When discussing the top small forwards in league history, two of the most common names that pop up, besides that dude from French Lick, Indiana or that other guy from Akron, Ohio, are Kevin Durant and Julius Erving.
Both men did what many expect from their wings – they scored and distributed, cleaned up on the glass, defended, and all the little things in between – except they executed at levels not many players, ever, could match.
Even so, Durant and Erving weren’t all that similar as players outside of their shared positional label.
One was a more efficient scorer, while the other defended with better effort on an every-night basis. They both won a whole lot of games, but the two have different amounts of hardware on their mantle at home. Heck, one of the two spent a good chunk of his prime playing in a different league.
So despite some likeness between their games and careers, the two swingmen were quite different.
Below, we try to answer the all-important question: Who was better? Kevin Durant or Julius Erving?
Though their styles were different, both players could get buckets with the best of them. For his career in the NBA, Erving averaged 22.0 points per contest. In fact, out of the 11 seasons in which he suited up for the Philadelphia 76ers, he put up over 20 points nightly in nine of them, while averaging 18.1 in his second-to-last campaign, and 16.8 in his career finale.
Erving wasn’t much of a shooter (29.8 percent from beyond the arc throughout his playing days, his time in the ABA included), but he was a magnificent finisher who liked to run the open floor and throw it down on whoever was foolish enough to challenge him. Just ask Larry Bird about that. Or Michael Cooper:
He wasn’t all dunks, however. Dr. J also had an uncanny ability to put the right touch on layups, which helped him make them at odd angles and through heavy traffic.
The dude was simply special as far as his near-the-basket exploits go.
On the other hand, Durant, who is also a fantastic finisher in his own right, also has the added benefit of being one of the greatest shooters of all time, making him a legitimately unfair scorer. The fact he’s a 7-foot wing with a tight ball-handle, who can also post up when need be, doesn’t hurt, either.
Durant has led the Association in scoring four separate times, is currently averaging 27.1 points per outing – the fifth-highest scoring average in league history – and has already surpassed Erving in career scoring total, 20,913 points to 18,364.
Granted, those numbers are a bit skewed since Erving did spend his first five seasons in the ABA, but still, this category has to go to the more well-rounded bucket-getter.
Although both legends could move the rock a bit, it wasn’t (or isn’t, in Durant’s case) a huge strength for either player.
The numbers agree with that assessment, as neither Durant or Erving has posted big assist numbers; the latter averaged 3.9 assists during his time in the NBA, which is, interestingly enough, the exact same number the former is currently putting up through 11 professional seasons.
The difference is that Erving’s assist averages hovered around the same number throughout his career – the most he put up was 4.6 dimes nightly (he did it twice), and the least, 3.0 (in 1984-85) – while Durant has improved his distribution skills greatly the longer he’s been in the NBA. Over his first four campaigns, the Golden State Warriors’ small forward averaged 2.7 assists; in his last seven seasons, he’s averaged 4.8 assists, peaking at 5.5 assists in 2013-14, nearly a full dime higher than Erving’s career-best mark.
So while neither guy was a supernatural creator, certainly never displaying anything as passers worth going very into detail about, one player did show an obvious improvement as he hit his prime. (Durant has become legitimately good at setting up teammates for easy looks around the basket when defenses collapse on him.)
Hence, we have a clear winner.
One player possesses a huge, size-related advantage in this category.
Despite being listed at 6-foot-9, it became a bit of a running joke that Durant is secretly a 7-footer even if he didn’t want to come clean about it. (And he didn’t for a long time, although he eventually came around to admitting his real height.) Erving, meanwhile, was legitimately 6-foot-7.
But even with the near-half-a-foot difference in stature, Erving merely averaged 0.2 rebounds fewer (6.9) for his NBA career than Durant’s current total of 7.1. In all honesty, the Texas product is long, tall, athletic and possesses great instincts on the hardwood; he should be a double-digit rebounder.
But he isn’t, so pound for pound, we have to give the edge to Erving as the more effective player on the glass.
When engaged, both of these players were (or are) tenacious defenders with the lock-down prowess teams desperately covet from their wings. But one of them put up more impressive numbers and was just a tad more consistent on that end.
Durant, meanwhile, is averaging 1.2 takeaways and 1.1 rejections per contest, despite arguably having better tools than the Hall-of-Famer. (Maybe Durant isn’t as athletic, but he definitely has the size and length advantage over Erving, two physical traits which are vital to point-stopping success.)
It could be argued that when he’s locked in – i.e., when the playoffs roll around – Durant is a more explosive defender than Erving was since he can both defend the quickest wings and protect the paint against enemy forays. Nevertheless, Erving brought it pretty much every night and didn’t wait for the stakes to get higher.
What’s more, the advanced numbers also back Erving as being the far better ball-stopping rim-deterrent than Durant presently is.
According to NBA Math’s career standings data, Durant has totaled 221.77 Defensive Points Saved (DPS) thus far as a professional. Erving, on the other hand? He put up 1,054.31 DPS over his 11-year career.
Even with plenty of his prime left, it’s doubtful Durant will come close to match Erving’s total in that metric.
Prior to joining Golden State, Durant led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA Finals once (in 2011-12), and had them within one win of making it again (in 2015-16), before the Thunder blew a 3-1 lead to the Warriors and were eliminated.
Then, instead of regrouping with Russell Westbrook and the rest of Oklahoma City, Durant jumped ship and joined Golden State, the group who had just downed his team in the Western Conference Finals in a most heartbreaking fashion, and won the next two NBA championships, taking home Finals MVP honors in both.
Erving, on the other hand, led the Sixers to three NBA Finals during his 11 years with the franchise, coming out victorious once, in 1982-83, when Philadelphia swept Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers four games to zero. It must be noted that Finals MVP went to the incomparable Moses Malone in that series.
So just to recap: Both players made the Finals three times (Durant will almost undoubtedly break this tie, and soon), with Durant holding a two to one advantage in titles.
But we’re docking points from the Golden State swingman because he took the easy path to team success by joining what was already one of the greatest squads ever prior to his arrival. Not to mention, Erving won two championships while in the ABA which we didn’t even mention until now.
No need to get verbose in this section. We’re just going to list out both players’ accolades below. (Note: We’re focusing on Erving’s NBA numbers, thus, specifically ignoring his three ABA MVP trophies.)
- Nine-time All-Star
- All-Star Game MVP in 2011-12
- Four-time scoring champion
- Six-time 1st Team All-NBA
- Two-time 2nd Team All-NBA
- Two-time Finals MVP
- League MVP in 2013-14
- Rookie of the Year in 2007-08
- 11-time All-Star
- Two-time All-Star Game MVP
- Five-time 1st Team All-NBA
- Two-time 2nd Team All-NBA
- League MVP in 1980-81
- Hall of Fame as player
Because we’re choosing to focus on Erving’s time in the NBA, he loses a lot of the accolades he earned over the first five years of his career when he was destroying the ABA as a young adult. (It goes without saying but had he been in the NBA during that time, he would have done some serious damage there, too.)
Still, Durant’s NBA accomplishments already outpace Erving’s, and he’s still got years of his prime left to go.
It’s not easy to choose between the two all-timers who will one day be cohabitants in the Hall of Fame together.
But here we go.
Durant was a better scorer simply because he’s a 7-footer who could shoot over smaller defenders, dribble past the best wing defenders and attack the basket with aplomb, while Erving was more of “just” a slasher and monster in transition. He’s also blossomed into an underrated distributor, which was never really a strength of Erving’s.
But the Doctor holds the edge as a rebounder (even despite being shorter than Durant by nearly half a foot), and was a way more consistent defender in his heyday.
Erving’s team success was more impressive since he reached as many Finals as Durant (three), and won a title without having to leave Philadelphia to join a rival that was already stacked without him – but Durant’s got more personal accolades racked up since Erving spent five years of his prime in the ABA.
To this point, we’re tied at three categories apiece, so to break this dead heat, we’re going to compare their level of transcendence.
Erving was one of the most exciting players to ever hit the hardwood, with high-flying dunks, out-of-nowhere blocks and impossible-to-fathom layups adorning his highlight reels. He was the original freakishly athletic wing ball-handler in the modern sense, who eventually opened the door for players like Michael Jordan, LeBron James and yes, even Durant. The impact he had on the game is undeniable.
Put quite simply: Durant, despite being spectacular in every sense of the word and probably the more talented player of the two, doesn’t come close to matching Erving’s game-changing excellence.
Who was better?
We’re going with Dr. J.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.