Kevin Durant is frustrated.
He’s frustrated with putting in MVP effort and finishing runner-up. He’s undoubtedly frustrated with the absence of Russell Westbrook—although there is nothing anyone can do about bringing him back. He even seems frustrated with his own public perception, evidenced by Nike’s “KD is Not Nice” campaign conflicting with the long-held public view of an ideal humble superstar.
Through Durant’s six years in the league, we have seen him rise through the NBA. In year one, he was Rookie of the Year. In year two, he continued to grow his game and his confidence. In years three through five, he evolved into an All-Star and lead the league in scoring. This season, despite putting up a 50-40-90, he still finished second to LeBron James in the MVP voting.
In each year his Thunder reached the playoffs, they have won an additional playoff round, and each team to whom they’ve lost has gone on to be the eventual NBA champion—until this season. The Thunder were dismissed in the Conference Semifinals after Westbrook’s injury left them shorthanded. Thus, Durant had to settle for an honorable mention yet again.
It may seem odd for a 24-year old player in his sixth year to feel so frustrated with such a long career ahead of him, but he has had everything come to him so quickly—except for the ultimate goal of a championship. Having to hear about those close to him accomplishing this feat while he is left longing has to be difficult. You can almost see it on his face that basketball doesn’t seem as much fun as it used to for him. But this type of adversity is a required trial of all great players.
As it turns out, becoming an NBA champion is really, really difficult. Basketball abilities and accolades have likely always come easy and often for Durant, but that’s not enough to get your team over a championship hump. It’s not easy, nor should it be, and that’s why takes many great players several years to reach that peak. He should ask LeBron, his summer workout partner, about the patience required to get there.
By now, we know the LeBron James story, but there is a lot Durant could take away from James’s journey. Granted, LeBron came into the league with more hype, but each player was also well-liked and even hit similar career milestones like Rookie of the Year and earning their first All-Star berths in the third years. Furthermore, LeBron was well-liked publicly—much like Durant has been up to this point. But as James would later learn, much of that hinged on expectation on him being able to deliver a championship on a timetable the fans saw fit. He lost in the Finals to the Spurs in ’07, but he was excused by the world at large. After all, it was his first time in the Finals, and he didn’t have enough help. Then, we saw the MVPs add pressure on LeBron to deliver, the mentally-checking-out against the Celtics series in ’10, and then the loss to the Mavs in ’11. Finally, in ’12 he was able to say he was a champion and did so on his own time.
LeBron didn’t win his first championship in the same year of his career Michael Jordan and neither did Jordan win his first in the same year Magic Johnson won his first. No, the story Kevin Durant is writing is his own, and unfortunately much of what it takes to win a championship is out of his control.
Yes, there are more things required than Durant’s elite skillset or physical tools to win a championship at this level. I hate to say it, but you need luck, especially in the form of health. Losing Westbrook killed the Thunder in the playoffs. Without him, the Grizzlies were able to send multiple defenders at Durant to shut him down. He no longer had a teammate to keep the defense honest or who was more than ready to shoulder some of the offensive load. For once, Durant’s elite mid-range game and athleticism were not enough to overcome the defensive scheming of the Grizzlies, and I’m sure that was as surprising to us as it was to him.
For the first time, Durant was learning what it was like to have to do it all on your own and not have your God-given ability alone be enough. To a player that’s always had his skills be the only requirement for success this isn’t easy to deal with. LeBron learned that he couldn’t do it alone, just like Jordan couldn’t do it without Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, and Magic would have struggled to do it without the Kareems or Michael Coopers. The good news for Durant? He doesn’t have to wait for his team to find that help. He knows he will have Westbrook back next year to try again.
Durant is young, talented, and successful. Like anyone in any other profession under similar circumstances who feels like they are at the brink of achieving something great, it’s hard to wait for that to happen, and that’s where frustration can set in. For Durant, he’s dreamed about winning MVPs and championships, but has only had to settle for stories from his Team USA teammates. But he’ll get there. He may not have gotten there this year, but when he does it will be in a way all his own, on a timeline all his own, and accomplished unlike anyone else before him. The fact that Durant hasn’t been able to bring these purported dreams to fruition may be frustrating, but his patience will be rewarded eventually.