made strides to improve on both fronts. KD is averaging a career high 3.3 assists per game and is now accepting the physical contact late in ball games and fighting through it to get the ball in scoring position to rip out the heart of his opponents.
StatsCube tells us that if we project KD’s clutch numbers (clutch situations are viewed as the last five minutes of the game with the score margin within five points or less) over a full game, his averages are 40.3 points per game on the strength of 31.1 field goal attempts per game and 11.6 free throws per game, with a 43 percent conversion rate from the field (all figures up from last season). The field goal percentage may not impress many, but the fact that KD is able to free himself up for shots and also get to the free throw line promises to give the Thunder a huge boost when they need to close out games late.
For all of his improvements in some areas, Durant was already an NBA stud by virtue of his scoring. The Texas product already has two scoring titles to his name and continues to pour in points in bunches and exploits defenses all the while making it look effortless.
KD does a good job of coming off screens ready to shoot but he has also improved his handle to beat defenders off the dribble. And given that he is 6’11’’, very few players will ever truly bother his jump shot; but they will try to squeeze him to make sure he is uncomfortable putting the ball up. That’s where Durant abuses defenders with his shot fakes, swim moves that draw contact and his deadly first step.
Also, the Thunder superstar has polished up his post game to take better advantage of his size. Durant has been much more aggressive on the block and has shown the willingness to occasionally go down there and punish defenders. According to MySynergySports, KD is converting 45.5 percent of his field goal attempts out of the post, compared to 41.6 percent from last season.
Kevin Durant may well be the best scorer of a league that houses Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade.
His ability to light up the scoreboard will invariably earn him comparisons to some of the best players in the league today, especially at his own position. He is breathing down the neck of LeBron as we speak and will probably force Team USA to make some tough decisions with respect to their crunch time lineup at the Olympics; but let’s not lose sight of one thing:
The NBA is blessed to have two marquee small forwards to battle it out during the same decade in opposite conferences.
At some point they have to play head-to-head in the Finals right?
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