IT'S FRIDAY evening at Staples Center in Los Angeles, six days since the news broke that Kevin Durant was the league MVP, three days since he gave an acceptance speech that made you pretend not to cry, and 90 minutes before he would score 36 points in a Game 3 victory over the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals. Durant is ambling down a concrete hallway in enormous flip-flops and what appear to be red snow pants—insulated and heated by a hip-mounted battery pack, to keep his legs warm until game time. In his left hand he clutches a tiny bottle of water and gummy snacks that purportedly deliver electrolytes but really are just high-tech candy. He looks, as Durant often does, like an elongated nine-year-old, all arms and legs, with that bobblehead noggin. As he turns into a doorway, he reaches out to dap a security guard.
In this, his foremost individual season in the NBA, Durant remains reassuringly normal, at least by the standards of the extremely gifted superstar athlete. As anyone who saw his MVP speech knows, Durant suffers from something of a bravado deficiency. During 25 sniffle-filled minutes at the podium, he introduced us to Thunder teammates few outside the organization knew existed—like Grant Jerrett, a rookie signed a month earlier who hadn't played in the postseason yet whom Durant lauded for "your kind heart, your spirit, everything, man. I appreciate you." Durant said "I love you" more often in that half hour than most husbands do in a year. He waxed poetic about reserve forwards and equipment managers. And yet he never mentioned his sponsors. "I mean, I wasn't even thinking about that," Durant says the morning after Game 3, jabbing his thumbs into his practice jersey and tenting it out in front, one of many unaffected poses he regularly assumes. (When addressing the media, he often crosses one arm behind his back and uses it to grab the other, like a third-grader telling the class how he spent his summer.) "I just wanted to keep it real with the guys I go into the trenches with every day and show how much I appreciate them, my family."
This mind-set, we can all agree, is pretty cool. It's why Oklahoma City forward Caron Butler calls Durant "remarkable" and forward Nick Collison says the most impressive thing about Durant is "how he treats other people." But we are not here to laud Durant's good-guy-ness. After all, there are a lot of good people in the world who never appear on magazine covers. Rather, the reason you and I and millions more care about Durant is because of the unprecedented things he can do with a basketball.
Take one representative play from this Clippers-Thunder series, which was tied 2--2 at week's end. Midway through the second quarter of OKC's 118--112 win in Game 3, Durant snagged a defensive rebound, spun and loped up court on those crazy stilt legs of his. Just outside the three-point arc he leaned left. At which point the entire Los Angeles defense leaned as well, because that's how teams play Durant. They load up sides, double-team him early, sometimes send three players his way—or, in the case of the Grizzlies in the first round, instruct four defenders to mirror his movements with their bodies and hands, like a troupe of sweaty mimes. Then, just as the Clippers leaned, Durant abruptly crossed over and went hard right. His ostensible defender, Jared Dudley, jabbed forward. Durant? After one more dribble he took flight and floated to the rim, whereupon he dropped the ball in. It looked comically easy.
Only, of course, he's the only man alive who could have done it.
O.K. O.K. So, yes, maybe LeBron James could have made that move too. Maybe. And yes, even though Durant won the MVP this season, James is still the best player in the world. He's more well-rounded, more powerful, affects the game in more ways. "If you surveyed all the GMs and asked who they'd like to build a team around right now, for stylistic or emotional reasons I bet some would pick Durant over LeBron," says one Eastern Conference GM (who incidentally says he was moved by the MVP speech). "But that would be the wrong choice, and they'd know it." Says a GM from the West, "I love Kevin, but you have to pick LeBron. His game is so complete."
This is through no fault of Durant's. James is just that good. That special. Then again, LeBron is also 29. He didn't win his first title until he was 27. Michael Jordan was 28. Durant? He's 25, and in this season, his seventh, he continues to improve markedly. Two years ago he began paying more attention to defense. Last season he became more efficient on offense, joining Larry Bird as the only players to shoot 50% from the floor, 40% from beyond the arc and 90% from the line while averaging more than 28 points. This year Durant poured in a career-high 32.0 points per game. Scoring is his passion after all—his high, as Thunder GM Sam Presti puts it. Watch closely and you can see Durant hungering for his fix: clapping his hands at teammates during the game, demanding the ball, seemingly forever open, at least in his own mind.
Yet it was in Durant's attention to other phases of the game that he evolved this season. He became more of a leader. In the 36 games point guard Russell Westbrook missed with a right knee injury, Durant was the sole focus of defenses, yet he became more efficient, upping his field goal percentage and win shares. He averaged a career-high 5.5 assists. He scored 25 or more points in 41 straight games, the longest such streak in 52 years. More impressive, though, was what Durant did when Westbrook returned. Durant dialed it back. Didn't force shots. It could have hurt his MVP prospects, but it was the right thing to do. "Last year when Russell went out we didn't respond," says Collison, referring to a Westbrook knee injury in the playoffs' first round. "This time we played really well, and that's because Kevin carried us with his playmaking and defense." Collison pauses. "He allowed us to play as a team."
Collison possesses a unique perspective on Durant. He's the only player to have been Durant's teammate his entire career, beginning with the franchise's last season in Seattle. Collison occasionally thinks about his place in history, how one day people might remember him "the same way they did Luc Longley and Cliff Levingston," big men who played alongside Jordan on the Bulls. It is a peculiar comparison—way to aim high, Nick—but it could turn out to be fitting.
Of course, for now there remains a distinction between Jordan and Durant. Six distinctions, to be precise. And therein lies the hole in Durant's young career, one no manner of scoring titles or individual awards can fill.
GROWING UP in Seat Pleasant, Md., outside Washington, Durant idolized two players in particular. One was Bird, the consummate winner and an exceptional passing and shooting big man. The other was Tracy McGrady, a supremely gifted swingman who, when it came to the postseason, well, you know. They now represent opposite marking posts, one aspirational, one cautionary.
Durant loved the game from the start. As a boy he wore long, white T-shirts polka-dotted with ball prints from constant dribbling. "I remember one day at the gym I looked in the mirror and thought, Wow, my arms got long," he says. "I looked like [Celtics point guard Rajon] Rondo. You seen Rondo? He walks with his arms touching his knees. That's not normal. That was me."
Then came the growth spurt, 6'1" to 6'7" during the summer before his sophomore year of high school. From there Durant kept sprouting, until he reached his current spindly proportions of roughly 6'11"—pay no mind to the listed 6'9"—with 36-inch-long arms. Contrast his body shape to that of the perfectly proportioned James. Shrink LeBron to 5'8" and he would look like just another dude who spent four days a week at the gym doing curls. Durant? He looks like something hatched in Don Nelson's fever dream fantasy.
In some respects Durant represents the end of a cycle, the ultimate Europeanization of the NBA, which went from big guys who could shoot to big guys who could shoot threes to big guys who could lead the break. And then we got to Durant, the sum of all possibilities, a near-7-foot forward who is most effective off the dribble, who Eurosteps at full speed and bottoms out fadeaway 27-footers. He is the Toni Kukoc we were promised, delivered two decades later.
Not that this was always apparent. During Durant's rookie season, then Sonics coach P.J. Carlesimo made him a two guard. Defenders got under him, pushing him to the perimeter. Durant shot 28.8% on three-pointers. He had more turnovers than assists. He was miserable.
Still, it was during that season that Presti got a glimpse of Durant's mind-set. At All-Star weekend Durant played in the Rookie Challenge on Friday night in New Orleans. The following night Presti was scouting the Texas-Baylor game. To his surprise he saw Durant there. While his NBA peers were tearing up the Big Easy on a Saturday night, Durant chose to fly to Waco to sit behind the bench of his alma mater, bang on the top of a plastic trash can and cheer the Longhorns. For a boy who spent much of his childhood without a father, who moved apartment to apartment, who played only one year in college, teammates were family and would remain that way.
FAST-FORWARD TO 2010, when the Thunder finally breached .500 and Durant became the youngest scoring champion at 21, his third year in the league. In the years that followed, the points continued to pile up; he now has 14,851, more than either Bill Russell or Manu Ginóbili. In 2012, Durant & Co. reached the Finals, though they fell 4--1 to the Heat. The future seemed limitless.
That same season Durant had started dissecting his game with Justin Zormelo, a trainer who founded Best Ball Analytics. Durant knew his shooting percentage from each spot on the floor, where his weaknesses and strengths lay. He added pieces, adapted when necessary. For years he had relied on the rip-through move to get to the free throw line, bringing his arms up into a defender as he gathered to shoot, a la Reggie Miller. Then the league changed the rule to make the rip-through a nonshooting foul. It was a blessing in disguise. "He was getting an advantage from it, but it hurt his reputation," says one Western Conference executive. "He had to find other ways to score. And it's made him a better player."
Then came this season, and Durant stopped worrying about the analytics and the breakdowns. "It was time to just go out and play," says Zormelo. "We'd gone through so much, seen so many different schemes. It was time to just let Kevin be Kevin."
It worked. Until the first round of the playoffs, that is, when the Thunder went down 3--2 to Memphis. Defensive specialist Tony Allen wedged himself under Durant, bodying him and pushing him to the outer reaches of the half-court. It was shocking to see. Here was a 6'4" role player making the MVP look meek. Durant slunk to the corner, stopped clapping for the ball. For the first time in his life it looked like he didn't want it in his hands. MR. UNRELIABLE, wrote The Oklahoman. Observing from afar, Zormelo could tell his friend had lost confidence. He spent a day watching film of the Grizzlies, then texted Durant: You need to go right at Allen instead of letting him dictate things on defense.
Durant knew he was right. "I was just thinking the game too much instead of trying to play off instincts," he says. "He told me some things he'd seen, and I tried to apply them to the game and play with aggression." Watch the tape and you'll see it in action; shortly after Allen checked into Game 6, Durant ran right at him and began grappling, putting the onus on the referees to make the call for an offensive foul. They didn't, and the tactic worked. In that win Durant scored 36 points on 23 shots. In the clinching Game 7 victory he scored 33 on 18 shots.
Then, three days later, carrying a sheet of paper upon which Thunder director of basketball communications Matt Tumbleson had scrawled a list of names, lest he forget anyone, Durant stepped to the microphone in the team's old practice facility, a skating rink that had been hastily converted to host the team when it moved from Seattle in 2008. After the MVP speech, during which most everyone in the room got teary, Durant received 106 text messages. The NBA used an excerpt in a Mother's Day ad. The fact that Westbrook, about whom Durant spoke powerfully and emotionally, had a triple double a night later in a Game 2 win over the Clippers was no doubt purely coincidental.
AND NOW, the next step. By the time you read this, Durant and the Thunder may have fallen to the Clippers or beaten them. If the latter is the case, the playoff path only gets more treacherous—from Memphis through L.A. to (in all likelihood) San Antonio, then possibly to Miami. The odds are against the team to win a title this season. The players know this, even if they choose not to believe it.
Next season Durant, Westbrook and forward Serge Ibaka will be a year older and presumably better, as will promising rookie center Steven Adams, whose ability to piss off NBA veterans is a large reason the Thunder are still playing. (Just ask Zach Randolph.) And yet the team still feels incomplete. Some point to coach Scott Brooks's simplistic offense; Oklahoma City is perennially among the league leaders in isolation baskets. Others bemoan the loss of shooting guard James Harden. There are those who argue that Westbrook and Durant can never truly coexist because Westbrook's greatest strength—his confidence and competitive fire—won't allow him to be Scottie Pippen to Durant's MJ. And there are questions about whether the nonstars can score enough to be threats: In a crushing 101--99 Game 4 loss on Sunday, when the Thunder squandered a 16-point fourth-quarter lead, the three starters not named Westbrook or Durant combined for 13 points.
Then again, how fair is it to ask that much of role players who rarely touch the ball? Westbrook and Durant averaged a combined 38.0 shot attempts this season, nearly half the team's total. Can you imagine being third-year guard Reggie Jackson and playing with KD and Westbrook? The coach and fans get mad if you turn the ball over. They also get mad if you don't get the ball to the clapping Durant, the best scorer of this generation. It takes a lot of stones to call your own number.
As for Durant, he still has room to grow. He could become a more willing passer. He could ask for tougher defensive assignments. He would benefit from strengthening his lower body and developing a better post game, so that when a team switches a smaller player onto him, as the Clippers did with 6-foot point guard Chris Paul on Sunday, Durant can punish him on the block. That is picking nits, though.
All the while the summer of 2016 looms, when Durant can enter free agency, in his prime at 27. Perhaps he will stay in Oklahoma City. Perhaps not. Would you? Either way, five years from now we may look back and deem it foolish that we ever doubted Durant's chances of winning a ring. Or we may begin prematurely placing him in the Barkley bin, another superstar MVP who never led a team to a title.
That is all to come, though. For now, on this Saturday morning in Los Angeles before Game 4, Durant concerns himself only with the Clippers. The Thunder are practicing at a community center because no other gyms are available. It's not the tableau you expect for the playoffs, but it is somehow fitting for the humble Durant and his Oklahoma City brethren. The court is cramped, short and with no sidelines. The area in the key is scuffed and dark from so many sneakers. Down the hall, small boys practice karate; a challah-baking class goes on upstairs. Durant stands next to an auxiliary rim that can't be more than nine feet high. As his teammates warm up, he can't help himself. Reflexively, he reaches up and drops the ball in the basket, then does it again and again. He looks calm, at peace, doing what he was born to do.
Durant is the end of a cycle. He is the Toni Kukoc we were promised, two decades later.
Then came this season and Durant stopped worrying about the analytics.
Photograph by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
HIS HIGHNESS Two games after being crowned MVP—he was the top choice on 119 of 125 ballots—Durant soared for 36 points in a win over L.A.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
IN LOCKSTEP? As Durant strives for the ultimate goal, some wonder whether Westbrook (below left) will be a hindrance or a help.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
ALONZO ADAMS/USA TODAY SPORTS
TALK THE TALK Known for his humility, Durant thanked each of his teammates and his mom in an emotional MVP speech.
POINT TAKEN A trainer's advice helped Durant shake off his struggles and rally OKC past Memphis in the first round.