Dan Devine

Smith: 'In three years, Durant will be the best player in basketball'

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

Emotions ran high last night after the Oklahoma City Thunder's 101-96 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of their first-round Western Conference Playoffs series -- the organization's first-ever playoff win, provided you forget (as many associated with the league seem wont to) that the franchise once won an NBA championship (and employed Michael Cage's Jheri curl) as the ever-soulful Seattle SuperSonics before the NBA saw fit to take a Kathy Bates sledgehammer to the Emerald née Queen City's heart.

And it's not hard to understand why. Both OKC newcomers and old-salt pure-hearts who've long evangelized about coach Scott Brooks' young Thunder found themselves equal parts geeked up about the Broingtons' first taste of postseason success, amped about how great the Loud City crowd was, and generally just high on basketball coming off of another fantastic installment in the opening round's best series. It was, without question, the kind of moment in which otherwise rational people can get caught up.

Enter TNT commentator Kenny Smith, who said during the network's post-game show that he believes "in three years, Kevin Durant(notes) will be the best player in basketball." He said it three times, so we know he didn't misspeak. The video above proves it. This happened.

The statement, of course, drew strong responses from colleagues Charles Barkley (who quipped, "LeBron James is rolling over in his grave") and Chris Webber(notes), who predicted that in three years, Bron-Bron's going to be trying to average a triple-double for a full season, toying with contemporary basketball constructs and post-pace-adjustment-era statistical models in the way that Dr. Manhattan just sort of thought it'd be interesting to create life on Mars. (OK, I added that last part.)

With apologies to those who continue to argue that Kobe Bryant(notes) is the best player alive until James wins a ring or four, the point made by Barkley and Webber is one on which most of the basketball-watching public has come to agree -- that LeBron's showing us the athletic equivalent of Mozart putting ink to staff paper, while everybody else, even the great ones, are still merely playing basketball.

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Smith aims to defend his point by reintroducing a distinction that he used earlier in the evening to make a situational pro-Kobe argument -- that while James is clearly the league's preeminent physical specimen, he is not clearly the most skilled practitioner of basketball-playing; at least, not in all facets of the game or in all possible game scenarios. Employing this tactic, also known as the "If you needed to make one shot to win the game, you'd take Kobe over everybody" line of reasoning, Smith claimed that "in three years, [Durant's] improvement with surpass [James'] because he will do other things in the game to help his team win."

(Also, I kid you not, when Kenny first made this point last night, he set up the following apples-to-oranges/LBJ-to-Kobe analogy: "You can argue over apples and oranges all day, but sometimes an orange ... it cures certain scurvy." To be fair, that's indisputable, and the primary reason that Kobe needs to be your number 1 option if you're playing pickup ball on the deck of a pirate ship out on the Sargasso Sea in the mid-18th century. You simply cannot overestimate his salvific citrus qualities.)

Listen, the prospect of how good Kevin Durant can be should excite anyone with eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart that beats. He just averaged 30.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game for a full season, shooting 47.6 percent from the floor, 36.5 percent from three-point land and 90 percent from the line, at the age of 21. He's a 6-foot-9-inch match-up nightmare with in-the-gym range, go-go Gadget arms that afford him clean looks over just about any defender and, as we saw last night, the ability and propensity to crash the boards (a career-high 19 rebounds, more than half of them coming in the first half while he was still struggling with his shot) and cause problems for elite players on the defensive end (putting him on Kobe late in the fourth completely changed the Lakers' fortunes). He's a beast, he's a dog, he's a micky-ficky problem.

Thing is, LeBron James is, too. While he and Durant rebound (their respective Total Rebound Rates are 11.1 and 11.0, according to Hoopdata) and block shots (both average 0.9 swats per 36 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference) at roughly the same rate, the King assists on teammates' buckets two-and-a-half times more frequently as Durant, ending 23.4 percent of possessions with a dime to KD's 9.09 percent (thanks again, Hoopdata). Plus, while it was great to see Durant check Kobe late in last night's affair, LeBron's been pulling "I got this" duty for a couple of years now. And at 25 years old himself, it ain't like James is in danger of becoming Wise LeBron anytime soon.

I don't know, dude. I can understand what Smith's saying, but to me, it seems like a tough, tough sell. But what do you think?

Does Kenny have a point? Could Kevin Durant become the best basketball player in the NBA, even while LeBron James(notes) still calls the league home? Does anybody else even enter the "in three years" picture? Weigh in down below, all the while keeping in mind just how fortunate we are that we've got futures this bright to banter.

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