By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
On April 6, 2008, after a scintillating 151-147 double-overtime win by the Seattle SuperSonics — only the 18th victory for the Sonics in a lost season filled with turmoil over the team’s future — a Sonics’ rookie with spaghetti arms and spindly legs sat quietly in the team’s locker room.
By that time of the season, Richter-scale games were coming more frequently for 19-year-old Kevin Durant. The one-and-done kid out of Texas went for 37 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and three steals that night, furthering an instant love affair with a city caught in a messy divorce that soon would separate it from its team and budding superstar.
Brian Davis, the Sonics’ studio host and sideline reporter who was facing an uncertain future of his own, stepped up to Durant to tell the soon-to-be-named Rookie of the Year how much he’d come to admire him.
“Hey, really enjoyed working with you,” said Davis, who as a young radio reporter in Chicago had chronicled Michael Jordan‘s career. “I’ve got an observation I want to share with you because we may never see each other again: You remind me a lot of Michael. Not your game; you remind me of Michael in the way that you carry yourself.”
And then Davis told him this: “Here’s the deal: You will be tested, you will be tested. But, if you stay true to your core, your personality, your decency to people, you’ll not only have a great career, you’ll have a great life.”
Durant, all elbows and knees, rose from his chair, tears streaming down his cheeks.
“Oh man,” he told Davis, “I’ve got to give you a hug.”
On Tuesday there will be hugs all around as Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar who lifts up his teammates and has graciously embraced a franchise and its new community, is presented the league’s highest individual honor as the winner of the Kia Most Valuable Player award (4:30 p.m., NBA TV and NBA.com).
An MVP season
When the Sonics left for Oklahoma City after Durant’s rookie season, Davis was offered the television play-by-play job. Outside of coach Scott Brooks, an assistant during that last season in Seattle, general manager Sam Presti (hired prior to the 2007 NBA Draft) and a handful of other staff members, Davis is among a small group who has watched every minute of Durant’s 542 regular-season games and 62 more in the playoffs.
What that group has seen is astounding. Throughout his already stellar career, Durant has piled up one feat after another and this year has put up numbers of statistical superiority that have not been seen since Jordan. The piece de resistance came on April 6 when Durant passed Jordan’s streak with a 41st game of 25 points or more, now the longest such streak since Oscar Robertson did it 50 years ago.
NOT SINCE MJ
- First to average at least 30.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game while shooting at least 50 percent, since Jordan in 1991-92
- First to average at 32.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 5.0 apg, since Jordan in 1988-89
- First to average 33.0 ppg in three successive months (January, February, March). since Jordan in 1989-90
- First to have 51 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists (vs. Toronto) in a game, since Jordan in 1992
- First to score at least 25 points in at least 40 consecutive games (41), since Jordan in 1986-87
- First to have at least 35 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in three consecutive games, since Larry Bird in 1987-88
- Fourteen 40-point games this season, more than double the next player (Kevin Love, 6; Carmelo Anthony 5; Stephen Curry 3, LeBron James 3, Kyrie Irving 3)
- First with multiple 50-point games (2) in the same season, since LeBron James (3) and Dwyane Wade (3) in 2008-09
- Among players with at least four scoring titles (Durant, Wilt Chamberlain, George Gervin, Jordan), Durant was the youngest at the time of his fourth (25 years, 199 days as of the April 16, the last day of the regular season)
- Led all players this season in clutch points (five-point difference or less in final five minutes)
Durant’s MVP season, though, has been clouded by the fog of a first-round playoff fight. Just last week as Durant struggled against a suffocating Memphis defense, as the Thunder bogged down under the pressure of potential early elimination, Oklahomans woke up on the morning of a do-or-die Game 6 to a bold newspaper headline that offered the soon-to-be MVP a harsh, new nickname: “Mr. Unreliable.”
Almost nothing could be further from the truth. At 25 years old, Durant averaged a career and league-best 32.0 points a game, winning his fourth scoring title in five seasons. He averaged a career-high 5.5 assists and 7.4 rebounds a game. He shot better than 50 percent for a second consecutive season and 39.1 percent from beyond the arc.
He carried the Thunder to 59 wins and the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed despite co-star Russell Westbrook missing nearly half the season. And he has the Thunder challenging for a third Western Conference finals appearance in four seasons and a second NBA finals berth in three seasons.
Yet in Memphis recently, the scene was grim. Encircled by reporters after the team’s shootaround on the morning of the now infamous headline, Durant was asked what he thought about the hometown paper dubbing him “Mr. Unreliable.”
You will be tested, you will be tested.
Calmly, Durant answered the question. He hadn’t seen the headline. He wasn’t worried about it.
“Everybody put their two cents on who I am as a player,” Durant said before the series began. “But I know the work I put in and you can easily lose confidence listening to everybody else. So I just try to focus on our team, what we have here and the work I put in individually, that it’s going to pay off.
“So it might not happen overnight, or in a few days or a few weeks, but just knowing that you put in that work, that’s what makes me confident as a player.”
Durant trampled the Grizzlies in Game 6 to even the series. In Game 7, he scored an ultra-efficient 33 points and grabbed eight rebounds as OKC advanced behind as reliable a pair of performances as any during Durant’s magnificent campaign.
“I always feel comfortable because I feel comfortable with myself, I feel comfortable with my game,” Durant said. “I’m not the strongest guy, I’m not the quickest or fastest, but I just feel comfortable with myself and I know what I can do out there on the floor.”
A unique talent
If so-called “voter fatigue” was thought to be the only way James could lose this season’s MVP award, Durant’s highlight-reel, Jordan-esque achievements had voters, and competitors, taking stock long before the All-Star break.
“I think he took the challenge when Westbrook went out this season and took it upon his shoulders to carry that team, to take it to another level,” said Dallas Mavericks forward and veteran Durant defender Shawn Marion. “At 7-foot, as athletic as he is, to do some of the things he’s doing on the floor, it’s not normal.”
When Durant arrived in Seattle in the summer of 2007, a no-brainer pick once Portland selected Greg Oden No. 1, it was impossible not to gasp at Durant’s unusually long and spindly body and his broad smile.
“I’d look at him,” Davis said, “and I’d go, ‘Is he even 150 pounds dripping wet?”
At Texas, Durant was listed as 6-foot, 9-inches, and maybe he was then. He was also listed as 215 pounds, and maybe he was. At the NBA’s pre-Draft camp, media reports leaked that Durant couldn’t bench press 185 pounds. The league snickered.
“I remember him being very wiry and thinking, ‘Where’s this guy going to play at 6-foot-9, 6-10?” said Grant Long, a 6-foot-8 power forward in the league for 15 seasons, and the Thunder’s television analyst since the move to Oklahoma City. “I knew right away that he wasn’t a post-up player. Then it was a matter of how is he going to impose his will on a defender, being 6-foot-9, because obviously there’s not a lot of 6-foot-10 guys playing on the perimeter.”
The Thunder still list Durant at 6-foot-9, which draws cackles from players around the league who’ve had to guard the tallest 6-foot-9 small forward in league history.
Arguably 7-feet, and these days listed at a sturdier 240 pounds (and maybe he is), Durant and the 6-foot-5 Jordan share no physical attributes. But they are bound by a common denominator: Scoring at will. Jordan, No. 3 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, amassed more than 32,000 points in 15 seasons. Durant is closing in on 15,000 through seven seasons.
Long played his first 11 seasons in the Eastern Conference, competing against both of Jordan’s three-peat Bulls teams in the 1990s.
“I think we’re watching somebody that’s prolific in two ways,” Long said of Durant. “The fact that it comes very easily to him; if you can say something is natural, he’s a natural scorer, coupled with the fact that he is very efficient. The fact that he knows he’ll be on the floor, he doesn’t stress about getting shots. He knows the shots are going to come.”
The growth of KD
Durant’s ascension from rail-thin jump-shooter to the league’s most efficient all-around scorer is built on a resolute commitment.
“Consistency,” Brooks said. “That is his key to success. He brought a work ethic that never wavers. He’s always in pursuit of being a consistent player, and that every day, doing-the-same-thing mentality has paid off.
“And he’s still doing it.”
Davis formulated a timeline of Durant’s progression:
2007-08: Realization. On Nov. 16, 2007, in his 10th NBA game, Durant drilled a 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds left in double overtime to beat Atlanta. “Maybe for him,” Davis said, “that was the moment he realized, ‘Holy smokes, I can do stuff like this in this league.’”
2008-09: Strength. Adding bulk to his frame was top priority as became the team’s primary end-of-game scoring option. “There were times though when he wasn’t up for the task, he hadn’t figured it out yet,” Davis said. “He wasn’t strong enough to take the bump if somebody was running at him and he wasn’t skilled enough to figure out how to defeat the move the guy was making on him in those crunch-time situations.”
2009-10: Finisher. “He went from being a skilled jumpshooter who, if he had the alley, could finish beautifully and with authority at the rim,” Davis said. “Over time he’s learned how to finish through contact. Over time, and I’m talking about attacking the rim, he’s learned how to finish off the jump through contact.”
2010-11: Leader. “Kevin has learned how to lead, and I think for him, it wasn’t that he was an unwilling leader, but I do think that for a young man, who especially is in his teens when he comes into the league, you have to develop the courage to lead,” Davis said. “And your teammates have to give you permission to lead. I actually think, just reading between the lines, that maybe a big moment for him was when Kendrick Perkins came to this ballclub. Kendrick is one of two guys — along with Thabo Sefolosha, who preached defense to his younger teammates — that has really helped to change the culture of the team. I think Perkins, having been around [Kevin] Garnett, [Paul] Pierce, my guess is that Perk encouraged Kevin, saying, ‘Look, you are the man on this team, so be the leader, too.’ It gave him permission to do it.”
2011-present: Whole. Durant’s ability to see the floor in the half court, a la James dramatically approved. He averaged 2.7 assists per game in 2010-11. The next three seasons saw increases to 3.5, 4.6 and now 5.5. His assist totals correlate directly to another improvement that some players never make, or even seek to make.
“The first couple years, the team would make a stop and he’d be running down the floor with his hand up, ‘Throw me the ball,’ and he’d camp out on the wing with his hand up in the air,” Davis said. “He doesn’t do that anymore. Now, if there’s a transition opportunity and the ball’s not coming his way, he’ll start doing the work he’s got to off the ball, without the ball, to make himself available. Or, if the play’s not coming his way, he’ll step up and set a screen.”
Said Grant: “Those things you don’t see from everybody because everybody is not willing to work off the ball to get one shot, but he is. He can come down and stand all he wants to and ask for the ball and probably score, but he’s not going to win that way. In order to win, you’ve got to move because you’re going to need your teammates to score as well.
“That’s when you hear people say, ‘Well how does he elevate the play of his teammates? Well, that’s how he decided to elevate the play of his teammates.”
No stopping him now
It’s foolish to think Durant’s first MVP will be his last. He and James, 29, are poised to continue one of the great annual MVP races since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dueled in the 80s.
“His efficiency level, his understanding of the game and all the experiences he has, he’s going to keep improving,” Brooks said. “Physically, you don’t stop. He’s only 25. He still has many years before he becomes in his prime physically. And mentally, I mean, I’ve been around a lot of players that from a basketball IQ standpoint, they keep improving until the day they stop playing.”
Davis harbors no doubt that this wholly unique player he watches every day at practice, shooting at odd hours and chasing down Jordan’s feats in front of packed houses, is only just beginning.
“That 41-game streak of 25 points-plus? It’s the third-best in the history of the game,” Davis said. “That’s no fluke, and that’s not a mirage. He has grown into this, and you know what I kept thinking this season?: It’s his time, it’s his time to be that guy. It’s his time not only to believe in himself as that guy, but it’s time for everybody else to see it.”
“Not for nothing,” Davis added, “Michael Jordan won his first championship in his seventh season. This is year No. 7.”