Last week I responded to a question on whether Kevin Durant would become the best player in the NBA by saying that as phenomenal as he is, Durant can’t dominate the entirety of a game the way LeBron does on a regular basis.
A few days later I watched Durant go toe-to-toe with the consensus “world’s best player.” Not only did Durant shine, he scored 59 points, almost all of them while being checked by James, a player many regard as the best wing defender in the NBA not named Tony Allen.
As I noted after the game, it was KD’s improved handle that undid James’s defense time and again. He performed a variety of advanced crossover moves that I’d never seen him pull off in an NBA setting, combining between the leg and behind the back moves with a Brandon Roy-esque traditional cross and a wicked hesitation move he used to freeze, then blow by, James. He also took a bunch of stepback jumpers, many of which he missed. Still it was a virtuoso offensive performance against the best player on the planet. It was just summer ball, but his play was almost enough to make me reconsider the answers I had given just a few days prior.
I was officially caught up in the Summer of Durant.
There was no free agent talk, no salacious infighting amongst teammates, no Olympics or World Basketball Championships to distract bored fans from his prolific tear through America’s streetball leagues. Social media, cell phone cameras and a demand artificially augmented by the lockout have made his every public exhibition a high profile showcase.
Before he was an amorphous blob of happy thoughts, pointy limbs, humility and impossibly pure swishes. Now, he’s a kid humble enough to mingle with regular people on blacktops around the country and rough enough to murder pros and amateurs alike on any surface, anytime.
He continues to sport the endearingly childlike backpack that is his trademark, but has also revealed that tattoos overlap across his heart.
The way his too-short shorts expose his gawky legs contrasts with his bone-chilling zeal for personal streetball battles and how he punctuates his triumphs with a snarling glare—it all breathes an accessible, yet removed, cool.
In between busting ankles and nets from Rucker Park to Barry Farm, Durant has also traveled extensively in China and inked a movie deal. His foil is Derrick Rose. Last year’s MVP isn’t playing pick-up, or even smiling, reportedly using the Conference Finals beatdown at the hands of the Heat to fuel and implacable desire for perfection.
It’s possible the gains in Durant’s brand have come at the expense of improving as a player. If your goal is the be the absolute best player you can be, every moment not spent in training—and there’s evidence he’s being doing plenty of that as well—is arguably a moment wasted.
Durant has repeatedly explained that he just loves to play. That is, I believe, an honest statement. Knowing that, should we care that he may not be optimizing his off time?
Yet it’s crystal clear that he’s improved his off the dribble game, and that’s a pretty scary thought. The book on slowing down the two-time scoring champ says to muscle him away from off-ball screens and to get under his handle once he catches (he is 6-10 after all) in an effort to force him into contested fallaways. A few more pounds of muscle and rigorous ball handling training could solve what are really his most glaring offensive limitations.
He’s been sensational, but after seeing Durant in person four times this summer, I’m not sure if these perceived improvements will carry over into the NBA season. Even in his evisceration of LeBron James, he never once faced a ball denial, a second defender, or even James’s most physical pressure defense.
We can’t be sure how much, if at all, his summer basketball bonanza will help his team reach the NBA Finals next season. There’s no indication that he’s become a better rebounder or help defender. Many of the skills that the loose, uncoached streetball sessions reinforce aren’t applicable in the team-conscious atmosphere of NBA basketball.
Still, the NBA is at its soul about entertainment. Serious competition and a focus on efficiency enhances the escapism of watching and commenting on professional hoops. This summer Kevin Durant, like a Baller Without Borders, has delivered entertainment by the truckload to hoops starved communities and audiences that often cannot afford to see him in an NBA uniform.
An amazing fact: Durant’s cult of personality has expanded wildly without a single publication producing a revealing in depth profile on him. I’m not sure we really know anything new about what makes Kevin Durant tick.
That’s OK. In a time when the threat of a losing a whole season hangs over the NBA and its fans, simply showing up and playing in earnest has made Kevin Durant the world’s coolest basketball player.
Thanks to Colin Murphy of the Severna Park Voice for these great images!