Top 50: Kevin Durant, no. 2

by Matt Caputo / @MattCaputo

According to a 2011 US Census, Oklahoma City proper has a population of 591,967. The greater OKC metro-area population is about 1,252,987 people. OKC is a television market in the mid-40s and that’s smaller than many non-NBA cities. There are no other teams representing OKC in any of the other major sports leagues.

The somewhat controversial shuffle of the Seattle Sonics to the Sooner State to become the OKC Thunder and very quickly NBA Finalists made sense. An NBA team was coming to a town with a brand new arena in 2008 and that team had Kevin Durant. Success was just around the corner.

In their fourth season, the Thunder reached the NBA Finals, falling 4-1, against the Miami Heat and LeBron James. Durant’s greatest heroics came in the Western Conference Finals. Durant played every minute of Game 6 and dropped 34 points in the 107–99 victory over San Antonio. He also collected 14 rebounds and 5 assists in the process. It was the win that really put OKC on the map of the big league world. With that win, OKC fans took claim to one of the many great sports experiences that had been so foreign to them: a trip to the NBA Finals.

The Thunder couldn’t quite break the Heat. Durant played 20 Playoff games and averaged 28.5 points over them. They played tough, but weren’t quite battle-ready enough for the seasoned and very determined Miami Heat. Despite a Game 1 win, the Thunder lost four straight and showed signs of desperation at times.

Still, the Thunder reaching the Finals was the kind of hallmark OKC fans dreamed of when the lanky Rookie of the Year came to town. That progress is something the NBA is betting on, something they’re already seeing returns on. With seemingly supersonic speed, the Thunder are among the most popular teams in the League. Now, it’s all about what the future will hold for Durant and he’s already on pace for where many (I for one) thought he could be.

Durant has a supernatural scoring touch and he’s still learning new ways to get buckets. He’s on his way to being a true rival to LeBron. In the Playoffs, Durant couldn’t help the Thunder beat the Heat, but he officially arrived at a point where he’ll be competing directly against LeBron for a while. If that’s so, eyes from far and wide will turn to OKC and the shape of the NBA will be forever changed. The last NBA Finals was totally new territory for OKC and Durant has a habit of maturing and adapting to new territory quickly.

Over the summer, Durant set a record for the most points scored in an Olympic basketball tournament. By all accounts he’s a dangerous scorer, but his defense needs improvement, maybe even an overhaul. Still, the fact that he’s always been aware of his defensive deficiencies makes you think he’ll get up to par soon enough.

He’s got sloppy footwork and relies on some immature tactics to make defensive plays. But he’s 24, is really only two years into the workforce—if you count his first three NBA seasons as years he still could have been in college. He’s got his whole life ahead of him and he’s already been to the NBA Finals.

So, from now on, OKC is going to be a place that—no matter how small—will have the attention of anyone who cares about basketball. New York, L.A. and Chicago are all taking notice of the Thunder. It’s a unique situation for Durant, who attended a few high schools and made a quick pit-stop at the University of Texas. He’s taken a brand new franchise to the NBA Finals. Chesapeake Energy Arena is literally the “house that Kevin Durant (and a great supporting cast) is building.”

Durant has been to three All-Star games and has won three scoring titles in five seasons. It took the Thunder three Playoff trips to reach the Finals. There’s good reason to think the Thunder will soon return to the NBA Finals. And the reason is Kevin Durant.

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2012
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Greg Monroe Pistons C 8
49 Tyreke Evans Kings PG 14
48 Brandon Jennings Bucks PG 13
47 Stephen Curry Warriors PG 12
46 Ricky Rubio TWolves PG 11
45 Al Jefferson Jazz PF 14
44 Anthony Davis Hornets PF 13
43 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 12
42 Al Horford Hawks C 7
41 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 10
40 Danny Granger Pacers SF 6
39 Tim Duncan Spurs PF 11
38 John Wall Wizards PG 9
37 Monta Ellis Bucks SG 8
36 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 10
35 Roy Hibbert Pacers C 6
34 Tyson Chandler Knicks C 5
33 Eric Gordon Hornets SG 7
32 Kevin Garnett Celtics PF 9
31 Manu Ginobili Spurs SG 6
30 Amar’e Stoudemire Knicks PF 8
29 Marc Gasol Grizzlies C 4
28 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 3
27 Paul Pierce Celtics SF 5
26 Andre Iguodala Nuggets SG 5
25 Rudy Gay Grizzlies SF 4
24 Josh Smith Hawks PF 7
23 Derrick Rose Bulls PG 8
22 Joe Johnson Nets SG 4
21 Steve Nash Lakers PG 7
20 James Harden Thunder SG 3
19 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 6
18 Chris Bosh Heat PF 5
17 Kyrie Irving Cavs PG 6
16 LaMarcus Aldridge Blazers PF 4
15 Tony Parker Spurs PG 5
14 Dirk Nowitzki Mavs PF 3
13 Andrew Bynum Sixers C 2
12 Blake Griffin Clippers PF 2
11 Kevin Love TWolves PF 1
10 Carmelo Anthony Knicks SF 3
9 Russell Westbrook Thunder PG 4
8 Rajon Rondo Celtics PG 3
7 Deron Williams Nets PG 2
6 Dwyane Wade Heat SG 2
5 Dwight Howard Lakers C 1
4 Kobe Bryant Lakers SG 1
3 Chris Paul Clippers PG 1
2 Kevin Durant Thunder SF 2
1 LeBron James Heat SF 1

• Rankings are based solely on projected ’12-13 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Maurice Bobb, Rodger Bohn, Brendan Bowers, Franklyn Calle, David Cassilo, Bryan Crawford, Adam Figman, Eldon Khorshidi, Eddie Maisonet III, Ryne Nelson, Ben Osborne, Allen Powell II, Sam Rubenstein, Jonathan Santiago, Abe Schwadron, Leo Sepkowitz, Dave Spahn, Ben Taylor, Tzvi Twersky, Peter Walsh, Tracy Weissenberg, Yaron Weitzman, DeMarco Williams and Dave Zirin.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.