The summer of Kevin Durant has officially begun
The Thunder star faces the biggest decision of his career after his most disappointing loss to date.
Kevin Durant is not a kid anymore.
In the wake of the Thunder's 96-88 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Monday night in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, that fact rings through as clearly as ever. His face was a solemn mask of disappointment and regret as he walked off the floor, no longer the pained man-child at 22 years old struggling with his first real adversity -- as he was in 2012 when his OKC team that was supposed to be in the infancy of a dynasty lost in what remains their only NBA Finals appearance. He's a veteran now, an established star, and he knows where his career is.
The gangly, paper-thin youngster from Texas is gone, replaced by a man who had hoped to control his own championship destiny. Instead, Durant, who shot 10 of 19 from the field for 27 points in Game 7, heads into the summer earlier than he'd hoped, and earlier than a lot of people had come to expect after the Thunder went up on the Warriors 3-1 in pretty stunningly dominant fashion. In less than four weeks, he'll become the most coveted free agent in recent memory not named LeBron James.
For Durant, who turns 28 next season, this is his prime, right now. He has been elite for going on six seasons. But the man who famously told us he was tired of being second is no longer even that, having fallen behind both LeBron and Steph Curry. After dismantling Kawhi Leonard in systemic fashion and pushing the Warriors to the brink, it seemed that Durant had made his move back up the ladder, sliding himself into position to jump Curry after a conference finals upset and do the same to LeBron if the Thunder could find a way to beat Cleveland. It was his time.
Instead, he tumbles back down, with his current and future legacy now in question.
What makes this OKC playoff run all the more disappointing, despite its phenomenal success, is how much more Durant showed beyond scoring. He defended Leonard and Draymond Green (and Klay Thompson, and Curry) better than Curry could ever play that end of the court, whether Curry is "underrated" or not. Curry's assist rate was higher, but Durant consistently made plays to find teammates up until Game 6 against the Warriors, and averaged 40 minutes per game to Curry's 33.
He didn't shoot well, though. So Curry cancels all that out. And that matters within the context of his place in the modern hierarchy of superstars. In the easiest area of the game for the casual fan to point, Durant shot just 43 percent from the field this postseason. That's the crown. That's the weight. You have to be all those other things (if you're Durant), and you have to score lots of points on lots of shots while being wildly efficient. You must be all things to all people.
If anything is to drive him from OKC, which has done everything you could ask of an organization this postseason in building a case for Durant to stay, it is that weight. Oklahoma City proved this postseason that if Durant and Westbrook play great, the Thunder can win at the highest level. They may have lost an all-time classic series to a team that remains on track to be arguably the best team ever, but that question has been answered. The Thunder are right there with the very best teams.
But Durant has an opportunity this summer to not have to carry all of that burden on his shoulders. It's easy to cry out that if he doesn't want that pressure, he's a coward, but consider the imbalance. Curry, again, doesn't have to be his team's best defender, or even the second or third best, to win a title. Leonard doesn't have to average 30 points per game with the Spurs.
If Durant were to choose, say, Miami, he wouldn't have to carry so much of the offensive load every night. Sure, he wouldn't have a guy the caliber of Westbrook next to him, but the overall balance would be different, and thus, the mental and physical drain less. Not to mention the road to the Finals would be easier in the East (even with LeBron's Cavs at the top). Same thing if he went to a team like Boston, where he clearly wouldn't have the same kind of starpower but there would be more flexibility to build a new kind of contender around him.
Staying in Oklahoma City, especially after letting a 3-1 lead slip to the Warriors, means living day after day with the team's failures vs. the Mavericks in 2011, the Cavs in 2012, the Spurs in 2014, the Warriors in 2016. You are that star, on that team, that suffered those defeats. It's your cross to bear. And he may have to keep bearing it if they don't go and add some more pieces to help him and Westbrook. But again, if he goes to, say, the Warriors, who are expected to make a push for his services, then he's jumping ship and running off to join the team that he couldn't beat.
In some ways, the guy can't win.
Just look at the way we're critiquing his vastly different Games 6 and 7. In Game 6, he needed 31 shots to score 29 points and he was roasted for not trusting his teammates. Then he goes a very efficient 10 for 19 in Game 7 and we say he couldn't step up and carry his team. It is with this same contradiction that many people will likely frame his impending free agency.
After Game 7, TNT analyst Reggie Miller said that he hopes Durant stays in OKC , and Durant, in fact, appears to at least be leaning in that direction. Miller, of course, stayed his whole career with the Indiana Pacers -- and never won a title. Say what you want about loyalty and fighting the good fight, but going to a team like San Antonio, where he would have the same superstar wingman in Leonard that he currently has in Westrbook, but with the added bonus of a legit, All-Star caliber third option in LaMarcus Aldridge, has real appeal. All of these options we've mentioned have some kind of appeal. And some kind of drawback.
The truth is, KD could go anywhere or stay in OKC and could well end up just as frustrated as he is right now, that title just beyond the reach of his outstretched fingertips. But at least it will feel new. This does not feel new. Being beaten by the Warriors when the Thunder were so close to victory, up seven with 5:48 to go in Game 6, is painfully familiar. That frustration is real, it's palpable, even. Players are not the kinds of hyper-rational, objective observers people pretend they are when they talk about free agency. Emotion factors in, and Kevin Durant just suffered pain. That can scar people. It scarred LeBron in 2010 against the Celtics, a loss that feels similar, if in no way identical, to what Durant has just gone through in this postseason.
And all the while, the clock is ticking.
Durant has six more years, tops, to reach the summit as the best player on a team. That seems like a long time, but it will pass in a flash. You can go from "top of the world" to "on your last legs" to "slightly past his prime" to "no longer the player you once were" in the span of two seasons. Durant is not promised anything by leaving -- in fact, there's every reason to think that going to Boston or Miami make his chances considerably worse, and San Antonio carries with it the risk of suffering the same fate in a different uniform.
The only "surefire" thing that will win him a title is going to Golden State, which compromises his legacy. No matter what he does there, he'll be the hired mercenary, Curry's spot-up shooter, a taller, better Klay Thompson. He's not Kevin Durant in Golden State, he's Curry's Clyde Drexler. Is that worth having the ring? Maybe. That's the choice Durant faces.
If he stays at least another year, he can put his faith in his teammates, in Westbrook, in the organization that has put him in the conference finals four times in six seasons, with their two absences attributed to Westbrook or Durant injuries. Durant can say that he wants the pressure. He wants the burden. He wants to succeed with it all that stacked on his shoulders. And if it doesn't work out he'll know that he took no shortcuts. We need to respect that decision either way. We can't say "You have to do whatever it takes to win a title" and then crush him for taking an easier road, and we can't say "You need to hold the responsibilities of a star player" and then crush him when it turns out those are hard to carry.
These opportunities are rare. Durant knows better than anyone how injuries or plain old bad luck can ruin the rare chance at a title. He got a real shot this year and missed, in more ways than one. Now he faces the most important decision of his career, fresh off the most painful loss of his career.
Maybe it's time for a change.
Maybe the Thunder have done what they need to earn his faith.
The Warriors (or Cavs) will hold the headlines over the next two weeks, but in the NBA, the offseason is king. The drama, the twists and turns, the configuration of how the title picture shakes out, all of it has come to hold more interest for fans than the game. The Finals begin Thursday.
But the Summer of Kevin Durant began Monday night.
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