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.

Comments (12)

  1. Yes, the title is a little bit over the top since the NBA doesn’t need saving from anyone since it’s one of the most popular sports leagues in the world, certainly the biggest U.S. sports league outside the States given its very strong fan base in Europe, Asia, South America etc. Not to mention that in the States the NBA had one of its highest rated seasons in history in 09-10 with ESPN and TNT having their highest rated NBA season in 15 years and ABC its highest rated season since 2003.

    Not to mention the Finals were the most watched since 2001 and game 7 was the most watched NBA game since 1998. And in Canada, game 7 between Lakers/Celtics was the most watched NBA game in Canada history. So yeah, the title seems a little bit over the top. The NBA doesn’t need to be saved since it’s doing quite well lately.

    But with that being said, Durant can certainly bring in even more viewers who don’t consider themselves NBA fans or who follow the league casually every now and then.

  2. Durrant reminds me a lot of Duncan only a little more out going, not a lot mind you but more. Duncan will go down as on of the greatest PF of all time and with the first three years of what Durrant has done; his potential could lead him to be in the discussion of all time greats in a decade or so.

  3. I agree with the title (a bit overkill). Not in the sense of popularity but image wise. I think the NBA has been hurt with so player many scandals off the court. You have Arenas and his toys, Kobe and his womanizing, and Lebron being an attention whore.

    Its refreshing seeing a player as humble as Durant though, every player seems that way in the early stages of his career. We just haven’t seen a player of his caliber in a while.

    And Chicago is indeed a sexy pick. I’ll stick with my Lakers though.

  4. Durant’s fairly humble impact on his juvenile career is an awesome trait to build a name for himself. I wonder how he can carry all these attention after FIBA. His head could wind up as long as his arms. Nobody knows.

  5. Great write up, it’s hard to disagree with you Scott.

    Just and aside: Lakers fan here, and I gotta say, I’m more interested in what the Bulls and Thunder will accomplish this coming season than Miami. Kinda unrelated but I’m just gonna throw it out there.

  6. Durant certainly has the talent to become the face of a resurgent NBA but talent isn’t the only (or even the most important) trait necessary to win the sport more fans. As a matter of fact, Durant’s humble demeanor probably works against him in this regard. Durant can be the best guy in the world but if he doesn’t get anyone’s attention then it’s only the diehards who will notice.

  7. Hector: Since OKC has to be considered one of the favorites to meet the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, you should be interested in what they accomplish. Miami is probably going to get to the finals no matter what, but your team will need to get past OKC with an improved Durant and Westbrook first.

    Mark: Nice shirt. Great minds think alike.

  8. aw imagine if Portland drafted him, Roy and Durant would make it the ultimate “root for the good guys” team, them being two of the most humble stars in the league

  9. Good comment from Nate A. on The Jones Facebook page:

    “Interesting seeing KD getting all this love recently. Would love to say it’s entirely deserved, but I can’t shake the feeling that so far he’s the early benefactor of the LBJ off-season ‘Decision.’ It remains to be seen if this will be yet another example of building up a player only to tear him down when he turns out to be something different than what people thought.”

  10. And it would all be even more attractive if the Thunder were still the Sonics. Sigh.

    Just seems like the trendy thing to be doing praising Durant,
    I can’t help but feel slightly underwelmed still by what he’s done, when he wins a playoff series, which granted they weren’t that far off from against LA, then come talk to me about Durant.

    We can’t seriously compare Durant to anyone at the moment which is probably why, along with LeBron being so universally hated this is such a story.
    Ray Allen went to Boston when Durant went to Seattle/OKC was that a success? Yes. Is there more to come and are most of the signs good? Probably.

    Then again look what happened to Shawn Kemp? What did happen to Shawn Kemp…
    Potential is one thing, so are scoring titles. Winning is another. What happens if they go 17-36 the other way this year, chances we’ll never be having this discussion ever again.

  11. All Kevin Durant is missing is the huge marketing campaign around him. On the court he is the complete package, a player capable of shooing 90 percent at the foul line, 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range. There is no question he is a special player and with the Nike marketing machine behind him, Durant will be a part of everyone’s household soon enough.

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