by Ryan ZumMallen / @ryanzummallen
Trust this: You will only have a few opportunities in your life to watch an era-defining athlete, and what Kevin Durant is doing this season is the kind of eye-popping performance that makes oceans roar, makes mountains crumble, and makes you anxious to grow old and have grandkids just so you can tell them that you watched him live.
Durant has always been an obvious superstar, perhaps future hyperstar and eventual supernova. But with his performance through the first 43 games of the season thus far, he’s reached plateaus that we didn’t expect to see for at least a few more years. At this pace, it looks like he’ll clear the 50-40-90 percent shooting bar. Easily. No one does this easily—and in a Scott Brooks’ offense, no less! This is like easily walking on the moon, or winning the Indianapolis 500 on foot.
Yet here Durant is, pulling up from anywhere on the floor and embarrassing defenders with his improved handles before feeding them dunkburgers with cheese. It’s sinister, is what it is. Maybe even mean. And I wouldn’t call myself a psychic—more like a soothsayer or something—but I did predict Durant taking a villainous turn after his NBA Finals loss to the Heat last June. You could see it in his eyes; not disappointment for the loss, but thirst for revenge. I wrote last at the time: “…the thought of a scorned Thunder team out for blood sounds like the best thing to ever happen to the NBA.” Sure enough, it’s happened, and it’s even better than I expected.
“So now I’m down for whatever / Ain’t nothing nice,” Jay-Z rapped in D’Evils off his debut album. I’m not sure if the phrase originated from Hova, but it belongs to Kevin Durant now. The #KDISNOTNICE meme launched by Nike in December is totally accurate, culturally appropriate and, most importantly, perfectly timed. Durant can dunk on Lamar Odom on Tuesday and Twitter posts him dunking on a baby seal by Wednesday morning. It’s immediate, crowd-sourced advertising, and it’s perfect.
That tagline wouldn’t have worked with Durant last season, however, when he too often deferred to teammates and told reporters, “I don’t feel like a superstar.” But this season, there are no illusions—the Thunder isn’t his team; the NBA is his League. Of course, a certain King James stands ready to defend his crown, but this time he’ll run into a challenger hardened by loss and motivated by revenge. And he will not be nice.
The funny thing about the #KDISNOTNICE meme is that it has two meanings. Durant is not nice to defenders, to the rim, and to the record books this season. The League’s leading scorer, he is the only player in the top 10 who has more points than field-goal attempts in every single game this season. Read that back one more time. It’s an incredible feat; no one goes a whole season without a night of fewer points than shots. In fact, Kobe Bryant has done it three times. In the last seven days.
The second meaning is, of course, the literal one. Durant has not been very nice this season. The quintessential humble superstar has all of a sudden tied for third place in the NBA for technical fouls, with seven in 43 games. This is by far the most in his career—last season he had only six techs in 66 games. Averaged out, Durant is getting a technical foul called on him almost twice as often as he did last season. He had seven technical fouls in his first three seasons combined! That’s seven technical fouls in 43 games this year, and seven technical fouls those first 234 games. I’m not advocating for arguing with the referees, but hey, whatever works. Dude is not nice.
Bet you didn’t notice that, though, because his play has been so good it’s already made people forget about the James Harden trade. The way Durant is playing right now, it may end with us forgetting about the entire League as he hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy this summer.
There’s a new gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that I’m dying to see, paying tribute to the obsessive works of the late director Stanely Kubrick. His was a dedication so great that he literally drove his actors and crew to madness. While filming The Shining, he set a Guinness record for most takes of a single scene (127). One scene took only three takes, but nine days to arrange and, including planning, more than a year from concept to wrap.
This is not simply perfectionism; it’s maniacal. It’s destructive and abusive. Kubrick spent decades on a movie about Napoleon that he never finished, and made 70-year-old Scatman Crothers cry on set. But films like A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket are some of the deepest and most jarring movies in history. In short, his methods worked, and it wouldn’t have been possible without his innate hyper-obsessiveness. His movies needed that level of crazy.
Last year, I never said that Kevin Durant couldn’t win if he continued being nice, but I did suggest that a little attitude couldn’t hurt with a nearly flawless offensive repertoire, it was literally the only thing missing from his game. The only possible thing he could do to improve was light a fire from within. The kind that would drive a person to change his entire demeanor, or demand an exhausted actress to swing a baseball bat more than 120 times.
Durant has always been self-driven, and this type of maniacal focus may have always been inside him, but it took the pain of watching the Heat hoist his trophy last June to yank it out of him. You may be talented, you may be motivated. But that mild insanity can be the difference between shooting 10 takes or 50 takes. It can be the difference between a scoring title, and an NBA title.
We’re watching Kevin Durant teach a graduate course in channeling your anger into motivation. It may not be nice, but damn if it isn’t inspiring. Pay attention. Your grandkids will be thrilled to hear about this one day.
Ryan ZumMallen is a sportswriter in Long Beach, CA. You can find him on Twitter at @ryanzummallen.