Lebron James and Michael Jordan. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Kobe Bryant and Smush Parker. As fans of such an individualized sport like basketball, we have grown accustomed to hearing numerous conversations begin with, “So, who’s better…?” While often exercises in futility, it is nevertheless a fun conversation to have in the off-season.
With all that being said, let us examine two players that often escape comparison, despite the striking similarities in their games. Anferene Hardaway entered the league in 1993 as college’s top point guard prospect. Beyond his tremendous skill at the point, Penny was an anomaly in that he was 6’7”, a mere inch shorter than fellow draftee (and small forward) Jamal Mashburn. He skipped his final year of eligibility at Memphis State, after being named a finalist for both the Player of the Year and the John R. Wooden Award. Fast forward to 2007, and Kevin Durant’s story reads much the same. Durant, too, headed to the league early, after winning virtually every individual accolade as a Freshman at the University of Texas. Also worth noting is that KD was a 6’10” (although some posit that he may be nearer 7’) small forward.
More after the jump…
Beyond the fact that they could see over most of their defenders, Penny Hardaway and Kevin Durant share even more in common when you begin to break down their statistics and style of play. Both were instant impact rookies, with Penny averaging 16 points and 6 assists in 82 starts, and KD getting 20 points, 4 boards, and 2 assists per game in 80 starts. Also, each player was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team and won the NBA Rookie Challenge MVP at All-Star Weekend. And they were only getting started.
KD and Penny each averaged a PER in the mid-teens during their rookie season, hovering around the league’s average. Over the course of the next two campaigns, each player saw this number rise exponentially, with Penny hitting a 24.6 and Durant maxing out at a 26.2. This lead to each man earning a place in the league’s All-Star game.
While similar, the statistics are obviously going to differ slightly due to the differences in positions and the style that the league employed at the time. Plus, numbers are boring; so let’s go to the videotape:
Let’s see what happens when each player is given the ball on the outside…
(Clip starts at 1:00)
The defender is forced to respect their ability to drive, and thus falls susceptible to the (identical) crossover to fadeaway move. Of course, here, Durant has the advantage of being guarded by Marvin Williams.
So, they both can shoot. Let’s now look at how they handle posting up.
Aware of each player’s jumper, the defenders force their man to the baseline. As you see, this does not end well. In Penny’s case, the height difference between him and John Stockton is about six inches. Even Lebron, who is listed a mere inch shorter, has few answers for Durant once he elevates towards the rim.
Fine, they can score. How about we double, triple, or quadruple team them? Nu-uh.
As soon as Penny starts his drive, you can instantly see four Knicks turn their full attention to him in hopes of stopping one of his signature up-and-under finishes. So what does Penny do? Spins, and throws a no-look, over the shoulder pass for an uncontested dunk.
Similarly, the second Westbrook tosses Durant the ball, Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum both take their gaze off their men and turn to him. This causes Bynum to cheat up and completely ignore the pick Kendrick Perkins is setting on Kobe. With Kobe neutralized and Bynum out of position (shocker), Durant is free to throw up a lob to Westbrook at the rim.
While neither man is infallible, defenders are essentially damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
The final aspect of comparison I want to touch on, is the foil that each man presents within the NBA. Penny Hardaway entered the league on the heels of Michael Jordan’s (first) three-peat. With the end of the “Bad Boys era” Pistons and the Pacers and Knicks being the Pacers and Knicks, there was no real challenger to Jordan’s Bulls. This all changed with the Penny-lead Magic in 1995, who knocked out Chicago in an incredible 6-game series. Unfortunately, this semblance of parity in an MJ-dominated league only lasted for one year, as shortly thereafter, Hardaway’s career was ravaged by knee injuries.
On the other hand, Kevin Durant entered the league to a different kind of dominance. While Lebron James wasn’t racking up the titles, it was clear by 2007 that his individual abilities were second to none. Sure, some Laker fans were adamant that Kobe was still top-dog, but the rest of the league’s rational fan base could see his dominance was fading. Within two years of his arrival, Durant quickly established himself as a contender to Lebron’s crown, by demonstrating the above skills while also winning the scoring title in just his sophomore season (and then winning it again, and again). While in this past season’s Finals, KD failed to emulate Penny’s 1995 triumph, it is hard to believe that we won’t see the Heat and Thunder match-up again in the near future. Only time can tell.
As we all know, it is hard to continue the comparison between Penny and KD beyond their first four seasons. By his fifth year in 97-98, Penny’s career was knocked off track by debilitating knee problems, from which he never truly recovered. While still considered one of the all-time greats, we will never truly know what could have been. That’s where Durant comes in. Entering his sixth season, Durant seems to have only fulfilled a piece of his potential. Having come so close to a championship, only to have it snatched away in a close Game 6, will hopefully do wonders for his career. Also, where Penny lost Shaquille O’Neal and was eventually traded away to Pheonix, the Thunder seem committed to not only Kevin, but his core teammates as well. Now, of course, injury can strike at any moment, and KD will likely suffer something horrible in spite of me writing this article. But in the meantime, we can hope.