Michael Jordan had no peer. The era that preceded MJ was marked by a pair of rivals: Magic and Bird. But for Jordan, there was no and. It was Jordan and Jordan alone. He relegated some incredible players to footnote status during their peaks. David Robinson, Gary Payton, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Stockton-to-Malone.
Even the great Hakeem Olajuwon, who won the only two titles not claimed by MJ's Bulls in that span, carries an asterisk, for he won those titles in years in which Jordan donned spikes instead of sneakers. Jordan had that sort of effect in his era, the kind where his absence was considered delegitimizing to the sport itself.
LeBron James has won four of the past five NBA MVP awards and led his team to the past two championships. He's still 28 and seemingly indestructible physically. The past few years have been the LeBron era. If King James adds more trophies, it will be hard to argue anything but this period as a sequel to the Jordan era.
Unless Kevin Durant has something to say about it.
He's the one player who stands poised to disrupt LeBron's rule and instead make this a sequel to the Magic and Bird era, a period in which two equals trade trophies and deathblows and come out with stronger reputations for the legendary battles that got them there.
Durant won three scoring titles by age 24, but he can no longer be defined simply by his scoring exploits. He can do more. He's earned more respect as a defender in recent years, much as LeBron did leading up to his first MVP win in 2008-09. Durant's also become a better passer and rebounder, though no one would mistake him for LeBron in those categories. (No one would mistake anyone for LeBron in those categories.)
All talk about being a leader and "making teammates better" is fluff doled out by self-assured press row jockeys with narratives to bolster. Any smart fan with League Pass and two eyes can tell that LeBron, Durant and a dozen more like them are hugely valuable to their teams in ways unrepresented in the box score. Any argument that Durant has not been a good enough leader for his team is useless.
What really separates LeBron from Durant at this point? There's a certain je ne sais quoi James maintains, an awe factor redoubled in those postseason moments when everyone is watching. But KD has that draw, too, and it's growing. Durant has never been closer to catching James than now, and he just might do it this season.
The thing is that LeBron has been getting better the entire time. He shot 40 percent on three-pointers last season; even the nitpickers and quibblers have run out of critiques. But after beefing up his defense, his playmaking, his shooting and now his body, Durant is almost there, within striking distance of putting his name next to that of LeBron on the marquee, instead of under it. That's how remarkable Durant's improvement has been. While the best player in the world — and maybe the best player ever, when it's all over — has continued to improve, Durant has closed the gap.
Other players do exist in the extended conversation. Derrick Rose, for starters, won the MVP vacated by global reaction to The Decision, and after ACL surgery, he just might be back better than ever. There's also Dwight Howard and James Harden, a pair of stars who together could begin destroying the structure of this era built by James and Durant. Anyone else would be a stretch at this point because of circumstances, age (in either direction) or a basic deficit in production and potential. But we could be surprised. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have a real coach, after all. Kyrie Irving finally has some help. Andrew Wiggins is only a year away from his grand entrance.
What would mark the transition from a LeBron solo act to a Durant duet? KD could win the MVP, or win a second NBA Finals battle between the pair. Those would be definitive answers. But let us gauge this admittedly nuanced issue with nuance. Let us judge Durant by LeBron and LeBron by Durant and determine if they are equals or not.
If not, that's fine. While we consider the '90s to be of Jordan, we don't ignore, misremember or underrate Hakeem, Drexler, Barkley, Reggie or Ewing. Fans of all sports are smart enough to genuflect before the greatest and respect the others at the same time. We can appreciate Dr. J right along with Magic and Bird, and sing the praises of Gilmore, Unseld and Walton right after bowing to Kareem. Kobe, T-Mac and Vinsanity took turns jockeying for positioning at the beginning of the century, and we remember it all even though Bryant rose (far) above his peers.
Durant will be not slighted in the slightest if he cannot catch LeBron, if James stands with Jordan on Basketball Olympus, eschewing all rivals. We will appreciate Durant appropriately if that's how things shake out.
But make no mistake: Durant is chasing LeBron. That's the reason we watch. There won't be any more compelling theater in the NBA this season.