Kevin Durant Vs. Kawhi Leonard: the battle of the next household names

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There are many mighty franchises within the NBA who stand the test of time no matter what. In theory, no matter what the standings say, the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks will forever be pillars of the sport and indeed, the most recognisable names across the globe.

What builds a team's legacy? Sure, championships and success are vital components, but to become a sustainable heavyweight within the sport there is much more to it.

Only nine different franchises have won the NBA title in the past 30 years, and with 30 storied organisations jockeying for position each year, that's relatively high. For instance, since the English Premier League's inception back in 1992, only five sides have won it, with Leicester likely to be the sixth any game now.

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Granted, that is football and this is basketball, but the principles for building a legacy remain the same. It's the players that people gravitate to and remember. The NBA is different by it's design, too. The draft is specifically designed to increase the competition around the league, and yet, some of the top names continually remain.

When you think of the Chicago Bulls, what's the first thing you think about? Michael Jordan, of course it is.

Same thing with the Lakers and Kobe Bryant. Stephen Curry is doing it right now with the Golden State Warriors; they were a relatively small market until he started breaking an obscene amount of records that led the Bay area to compete for titles.

If Curry left in the summer, how many Golden State fans would remain around the world? People gravitate to the extraordinary, the gifted, the special.

When the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder lock horns in the Western Conference playoff semi-finals, there are plenty of show-stealing talents to admire. However, there are two that define their team's.

Kevin Durant

The 2014 MVP is already a household name amongst basketball fans, but he hasn't quite broken through to the superstardom that LeBron James currently carries and Bryant once exuded.

Although he can drop a startling quote every now and again, those soundbytes normally spawn from his ferocious competitive nature and sense of pride. That says something about the man.

The stats don't lie: KD is one of the best offensive players in the game today. He averaged 32 points a night in his MVP season and during his nine-year tenure in the NBA, he's only averaged below 25 points once - in his rookie season.

He finished behind James Harden and Stephen Curry in the scoring charts this time around, but precious few would deny that Durant is the best forward in the world right now.

As a fellow forward MVP winner - albeit three more times than his Oklahoma counterpart - James said ahead of a meeting between the two just before Christmas last year that Durant's skill set is something the league has never seen before.

"He's a 7-footer with 6-foot ball-handling skills and a jump shot," James said. "And athleticism. It's never been done in our league. Never had a guy that's 7 foot, can jump like that, can shoot like that, handle the ball like that. So it sets him apart."

Interestingly enough, Durant will enter free agency this summer an unrestricted free agent. That means the small forward can take his talents wherever he pleases, and that includes re-signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

A recent inductee into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, Shaquille O'Neal, has other ideas. Now working as a panellist on TNT's 'Inside the NBA', Shaq believes that KD is destined to end up in the purple and gold next season and replace Bryant as the franchise face.

Speaking of the departed Bryant, he had dinner with the 27-year-old Thunder star last December and said they had a "very good chat". Coincidence? Yes, probably. Although when they exchanged sneakers during one of their final encounters, Kobe wrote: "KD, be the greatest."

If Durant is the offensive phenomenon that can keep Oklahoma relevant, then prepare to meet his majestic, polar-opposite counterpart.

Kawhi Leonard

From, arguably, the best player on offence in the league today, to the almost undisputed best defender in the game. Kawhi Leonard is the reigning, back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year and at just 24-years-old he has a championship ring and Finals MVP to his name.

And yet, is he the name on everybody's lips? Would anybody in the mainstream media even recognise his name?

No, they wouldn't. Leonard is the definition of a basketball player. He's not trying to be a celebrity, he's not looking to grow his brand. He's locked in to win titles.

It speaks to his nature that he's so focused and determined. Those are two of the primary characteristics it takes to become an all-conquering defender.

Leonard's quiet demeanour is all a part of his arsenal, according to his legendary teammate Tim Duncan.

"I don’t think [a conversation] ever surpassed 10 or 15 seconds," Duncan said. "He hasn’t said a whole lot since he’s been here. But he’s gone out there and put it on the floor and put up the numbers and helped us win games. When you do it like that, you earn people’s respect."

Considering they've been teammates for nearly five seasons in the league, that's quite a potent thing to say; it says a lot about how Leonard handles himself and what he cares about.

The small forward's defensive prowess during the regular season has been well covered, but, almost more importantly, he was the third most efficient three-point shooter in the league with over 44 percent accuracy.

Leonard has added that dangerous offensive element to his skill set and his average of 21.2 points a night during the 82-game campaign scorches his previous best of 16.5.

The Spurs star is surrounded by All-Star players in Tony Parker, LaMarcus Aldridge and Duncan, but he has still found a way to carve out his own name in amongst all that talent.

Is Leonard the most glamorous or flashy basketball player? No. Is San Antonio the sexiest destination to play the game? Probably not.

But that's why they mesh so well. The Spurs are about taking care of business and winning titles, typified by their 19 straight seasons in the playoffs. That success is exactly what Leonard is setting out to epitomise.

Durant, on the other hand - three years Leonard's senior - is a bona fide star waiting to land in a big market. Whether KD wants to take his talents to Washington D.C, Los Angeles, New York or anywhere else is up to him, but his talent has carried Oklahoma to their current status - arguably alongside Russell Westbrook - and that notion is virtually a given.

The two forwards have similar class, but represent different journeys; who's star will shine brighter at the climax of their semi-final encounter? The action gets underway at the AT&T Center on Saturday.

San Antonio Spurs
Southwest Division
Western Conference
Kawhi Leonard
Oklahoma City Thunder
Northwest Division
Kevin Durant

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