While pondering what to write about in this slow time in the NBA news cycle, I concluded that Kevin Durant is probably the biggest story right now because of his tournament MVP performance at the FIBA World Championships. The title of this post came to me in the middle of the night and while I initially dismissed it as over-the-top, the more I think about Durant and his place in the NBA, the more I feel he could be one of the keys to the league’s popularity in the immediate future.
We all know which three teams are considered the main contenders for the 2010-11 season: the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The Heat are widely reviled for reasons I don’t need to go into. The Lakers obviously have a lot of fans, but Kobe Bryant remains a pretty easy person to hate. As for the Celtics, they’re led by some of the most unlikeable players in the league and supported by a couple of aging ring-chasers. Picking which one of these teams to root for is like picking which Hilton sister you should try to date — you’re probably not going to feel good about yourself regardless of the choice.
Is there another team that could realistically challenge these teams for NBA supremacy over the next few seasons? The Chicago Bulls could be a sexy pick, depending on how you feel about Derrick Rose’s upside. The New York Knicks could easily become relevant again if they figure out a way to add one or both of Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul — both of whom reportedly dream of playing in The Big Apple on their next contracts. Orlando won 59 games last season and Portland could be an up-and-comer if Brandon Roy and Greg Oden can ever get healthy.
All those teams are either already very good or have the potential to get there soon, but the Oklahoma City Thunder are the team with the pieces already in place to be contenders along with a ceiling that nobody can figure out yet. They won 50 games last season by starting the season 14-14 and then going 36-18 the rest of the way, their two best players both turn 22 later this year, and one of them is Kevin Durant — the one superstar in the league with the most promising combination of upside and likeability.
Durant’s basketball gifts border on the ridiculous. He has the offensive game of an All-Star-caliber shooting guard in a six-foot-10 frame. In his three NBA seasons, he’s rounded into a complete player who also rebounds and defends at a high level. He’s the youngest scoring champion in NBA history and when you consider that he increased his points-per-game average from 20 to 25 to 30 each season, he has strong potential to become the fifth player in NBA history to achieve a 35 PPG average in a season — the others were Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
OK, so the kid’s good. If you didn’t know that before FIBA 2010, you surely figured it out if you watched Team USA’s final three games where he averaged 33 points on 57 percent shooting. He was unstoppable and it now seems laughable to think that Team USA didn’t have enough star power to win the tournament. On the contrary, they were best served by having one true superstar that could carry the scoring load in the deciding games — and that was Durant.
There’s more to this package than his otherworldly talents. Durant is a rarity among the top stars of the league in that he’s humble, unmarked by tattoos (as far as we know) and seemingly more interested in winning than building his brand. In sharp contrast to “The LeBron James 2010 Free Agency Decision Debacle”, Durant announced his five-year contract extension with the Thunder with this tweet:
OK, the spelling isn’t great but I’m pretty sure spelling doesn’t count on Twitter — or on the basketball court. The point is that we finally have an NBA superstar who is very difficult to hate, no matter which team you’re rooting for. He could be the antidote this league needs to counteract all the poison spread on- and off-court by some of its biggest stars.
The NBA isn’t the NFL, in that they can’t take for granted that Americans will embrace their sport regardless of the behavior of their players. When it comes to the NBA, I think you can divide sports fans into three groups: people — like most of you reading this — who will be diehard fans for life no matter what, people who will never be convinced to be fans, and that group in the middle who might just need a reason to re-discover the enjoyment of this sport played at its highest level.
Kevin Durant could be that reason, that player who transcends the usual appeal of the sport and attracts new fans simply because they enjoy watching greatness untainted by scandal, selfishness and egomania. Who knows if fame and success will change him like it has for so many others in his place? As someone who cares about the future of this league, I hope Durant understands that his legacy could be defined not just by how many MVPs and championships he wins, but how he composes himself along the way.
Stay humble, young man, stay humble.