The road to winning an NBA championship is one littered with opposition and adversity. Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder have battled through plenty of it, making progress in recent years but still falling short of achieving their ultimate goal.
You could blame it on the Thunder being too young or inexperienced, or you can blame the dominance of the Heat, but what it often boils down to is individual performance.
This is going to sound weird, scrutinizing the play of a 23-year-old three-time scoring champion who finished as a runner-up MVP last season, but it may be that Kevin Durant's defense is the key to bringing a championship to Oklahoma City.
There's zero doubt that Kevin Durant can take care of his team on offense. He is one of the best—if not the best—pure scorer in the NBA and can put the ball in the hoop at ridiculous rates. Therefore, offense is obviously not something that KD needs to work on.
His defense is also very solid at this stage in his career. Durant averaged 1.33 steals per contest last year to go with his 1.17 blocked shots. The numbers don't lie here, and he is by no means a bad or even below-average defender. The point I am trying to get at here is that Durant is already a good defender, but in order for the Oklahoma City Thunder to take the next leap forward, he needs to become an elite one.
Could you imagine Durant doing all he does offensively and also playing defense like Anthony Davis? It would make him dangerous at any spot on the hardwood, whether his team has the ball or not.
Improved defense would also be great for KD since it would increase his versatility to play different positions. Though he naturally fits in at a small forward spot, if Durant was able to defend down low in the post game, he could easily play quality minutes at the power forward or even center spot if head coach Scott Brooks deemed it necessary.
The differences of Durant playing more aggressive defense would be noticeable on the court for OKC as well.
The Thunder offense can usually win games on its own, but when that fails, their defense may not always be able to catch them. That is especially true for a defender like Russell Westbrook, who gambles a lot while guarding opponents on the perimeter. When his gambles pay off, it's great and results in a steal and fast break. However, when he messes up and whiffs on D, the Thunder need to have reliable players to be there to catch him.
Kevin Durant could be the person for the job.
Additionally, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are a defensive force of their own down low, but I'm sure they would welcome some help from Kevin Durant when they are on the bench. Durant being able to play and defend different positions also gives Scott Brooks lineup flexibility to toy with.
The big picture here of course is the Thunder's championship aspirations. Last season, LeBron James lead the Heat to a dominating five-game series win against OKC in the Finals, but some Thunder fans were left with the feeling that things could have been different.
This is definitely true, since LeBron seemingly had his way with the Oklahoma City defense, tearing them up either by slashing to the basket or by facilitating a very good offense. Kevin Durant was the man who was mainly in charge of making sure that didn't happen, but like most other players in the league, he was unable to stop him.
Perhaps if the Thunder are able to make their way back into the Finals again this next season and find themselves against the Heat once more, maybe the difference maker could be a defensively improved Durant.
Though it may not be an area of focus or even an issue that gets addressed at all, Durant getting better on defense could be the missing piece for the Thunder hosting their own championship parade in Oklahoma City.