You Are Here > Basketball-Reference.com > BBR Blog > NBA and College Basketball Analysis

SITE NEWS: We are moving all of our site and company news into a single blog for Sports-Reference.com. We'll tag all Basketball-Reference content, so you can quickly and easily find the content you want.

Also, our existing Basketball-Reference blog rss feed will be redirected to the new site's feed.

Basketball-Reference.com // Sports Reference

For more from Neil, check out his new work at BasketballProspectus.com.

Would You Want the Rest of LeBron’s Career or the Rest of Durant’s Career?

Posted by Neil Paine on October 7, 2010

Lots of interesting material in the NBA's annual GM survey this week, but I want to focus on one particular item:

"Kevin Durant (56 percent) was voted as the top player GMs would sign to start an NBA franchise."

You can write this off as LeBron James backlash if you want (the GMs also predicted James wouldn't win the 2011 MVP -- though I actually happen to agree there), but 68% of GMs said James was the game's best small forward right now, so I don't think that's it.

Instead, they're essentially saying that LeBron is better now, but they would prefer the total value added by the rest of Durant's career (he's age 22 this season) over the value from the rest of LeBron's career (he'll be 26 this year). Is this the rational choice? Are those extra four years going to push KD's expected rest-of-career value over James', or should you side with LeBron because of his superior track record thus far (and, hence, greater expected peak production)?

Let's break this down quickly using the Simple Projection System. For minutes, let's assume Durant plays just as much as James did from ages 22-25, then assign each minutes according to the career paths of those who were similarly productive at a young age:

Age Minutes
26 3000
27 3000
28 2900
29 2750
30 2750
31 2650
32 2650
33 2600
34 2600
35 2400
36 2200
37 2100
38 2000
39 2000

Running everything through the SPS method, we get these projections for each season:

James Durant
Year Age MP WS Age MP WS
2011 26 3000 18.4 22 3190 12.8
2012 27 3000 18.3 23 3027 12.7
2013 28 2900 17.4 24 3054 12.9
2014 29 2750 16.2 25 2966 12.4
2015 30 2750 16.0 26 3000 12.5
2016 31 2650 15.1 27 3000 12.4
2017 32 2650 14.8 28 2900 11.8
2018 33 2600 14.2 29 2750 11.1
2019 34 2600 13.8 30 2750 10.9
2020 35 2400 12.5 31 2650 10.4
2021 36 2200 11.1 32 2650 10.2
2022 37 2100 10.3 33 2600 9.8
2023 38 2000 9.5 34 2600 9.6
2024 39 2000 9.2 35 2400 8.7
2025 40 0 0.0 36 2200 7.8
2026 41 0 0.0 37 2100 7.3
2027 42 0 0.0 38 2000 6.8
2028 43 0 0.0 39 2000 6.6
Total 196.9 186.6

The SPS is very simplistic, but it's useful to establish a baseline in cases like this. And according to that baseline projection, you should still prefer to have the remainder of LeBron James' career over the remainder of Kevin Durant's, even though Durant is four years younger.

ShareThis

64 Responses to “Would You Want the Rest of LeBron’s Career or the Rest of Durant’s Career?”

  1. BSK Says:

    It also depends on what the "goal" is. If my franchise is simply trying to get one championship, that might require a very different response than if my franchise was trying to be profitable in the long haul. Looking simply at career WS isn't enough. Would you rather have a guy playing 100 years with 2WS or a guy play 5 years with a 20WS? Obviously, those are extreme examples, but it demonstrates that career WS isn't necessarily the best measure. Sure, the first guy adds more in aggregate, but does he really do anything useful for your team in that century of playing? I would go with LeBron. LeBron likely guarantees that your team is an elite title contender for at least 4 to 5 years. Durant likely guarantees that your team is a playoff participant for a decade. Personally, I'd prefer the former scenario, though I am still thinking with "fan" glasses. An owner may care more about consistent success to keep butts in the seats and all that. So, before we can answer the question, we have to determine what the ultimate goal is. I think LeBron gives a team a better shot of winning at least one championship. I go with him.

  2. BSK Says:

    Neil, Middy, and Yago-

    Thanks for standing up to such blatant ignorance. There is no doubt that race played a huge factor in the response to LeBron. I think it had an impact in ways that haven't been discussed.

    At the risk of being TOO anecdotal, I have noticed major differences in how whites and PoCs follow sports. I attended a high school with was majority black and Hispanic and have lived solely in diverse urban areas, so this is where my experience base is. White folks live and die for their teams and players in a way that I don't really see from PoCs. There seems to be a different sense of loyalty. I have a few reasons for why I think this might be, but that would be too far gone into conjecture. Regardless, I don't think most black folks have the same undying loyalty when it comes to sports. White folks will buy jerseys and shirts and hats for their favorite team and wear only that. Black folks will often buy jerseys of their favorite players regardless of what team they are on or will rock hats from a style element that transcends any type of team loyalty. I mean, LeBron is a kid from Akron who loves the Yankees. How loyal was he REALLY to Ohio sports? Probably not as much as white Ohio-ans were or wanted him to be. I think black fans, likewise, loved LeBron and didn't really care where he played. Which is why you saw a very different reaction. White folks took it personally because it seemed to offend their sense of loyalty in sports. Black folks didn't care that much because they just want to see the dude play.

    Note: I'm not holding one approach above another. Just commenting on the differences I've observed. I may be DEAD wrong. But, it is an interesting difference I've noticed, which may have played into both LeBron's handling of the situation and the different response from black and white America.

  3. BSK Says:

    And, yes, I realize there is more than white and black Americans, but I just focused on that difference because A) it's the one I'm most familiar with and B) it is the groups most relevant to this issue.

  4. Anon Says:

    BSK, good point about career longevity in WS vs. a player who is more dominant during his peak years. I think this was a topic in another blog post where it was shown that players with shorter but more dominant careers during their peak years help their squads win more championships.

    As for the issue of race, the fact that an athlete that was accused for two counts of rape (Ben Roethlisberger) has a higher Q-score in the white community than LeBron shows how race is still VERY much a factor in today's society.

  5. Neil Paine Says:

    Right, Anon, here was that post:

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=4388

    After some tweaking to make the career shapes of each player type more obviously different, I found that the superstar-peak guy with the shorter career delivered more titles in a 20-year span than the good player with a long, consistent career.

    However, I'm not sure how that changes when you've got two guys with superstar-level peaks (one being GOAT-level).

    Btw, here's a poll based on this post, since I forgot to include one here last week:

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=7617

  6. BSK Says:

    Neil-

    Good point. The situation I posited is not analogous to a Durant/LeBron debate. I was more just getting at the fact that career WS probably isn't the best way to decide such a debate. Now, should Durant ascend to a LeBron or near-LeBron level and maintain that for another half-decade, I see why you go with him. But if he remains a notch below LeBron, I'm not sure how much longer one has him makes a difference.

  7. P Middy Says:

    Yeah, great point about Rothlesberger vs. LeBron. Speaks to how much of an issue gender still is in this country, let alone race.

  8. Jason J Says:

    BSK & P Middy - Great stuff in these comments.

  9. BSK Says:

    Jason J-

    I'm just glad that there is an audience for honest and frank conversations for this topic and others like it. We won't always see eye to eye, but the fact we can have a conversation here that has been completely absent from the national dialogue is encouraging and depressing all at the same time. Just glad to contribute and participate.

  10. Larry Rod Says:

    I dont think we can fairly assess KD's career vs. Lebron's for now. LBJ has a more proven and established career now compared to Durant's "one season" wonder. Not saying that Durant has no great future ahead of him, but he got one good season under his belt. I remember when Michael Redd was a hot comodity in the NBA after one great season then he got injured and he is done, Ray Allen was like that also but after being stuck with a bad Bucks team all those prime years he was considered as a disappointment also until he got traded to the Celtics and became a legit champion. KD is just in the door steps of his career, so the jury is still out on him. Maybe he will be an elite NBA star or just fall aside after a few years still remains to be seen. LBJ is past that he has shown already that he can take a team to the NBA finals albeit he didn't win it all the fact that he can take the team there solidify his status as an elite players. LBJ right now are at par with the Barkley's, Malone's, Ewing's and Stockton's of the NBA those who carried their teams far enough but never won it all. Durant is not in this level yet and to early to say he could make it there.

  11. AYC Says:

    People are just hating because the "Decision" was such a disaster. Lebron is clearly the better player, thanks to his Magic/Bird level passing; Durant has never shown that kind of ability. High volume scorers who don't pass much typically don't win championships (Gervin, 'Nique, Dantley, King, Melo, AI)

    Also, as several others have pointed out, LBJ has a proven track record of dominance that KD can't (yet) match, and it's not as if Durant is so much younger. Let's notforget that KD played horribly in OKC's 1st round exit this year.

  12. Yago Colas Says:

    Some of this discussion but even more so the general media backlash to the decision (and "The Decision") rests on some really dodgy assumptions. The one I'm currently fascinated by is two fold, and I think it goes something like this:

    1) the measure of an individual in a team sport is the number of championships won by teams that individual played for
    2) the measure of an individual in team sports who has played on championship teams is the crappiness of the players around him.

    I know that my statistically adept friends, if so inclined, could come up with a fun formula to actually show us who the greatest player ever was (something like: number of championships won - HOF probability of teammates on each of those championship teams x infinity). I'm not statistically adept, but I thought I'd throw this out there in case anybody really wants to have a go. I wonder how some of the legends who figure in these age-old arguments: Russell, Chamberlain, Jabbar, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, Shaq, etc would fare.

  13. Dave Says:

    Cool question: Lebron vs. KD for the future of the franchise.

    Lots of dimensions of intangibles, and I don't want to go there...is Lebron a dog who gave up and couldn't carry his team when it counted or is he a possible GOAT dragged down by the rest of his team? I've seen that hashed to death.

    But, just by the numbers, just assuming that win shares actually represent the full contribution to winning (and that's a working assumption for this specific analysis, not a general claim about the value of win shares), who would you want?

    Given the projections as presented, it's a no-brainer: James not only has more total win shares, but much higher peaks, meaning championships are more likely (At least according to the study Neil references in comment #55).

    But how are those projections?
    When I looked at the projections for the future, I thought "is it really reasonable that KD will never again come within 25% of his 21-year-old output"? (Rick Barry's career sort of has the shape of the projected KD career--peak of 14.4 at 22, next best 12.7)
    I looked for all the guys who played a lot of minutes at young ages (19, 20) to see if they had a better season after 21 than they did at 19, 20 or 21, and most did.

    I looked for all the guys who had a huge season by age 24 (24 was semi-randomly chosen as what I thought would be a pre-peak age; by "huge season" I picked 13 WS or better). There were 67 such seasons. Among them, the following guys had better seasons after age 24 than before:
    Marion
    Duncan
    Robertson
    Erving
    Nowitzki
    Dantley
    Brand
    Petit
    Macauley
    Shaq
    Moses Malone
    Wade
    Stoudemire
    Kobe Bryant
    Frazier
    D. Robinson
    Barkley
    Chamberlain

    On the other hand, the following guys had their best season by age 24:
    Mikkelsen
    Moncrief
    Roy (1 year)
    Issel
    Arenas
    Bellamy
    Kareem (best season at 24)
    Jordan (best season at 24)
    Archibald (best season at 24)
    Penny Hardaway (best season at 24)
    Rick Barry (best season at 22--a reasonable comp for the KD projection)
    Grant Hill (best season at 24)
    Mcadoo (best season at 23, 2nd best at 22)
    Neil Johnston (best season at 24)
    Paul Arizin (best season at 23)
    McGrady (best season at 23)
    Jimmy Jones (best season at 24)
    Spencer Haywood (best season at 20 in ABA, never came close in NBA)
    Gilmore (best season at 22 in ABA)

    Dwight Howard
    James
    Paul (best season at 23)

    Those last three, of course, may well put up better seasons in the future.
    But looking at the list I saw that a lot of these guys were putting up their best (in terms of WS) at 24 or 23, including top contenders for GOAT Jordan and Abdul Jabbar. And James had more WS at 24 than at 25.

    That made me wonder about what the peak year is. We keep saying that James, at 25, is going into his prime. But what is the peak? There must be a post on this somewhere, but I did a quick and dirty query to get an estimate--I picked all the seasons with WS >= 16. And I picked the best season of each man on the list:

    Age of best season (in WS)
    Kareem 24
    Wilt 27
    Jordan 24
    Robertson 25
    James 24
    Robinson 28
    Gilmore 22
    S. O'Neal 27
    Garnett 27
    Johnston 24
    Paul 23
    Hawkins 25
    Duncan 25
    McAdoo 23
    Erving 25
    Nowitzki 27
    Barkley 26
    Russell 29
    Haywood 20
    West 27
    Karl Malone 33
    Magic 30
    Bellamy 22
    Jimmy Jones 24
    McGrady 23
    Arizin 23
    Durant 21
    Z. Beatty 31
    Mean age of best season: 25.32142857
    Median age of best season: 25
    Mode age of best season: 24

    The guys who played a lot when they were young (19,20,21) usually had better seasons later in their career. And it looks like the really great players peak in their early to mid 20s.
    And that makes me wonder: is it possible that James is already past his peak, while KD still will reach higher in the next 2-3 years?
    History suggests that players playing at the highest level peak at 24 or 25

  14. huevonkiller Says:

    Is James past "his" peak?

    Maybe, but his peak is a different level. Neil suggests an off-peak for James is 18 Win Shares, still well above what Durant has done, and probably will do in the future. LeBron has Jordan numbers, he went to Miami for rings not because any player exists with better stats. He's 25 years old, age is irrelevant still.