By Joe Manganiello
The league’s best teams, more often than not, are supported by the league’s best players. LeBron, Kobe, Shaq or Tim Duncan have won the championship in 12 of the last 14 seasons. Even in those two seasons where the champions were led by lower-tier stars (2004 Pistons, 2011 Mavericks), the fact remains that those teams still scored more buckets – to borrow a line from the hilarious Bill Russell cameo in the “Uncle Drew” videos – than their opponents.
This season, the game’s two best players – unquestionably LeBron James and Kevin Durant, although I listen to and respect the Chris Paul argument – have been responsible for an incredible amount of buckets, which is to be expected. After all, LeBron James has averaged at least 26 ppg and 6 apg in each of the past nine seasons, while Durant has claimed the league scoring title three consecutive years, and is in prime position to take it for a fourth straight year.
But I have been taken by a trend amongst the two best players in the league that is very unique to this season. Both players are shooting at career-high rates of efficiency, on pace for all-time great shooting seasons: Durant is tracking to become just the league’s sixth 50-40-90 member; and LeBron could become just the eighth player to shoot at least 54 percent from the field while making double-digit field goals per game.
While this season figures to be as competitive as ever, a Miami/Oklahoma City rematch in the finals has never been more promising because of the elite play of the game’s two best players.
On Jan. 7, the Thunder lost to the lowly Wizards. Simply put, the loss was embarrassing. Washington was 4-28 entering that game, having lost 13 of their last 14 games. Oklahoma City, who possesses the game’s highest-scoring offense, arguably the game’s widest array of shooting threats and the league’s best scorer, was held to 99 points against a very average Washington defense.
I imagine that game really ticked Kevin Durant off. Westbrook shot an ugly 4-17 from the field, the Thunder had shooting splits of .425/.240/.833, and they STILL could have won, had Westbrook not given up a four-point play late in the fourth quarter to Martell Webster and the inconsistent rookie Bradley Beal not hit a game-winning shot.
What caught Durant’s attention most of all, I assume, was that the loss put the Thunder a half-game behind the Clippers for the league’s best record.
A couple nights later, Durant and the Thunder routinely dominated the Timberwolves, who were evidently hurting without Kevin Love in the lineup. Durant led his team in shots made and shots taken (10-17 FG), was perfect from the foul line, added eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and four blocks, and the Thunder were +21 when he was on the court.
But to be honest, as great as that stat line was, Durant does that all the time.
So it was my pleasure to witness what Durant strung together over four recent performances following the Timberwolves game. In the four games against the Lakers, Trailblazers, Suns and Mavericks, Durant averaged 42 ppg on 26.8 shots per game, more than eight shots higher than his season average.
Against conventional wisdom, more shots did not negatively impact his field goal percentage. In fact, his efficiency rose.
Durant shot .523 during those four games (56-107), and .589 on two-point shots (43-73). The truth about his game, and what sets him apart from his peers, is that his unprecedented size, speed and shooting touch make it very tough for any Durant shot to be considered a “bad shot.”
Look at the Lakers game specifically. On 25 shots, he connected .640 and hit 16 field goals, all while being hassled by all-NBA defenders Metta World Peace and Kobe Bryant. In what can be argued as the Thunder’s most natural Western Conference rivalry- the Lakers were the first team to ever beat Kevin Durant in the playoffs – Durant unflinchingly put down the old Lakers.
Against Portland on Jan. 13, Durant was 12-21 from the field, good enough for 33 points. The very next night, he dumped 41 points on the Suns on 15-30 shooting and a perfect 9-9 from the foul line.
Then in a career-high night against Dallas on Jan. 18, Durant was actually substandard from from the field, finishing 13-31. However, he went 5-9 from three-point land, and also was an astonishing, dare I say “Dirk-ish,” 21-21 from the charity stripe.
What can teams do about that? On a night where Dallas held him to .419 shooting from the field, he lived at the charity stripe, made nearly as many three’s as the entire Mavericks roster, and finished with a career-high 52 points.
The fact that the game went to overtime and was a three-point affair doesn’t sway my feeling on the matter: Durant shooting more is always the correct answer for the Thunder. He is too great a scorer to be second on his own team in attempts and to not flirt with 30 points every single night.
Speaking of Westbrook, how did he fit into the team’s plans over that same stretch? To put it plainly, he still got his. Westbrook averaged 23 shots over the same four game stretch. In those games, the Thunder’s all-star point guard scored 28 ppg and did so at a respectable .456 shooting rate.
The month of January has been very good for the Westbrook/Durant pairing. Russell is shooting .464 on 20.2 attempts, compared to Durant’s .523 on 19.8 attempts. Westbrook is getting 8.4 foul shot attempts per game and Durant is second in the NBA with 9.9 attempts per game. Westbrook’s assists are down from November and December, but even still, Westbrook is handing out 7.3 assists in January. Westbrook is scoring 26.9 ppg in January and Durant is putting up 32.3 ppg.
This tells me that Westbrook gets it more than ever. They are playing well together. While teams have to deal with Westbrook’s unrivaled drive game and athleticism, Durant is getting fed: both on the perimeter and in isolated match-ups that usually earn him trips to the foul line, where he is practically automatic.
The Thunder made a statement with the James Harden trade, and the statement was that Westbrook and Durant can get the job done as a tandem; Harden’s role of babysitting Westbrook was not necessary. So far, the Thunder look to be on to something special.
Durant’s progression this season has him firmly entrenched in this season’s MVP race. While many – including myself – argued his name over LeBron’s for MVP last season, there were too many weak spots in his candidacy. Maybe the strongest argument for Durant’s MVP case this season is his prolific shooting numbers, as Durant is on pace to become just the sixth member of the 50-40-90 club.
In fact, Durant’s current .516 field goal percentage (which is rising) is the highest within the 50-40-90 club since Mark Price in ‘88-’89, and the Cleveland PG averaged a fraction of the shots (just 13.4 FGA, 2.8 3PA, 3.9 FTA) that Durant has this season (18.5 FGA, 4.6 3PA, 9.1 FTA). It is arguable that Durant is having the best shooting season since Larry Bird’s back-to-back 50-40-90 season’s in ‘87 and ‘88. Durant could also become the first member of the 50-40-90 club to do so while averaging 30 ppg, speaking volumes for just how amazing Durant has been in just his sixth season.
Finally, it should be noted that Durant would join some unbelievable company if he won the league scoring title for a fourth consecutive season. Only Michael (’87-’93) and Wilt (’60-’66) have streaks of four consecutive scoring titles or more. In fact, since 1960, just five players have had streaks of three consecutive seasons (Wilt, Bob McAdoo, George Gervin, Jordan, and Durant).
I’m rooting for the skinny kid with the long legs to make history.
What does the reigning NBA finals MVP, league MVP and Olympic gold-medal winning forward have to say about all that? Well, he doesn’t have to say anything. His actions have been doing all the talking since he dropped 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists on the ill-fated Indiana Pacers last May.
And in even after what some basketball fans are referring to as one of the best basketball “years” ever, LeBron is still relentlessly pursuing the legacy demanded from him since he dawned the cover of Sports Illustrated as a sixteen-year-old young man.
LeBron has been a fixture in the record books his whole career, as he recently became the youngest player in NBA history to score 20,000 points and to pass for 5,000 assists, fittingly acquiring both marks in the same game. But beyond his “Magic Johnson-esq” playmaking ability and otherworldly athleticism, LeBron has been improving his shooting touch, arguably the most important part of any offensive players game.
82games.com tells us that LeBron is scoring about 9.3 points per game inside the paint, to go along with his 4.7 free throws per game. LeBron is extraordinary, as expected, in the lane, with an eFG% of .739 from inside the painted area. What might be more unexpected is LeBron’s improved efficiency on jump shots. He is shooting .500 eFG% on jump shots, which make up 66 percent of his attempts and about 46 percent of his points.
So defender’s are forced to make a choice: take your chances with LeBron’s improved jump shot or attempt to stand in between a locomotive and its destination as LeBron drives at the basket. Neither choice leaves much room for opposing defenses to come away successful, part of the reason why the Miami Heat are scoring 114 points per 100 possessions when LeBron is on the floor.
He is shooting .550 from the field, which is incredible. LeBron has the second-highest two-point percentage (.583) amongst qualifiers, behind Dwight Howard (.588). He is also making 40 percent of his three-pointers this season, a byproduct of a more careful number of attempts (3.3) per game.
LeBron has made at least eight shots in all but three games this season. Only seven players are averaging eight FG’s per game.
Here is where the numbers LeBron is putting up this season differentiate from any of his previous seasons and most other seasons in NBA history. LeBron is the first player since Shaq in ‘02-’03 to make 10 or more FG’s per game using 18.5 attempts or less. Only seven players all-time have had seasons with this combination of numbers, and only nine times in total:
1967/PHI/Wilt: 10.0 FG on 16.8 attempts, .595 FG%
1979/LAL/Kareem: 10.2 FG on 16.9 attempts, .604 FG%
1980/LAL/Kareem: 10.5 FG on 18.2 attempts, .574 FG%
1980/KCK/Otis Birdsong: 10.0 FG on 18.4 attempts, .544 FG%
1983/UTA/Adrian Dantley: 10.2 FG on 18.2 attempts, .558 FG%
1983/NYK/Bernard King: 10.3 FG on 18.1 attempts, .572 FG%
1986/BOS/Kevin McHale: 10.3 FG on 17.0 attempts, .604 FG%
2001/LAL/Shaq: 10.6 FG on 18.3 attempts, .579 FG%
2002/LAL/Shaq: 10.4 FG on 18.1 attempts, .574 FG%
There have only been four other seasons that came close to this mark, and in all four instances, the player failed to make double-digit field goals. Kareem’s 1981 season in particular was astonishing, considering it took him just 17.1 attempts to make 9.9 shots a night.
1978/PHO/Walter Davis: 9.7 FG on 17.2 attempts, .561 FG%
1978/LAL/Kareem: 9.7 FG on 16.8 attempts, .577 FG%
1981/LAL/Kareem: 9.9 FG on 17.1 attempts, .579 FG%
1990/PHI/Charles Barkley: 9.9 FG on 17.4 attempts, .570 FG%
LeBron has approached this mark in each of the last two seasons. In his first season in Miami, he finished short in all three categories. Last season, LeBron made 10 baskets a game, but took a bit too many shots and was short on the percentage.
2011/MIA/LeBron: 9.6 FG on 18.8 attempts, .510 FG%
2012/MIA/LeBron: 10.0 FG on 18.9 attempts, .531 FG%
Not only could LeBron become just the second player since 1987 to combine such efficiency with such high scoring figures, but keep in mind he is leading the Heat in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game. He is their best scorer, passer and defender, and he is doing so with as much proficiency as any player in NBA history.
These two players, just months removed from their first duel in the NBA finals, seem primed to return to the NBA’s brightest stage once again. There is something poetic about how the NBA’s elite raise their game to match their opponents. Russell had Wilt to push him; Magic had Bird; Michael had to beat the Pistons; Duncan and Shaq had each other through the turn of the century; and Kobe had Boston’s new-age big three.
Now in the 2010s, as Duncan, Kobe, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki are wrapping up their Hall of Fame careers, LeBron and Durant have taken hold of the league. It is well documented that they work out together in the offseason, which I couldn’t enjoy more. You don’t have to hate your biggest rival. The Godfather film’s taught us to keep our friend’s close and our enemies, what? Closer.
Durant and LeBron are the greatest players in the sport right now. If any other player or team wants a crack at a championship ring in the foreseeable future, they better step up, and fast. The window for the rest of the league is closing, and I don’t believe either of these two players are planning on giving the game back for awhile.