The stakes couldn’t be much higher, which is what should make this upcoming season such a fun one for Kevin Durant.
First, he needs to prove that he can stay healthy and that the foot problems, the ones that kept him out of 55 games last year, are a thing of the past. No given, considering his size (ignore that laughable 6-9 listing, Durant is 7-footer. A lanky one, but a 7-footer nonetheless).
By now we’re all familiar with the player Durant is when he’s operating at full capacity. A 7-footer with a jumper that’s effortless and smooth and if it weren’t for the once-in-a-generation shooting of Steph Curry, might be considered the best in the league; a knock-down shooter but also one able to score in a variety of ways; also, recently, a playmaker, someone who has learned how to create for his teammates as well.
The career numbers speak for themselves: 27.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting, 38 percent shooting from deep, 6.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists. Don’t forget his ridiculous 2014 season, either, when he led the league in scoring (32 points per game), while also shooting 50 percent from the field and dishing out a career-best 5.5 assists per game – an output which earned him that year’s MVP award.
Of course the question is: does that player still exist? Durant is just 27, so we assume, and hope he does. But injuries, especially to the legs and feet, don’t care about age. They’re fickle and cruel and have no problem picking on the best of the best. Just ask Bill Walton.
Thankfully, Durant has looked great thus far in the preseason. He’s moving like a gazelle again and even seems to have some new tricks, like a Dirk Nowitzki-style step-back that he’s going to more and more. Also, he appears to now be playing in an offense that understands that the best way to score is to have constant movement—from both the ball and players on the floor. Don’t worry, we’re not handing Billy Donovan any Coach of the Year awards yet, but it’s safe to assume that his offense will be more imaginative than the stale, isolation-heavy sets Scott Brooks seemed to prefer.
That should make life even easier for Durant, perhaps in a way the Heat’s space-and-pace offense did so for LeBron. It was under Erik Spoelstra that LBJ morphed into a player as efficient as he was good. If Donovan’s offense helps KD even just a tad—well, this ranking might wind up being too low.
There’s also that ticking clock hanging over the Thunder franchise. Durant’s contract expires this offseason. All we can do is guess as to where he winds up next year, and for how long. Thanks to Turner and ESPN, almost every team in the league now has cap space. The Knicks are going to come calling, just as they always do, and there’s nothing an aging Pat Riley would like more than to deliver one final superstar to the Heat. And then there’s Durant’s hometown Wizards, who have John Wall and Bradley Beal and KD’s high school coach, too.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that the pressure will be on this year. Every game, every move, every outcome, will be analyzed through a large microscope, one handled by Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. Nothing is going to be easy for KD this year, and we haven’t even talked about the retooled Spurs or defending champs in Golden State.
Maybe all the emotional and physical stress gets to him and he slowly whittles away under all that weight. Or maybe his size-17 feet fail again. But the bet here is that this season we see something else. Failing, like KD and Thunder have in recent years, can create a sense of urgency, which sometimes is all a great player needs in order to reach his peak.
I’m not saying the 2015-16 season will end with a Thunder championship, and another Durant MVP. What I am saying, though, is that I wouldn’t bet against it.
|SLAM Top 50 Players 2015|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2015-16—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.