This was supposed to be the year of Kevin Durant. Again.
Durant is a unique NBA superstar. A slender near 7-footer who handles the ball like a guard and is a shooting threat once he crosses half court – even among the Garnett Revolution, the Nowitzki Renaissance and the Tracy McGrady Baby Boom, Durant is unprecedented. His first MVP season, even while barely missing the arbitrarily fabled 30 PER plateau, is a statistical revelation, a breathtaking duet of efficiency and usage. Leaping a class as a creator while putting up the highest points per game since The Kobe Year That Brought Us 81, keeping his team just around the 60 win mark with one of the world’s 10 best players sidelined for half of a season – Durant grabbed 2013-14 by the horns and seemed irate at the mere possibility of relinquishing it.
And yet, as the Heat and Spurs prepare to take place at center court, yet another season will end without Durant’s long limbs hugging the Larry O’Brien trophy. And yet another presumed Durant year will end with someone else’s named etched the highest on the stone. We’ve already had several Years Of Durant, and should have more as he stares the stages where most mortals would greet stasis by defiantly sustaining an upward trajectory, but in layman’s terms, observed through a title-or-bust lens, they have been as successful as the Summer Of George.
In a sense, Durant’s woes are just of timing. Had this entire NBA generation been shifted to the 1970s, the likes of Kobe, Dirk and Duncan wouldn’t still be winning Durant’s conference as he hits his prime 15 years into their careers; had Durant been drafted in 2011 rather than 2007, he may have avoided the final Duncan hurrah as well as most of LeBron James’ regency. A lot needs to go right to win a title, as Russell Westbrooks and Serge Ibakas can suddenly miss major parts of crucial playoff runs, and sometimes you might just need to be close for four years to get a single breakthrough. Durant, bright as he may be, could have been dished a singular dark spot of time.
At just 25 years old, enough of Durant’s prime (maybe, terrifyingly, all of it) should still be ahead of him to get out of that dark spot. And this should be the main takeaway from any Durant missives that dare try and present a career-long perspective – this is incredibly premature. But much like LeBron before him, Durant has done so well as the youthful underdog that he’s accelerated his own timeline. Now no longer playing with house money, staring free agency two years down the road and playing in a league where no long-term guarantee is safe from torn ligaments and Anthony Davis’ wingspan, there is an increasingly loud urgency factor.
How this urgency is treated down the road, both by Durant and by the Thunder organization, will be fascinating. Throughout Sam Presti’s time at the helm, patience and culture have been prioritized over rash quick-hitting blitzes. Remember, this is an organization that, in the past, decided to use major cap space for such moves as absorbing Matt Harpring’s expiring contract in order to acquire Eric Maynor, and giving Nick Collison a beneficial long-term structure to his extension. This is an organization that now employs the league’s 4th longest tenured coach and, until this year’s Clippers series, hadn’t tinkered with a starting lineup in eons.
Does Durant’s current situation leave room for meticulous planning? As he hits his prime, will he demand an improved roster or is he content with waiting for Steven Adams, Jeremy Lamb and Andre Roberson to mature and hoping they do so well? Do these questions even matter or is his personality intertwined enough within Presti’s cultural visions that they are never asked?
These Thunder aren’t missing much, if anything. But a complete roster is a means, not an end. That would be a title, and teams only get so many chances at those. There are still more than a few Years Of Durant for us to experience, but eventually they will run out. If the Thunder truly are the prudent organization they seem to be, this should factor into the long term plan.