Ask almost anyone to count off the best active basketball players in the world and Kevin Durant’s name will be mentioned in their first breath. Many of those same people, however, will tell you that Durant doesn’t have the killer instinct to single-handedly lead his team to an NBA championship.
Some of those people will also tell you that Durant pulled a choke job in the Western Conference semifinals, a series Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder lost in five games to the Memphis Grizzlies. And many will compare Durant’s plight to that of another NBA superstar, consensus best-player-in-the-world LeBron James.
I believe that Kevin Durant is the second-best basketball player in the NBA. I believe that his specific combination of skills – quick release, accuracy from deep, good handle, rebounding – and his size make him an ideal player for the modern day NBA, where perimeter players are becoming more important than traditional low post players.
I refuse to believe that, by losing to the Grizzlies this year or the Heat last year, Durant is somehow not a “closer” and is a player who choked with the spotlight at its brightest. I believe that the guy burning a Durant jersey after the Game 5 loss is a complete idiot who doesn’t deserve to watch one of the best players in the league.
Let’s start by deconstructing the criticism Durant is sure to face in the coming days, weeks, months, or however long it takes him to lead Oklahoma City to a title.
Detractors will immediately point out his 5-for-21 shooting performane in the final game of the Memphis series, or how the Thunder’s offense never seemed to have any consistency after Russell Westbrook’s injury during the first round. You will hear a lot of people say that Durant won’t be able to win it all without enlisting the help of other superstars, like James did with his unpopular departure from Cleveland.
But here is the thing: last year, Durant had the two superstars he needed to win it all, and a pretty solid supporting cast to boot. When the Thunder traded James Harden in the offseason I’m not sure they – or anyone for that matter – knew how great he actually was. Oklahoma City chose to keep Serge Ibaka – a rare big who is a top-flight defender while providing a solid shooting touch – over Harden because the franchise couldn’t pay everybody. Knowing what we now do, it looks like a bad decision.
I actually think the Thunder got as good a package as you can expect for Harden, and they will have a bit of flexibility this offseason (especially if they use their amnesty clause on Kendrick Perkins and the $18 million he is owed over the next two years). As it turns out though, Harden was a superstar in the making, and Kevin Martin (the centerpiece of the package acquired by Oklahoma City) lost his shooting touch and his ability to get to the line during the playoffs.
The other key piece for the Thunder, is Russell Westbrook, who possesses perhaps the most incredible athleticism in the entire league. For years, Westbrook has taken the brunt of the criticism for the team’s failures. It’s either “Westbrook shoots too much,” or “he’s not a true point guard,” or “he doesn’t get enough assists.”
Look at the Thunder’s offense when being facilitated by either Reggie Jackson (the drop-off is enormous) or Durant (facing double teams and schemes specifically designed to shut him down). There is no comparison. Westbrook’s break-neck style of play allowed Durant to operate more freely, and Oklahoma City is at its best when Westbrook sets the tone and Durant closes the game in the second half.
So over the course of the last 94 games (82 in the regular season, 12 in the playoffs), Durant had to adjust to Harden’s absence, and when that seemed to have been worked out, to Westbrook’s. Reinventing your team’s identity on the fly will not win titles. Throw in Scott Brooks’ utter lack of imagination for adjustments and Memphis’ stellar defense and you have recipe for disaster.
On top of that, Durant is still learning how to play multiple positions, from his somewhat natural small forward spot, to power forward in small lineups, to point forward when he has to start the offense (I’m ignoring the regrettable decision by former coach P.J. Carlesimo to play him at shooting guard during his rookie year).
Durant is already being compared to pre-”Decision” LeBron, and there may be something to that. James was roundly criticized for failing to win it all in Cleveland, despite having an astonishingly bad supporting cast. I was in attendance for Game 4 of the 2007 NBA Finals, and I watched Eric Snow, Sasha Pavlovic, Donyell Marshall, and Damon Jones log significant minutes in an elimination game. Certainly Jackson, Martin, Ibaka, Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, and Derek Fisher are better than those guys.
The important thing to remember here is that James enlisted help and, after a brief hiccup, brought a title to Miami. Is it such a far-fetched possibility that Durant could do the same?
Durant is only 24 years old. Westbrook is also 24 and Ibaka is only 23. They are growing up together, and when they are 27 and 28, LeBron and Dwyane Wade will be 32 and 35. The Spurs and Grizzlies will look a whole lot different by then, and while Kobe Bryant might be out there hoisting up fadeaways at 38, the Thunder are well positioned to get that elusive title.
Besides James, Durant’s career reminds me of two other athletes who failed time and again before finally winning a championship: Dirk Nowitzki and Peyton Manning.
Dirk’s redemption came in 2011 with a Finals win over the Heat in year one of the “Big Three” era, ironically enough. Dirk was regarded as too soft, lacking leadership, and too much of a jump-shooter.
In 2006, the Heat beat Dirk’s Mavs, and it took five years for them to make it back to the Finals. But the Suns disbanded, the Spurs won a title and then got older, the Lakers won a couple of their own, and the Mavs kept plugging away with Dirk as the centerpiece. When Dirk and co. toppled the super-team from Miami, all the questions about how “clutch” Nowitzki was and whether he had the mettle to be a champion disappeared.
Peyton Manning’s journey has been similar to Durant’s. Like Durant, Manning was a can’t-miss player from the start. But Manning struggled to win in the playoffs for years, overshadowed by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Manning racked up passing records like Durant racked up scoring titles and shooting percentage accolades, but he always managed to put up a stinker in January. Then, in 2006, Manning broke through, winning the Super Bowl for the Indianapolis Colts.
I think it’s foolish to judge Durant by the Thunder failing to win a title during the past two seasons. No player has ever won one alone before, and it’s likely no one will in the future. I expect us to look back on Durant’s career the same way we look back on Manning’s.
Durant said it best in the postgame press conference following the Game 5 loss: “Sometimes you’ve got to ride out the storms to get to the sunshine.”
It may be pouring in Oklahoma City right now, but all of those dragging Durant through the mud should probably invest in some shades and sunscreen now.