When one torch lights another, it still burns just as bright. It’s important to remember this as we bask in the aftermath of the NBA Finals. Kevin Durant is on top of the basketball world thanks to a virtuoso performance. He was pushed to that plateau by a worthy adversary in LeBron James.
We keep score because a game needs a winner and a loser. But games are an artificial construction with clearly defined parameters. The sporting world is different. The big picture is more nuanced. Ours is not a zero-sum existence.
In the business world, a peer’s success in the same industry may have negative short-term repercussions but it doesn’t erase one’s entire CV. The same is true in sports.
One player’s greatness affects his contemporaries’ status but does not negate it completely. Just as Durant was one of the best in the game while James was winning multiple championships, the reverse holds true.
James proved he is still the best active player, posting a 33.6/12/10 average, becoming the first player to average in a triple-double in the Finals. He acquitted himself just fine in the face of what, in retrospect, proved to be impossible odds.
Durant’s 35.2 per game average is not a referendum on James’ greatness, although, there are valid questions to be asked about his individual defensive effort. The Warriors’ blistering 16-1 playoff record and relative ease in vanquishing the Cavaliers does not render Cleveland’s entire season meaningless, though one can understand if they feel that way.
When the smoke clears in mid-June every year, there is but one team and player atop the summit. Those entities deserve the adulation. At the same time, it’s foolish to boil down all the others to zero.
James, of course, has played his entire career in a simmering pan, with detractors to trying to melt him away to something smaller than he is in reality. He’ll never catch Michael Jordan as the greatest of all time on merit. There’s a discussion to be had whether he’d ever be identified as such should he earn it.
The obvious takeaway — and the intellectually honest one here — is that both Durant and James played incredible basketball and are two of the finest players of this generation. But that’s not a satisfying proclamation for many to make, nor does it make for an interesting headline.
Identifying winners and losers is easy when there’s a scoreboard. Things get murky in reality, a murky and nuanced ecosystem. Viewing legacy and greatness as a zero-sum game helps round out the fuzzy edges in the interest of a sharp critique. The result: a misshapen view of reality.