MIAMI, FL - MARCH 16: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat guards Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a game at American Airlines Arena on March 16, 2011 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
In the NBA's new era, Dirk Nowitzki has shown LeBron James and Kevin Durant how best to take advantage of their incredible skills and attributes: get a post game.
For the first time since 1998, the NBA Finals didn't feature Shaq, Kobe or Tim Duncan. The three most significant players of the post-MJ era, they combined to win 10 of the 12 championships that followed the Bulls' second three-peat.
And as a new chapter of NBA history begins, there are a lot of unanswered questions about what it will look like -- from what the new CBA will be to how professional basketball evolves in Europe -- but one stands out above the rest: who develops a better post-up game, Kevin Durant or LeBron James?
Since George Mikan dominated the fledgling sport in the 1950s, the balance of power in the NBA has revolved around the center position. But, for a variety of reasons, there's a conspicuous absence of great centers in the modern NBA. Injuries have destroyed the careers of Yao Ming and Greg Oden, while Andrew Bynum's precarious knees make Lakers fans wince every time he falls to the ground.
Meanwhile, the last decade saw the rise of the multi-faceted seven-footer, with young big men seemingly drawing more inspiration from Kevin Garnett than Duncan. The result is a vacuum that the league's two most talented young players -- Durant and LeBron -- can take advantage of.
Unlike Dwight Howard, both are surrounded by elite players and creative front offices. Both the Heat and the Thunder have great young cores, and an NBA Finals match-up seems almost inevitable. People began drawing contrasts between the two last summer, when LeBron took his talents to South Beach on national TV while Durant announced his decision to stay in OKC on Twitter.
Durant, at 6'10 with a 7'4 wingspan, is the latest evolution of the super-sized jump-shooter, a player who can rise above the fray of the paint and loft deadly accurate and incontestable shots 30 feet from the basket. LeBron, at 6'9 and 270 pounds, is the first of his kind: a big man with the floor game of a point guard and the athleticism of a shooting guard. Durant stretches defenses to their breaking point; LeBron breaks through them. By the end of his 49-point demolition of the Detroit Pistons in 2007, the Pistons didn't resemble competitors as much as relics, cavalrymen in an age of tanks.
But for all their talents, both were defeated in this year's playoffs by the savvy veteran defense of the Dallas Mavericks and the unstoppable offense of Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk, a revolutionary perimeter player in his own right, had learned from past playoff defeats, when teams began sending smaller and smaller players at him to frustrate his drives and his jumpers, culminating in the indignity of the 6'8 Stephen Jackson and the Golden State Warriors sending his 67-win team home in the first-round of the 2007 playoffs.
A three-point shoot-out champion, Dirk went from shooting 4.9 threes a game in 2004 to only 2.3 this season, taking fewer 3's than either Durant or LeBron. The closer you are to a target, the easier it is to throw a ball through it, as anyone whose ever tried to throw a crumbled up piece of paper into a trash-can could tell you. He shot 52 percent from the floor this season, the highest number of his career.
The book on Dirk was to guard him with athletic perimeter defenders like the 6'7 Bruce Bowen. But as the Thunder found out when they tried sticking the 6'7 Thabo Sefolosha on him in the Western Conference Finals, Dirk posts up smaller defenders now, patiently backing them down until he has an easy 10-foot turn-around jumper. There isn't a book on him anymore.
A back-to-the-basket game isn't as exciting as scoring with a dribble-drive, but it's much more effective. The painted area of a court, the area around the rim, is like the high ground in a battle; control it and a victory is nearly guaranteed. So if your best player can dominate the ball 10-15 feet from the rim, why station him 20-25 feet away?
The Mavs had a trio of perimeter defenders -- the 6'7 Shawn Marion, 6'5 DeShawn Stevenson and 6'4 Jason Kidd -- on Durant and LeBron with Tyson Chandler, a 7'1 shot-blocker, walling off the paint behind them.
A post-up game renders that strategy useless; there's no way any of those Mavs could contest Durant's 7'4 release point or withstand LeBron's 270-pound frame on the block. Just as importantly, by playing either at the power forward position and having a jump-shooting big man at center, the floor is spread so that the help defense of a seven-footer like Chandler is rendered useless.
The future for both, at only 26 and 22 respectively, is still bright. But there are only so many championships, MVPs and All-NBA spots to go around, and they will be in direct competition for them over the next decade.
For many, "the will to win" and "the killer instinct" are what separate players the caliber of Durant and LeBron. But you don't measure greatness by seeing who pounds his chest and demands the ball when the world is watching in May and June, you measure it by who is in the gym in July and August when no one is.
At some point, the two will face off on basketball's greatest stage. The one with the better arsenal -- with a drop-step, a jump-hook and a turn-around J -- will have the upper hand.