Kevin Durant came painfully close to his first NBA title last year, and after an offseason to reflect on what could have been, he’s clearly on a mission to get the job done this time around.
But he’s not alone.
From Chris Paul in Los Angeles to Carmelo Anthony in New York, some of the NBA’s brightest stars are making a serious push to add that elusive first championship to their trophy cases. So while it’s great that KD has stepped up his game in pursuit of that hardware, he’s going to have to get through a group of similarly motivated superstars to do it.
Of course, there’s also the small matter of LeBron James’ Miami Heat, Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs and Kobe Bryant’s L.A. Lakers. Those guys and their clubs have already been to the mountaintop, and they’re in no hurry to climb down.
With all of the obstacles standing in the way, the mission to secure that first NBA title might seem impossible. But instead of self-destructing under the pressure, there are seven stars that have shown by their inspired play this season that they’ve chosen to accept it.
See what I did there?
All stats accurate through games played Jan. 4, 2012.
Russell Westbrook’s talent has never been in question. But he has been the subject of pretty consistent criticism for his shoot-first mentality—especially because he’s got the league’s most gifted scorer playing alongside him.
This season, Westbrook has made an obvious effort to get his teammates more involved, which has resulted in a significant spike in his assists-per-game average. After dipping all the way down to 5.5 dimes per contest last year, he’s got that figure up to a career-high 8.7 per game.
There’s no question that the Thunder are a better team when their point guard passes more and shoots less. In OKC’s wins this year, Westbrook had taken about three fewer shots per game and handed out about one more assist than in its losses.
He’s still a work in progress, as he continues to shoot more often than Kevin Durant this year. But the uptick in his assist numbers shows that he’s focusing on getting his teammates involved more than ever.
The point is: He’s trying to change.
He’ll have to keep it up in order to secure that elusive first championship.
Chris Paul never seems like he’s in a hurry on the court. He employs the league’s most probing, calculated approach on the offensive end, seeking out defensive weaknesses before calmly and efficiently attacking.
Beneath the placid surface, though, CP3 is a driven player.
And his affect on his team is most obvious when you look at just how good he makes the Clippers offense when he’s on the floor. According to 82games.com, the Clips score 114.8 points per 100 possessions when Paul is on the court. That figure blows away OKC’s league-best 110.2 rating.
Unsurprisingly, the Clippers aren’t nearly as good on offense when CP3 sits; they drop to 105.2 when Paul’s on the bench.
The road to Paul’s first championship is going to be a tough one, but the Clippers have looked pretty dominant for long stretches this year—like when they went undefeated in the entire month of December, for example—thanks to his offensive orchestration.
He won’t do it by scoring 40 points a game, or even 20 on most nights, but that’s not really his style anyway. Paul is gunning for that first ring by making everyone else better, which is the true mark of a great player.
When the Oklahoma City Thunder signed Serge Ibaka to a $48 million contract instead of saving that money to lock up James Harden, they made it clear that they believed in their power forward’s ability to develop into an elite player.
Ibaka might not quite be there yet, but the progress he’s made over the past couple of years shows that OKC’s front office was right about him.
Among the recent additions to Ibaka’s game are an improved set of one-on-one moves and better shooting accuracy across the board. He’s registering career highs from the field (56 percent) and the foul line (83 percent).
Of course, he remains a phenomenal shot-blocker and weak-side helper as well.
Ibaka may be playing third fiddle on his team, but he’s definitely developing into a bona fide star. And if his growth nets the team its first title, even better.
If all you noticed about Blake Griffin this year was his ubiquitous presence in (excellent) car commercials and lagging per-game averages, you might think the L.A. Clippers’ high-flier had put his title hopes on the back burner.
But if that’s what you think, you look dumber than a nine-year-old Griffin in jean shorts.
The guy has taken his game up a notch in support of Chris Paul, but he’s done it subtly.
His scoring has held fairly steady, but Griffin’s assists are up, his turnovers are down and he’s showing an expanded offensive game. As a shooter, he has improved his percentages from all over the perimeter.
According to hoopdata.com, Griffin is making a career-best 50 percent of his shots from 10 to 15 feet and 39 percent from 16 to 23 feet. No longer just a dunker, Griffin can now reliably step outside to knock down jumpers. That opens up the lane and clears flight paths for himself and teammate DeAndre Jordan.
The stylish dunks are still there, but now there might be enough substance to help push Griffin and the Clippers to their first NBA championship.
Ever since Mike Woodson took the reins in New York, Carmelo Anthony has been playing the best basketball of his career. Whether credit for the improvements goes to Melo or his coach is up for debate, but his renewed effort (and three-point accuracy) are beyond question.
Anthony has thrived in his role as the Knicks’ de facto 4, facilitating the offense at the elbows and punishing bigger forwards with his quickness. In addition to that, Melo is giving more effort on D than ever. His increased attention to both ends of the court was a major reason the Knicks started the season as such a pesky defensive team.
That part of New York’s game has slowed a bit, but it hasn’t been because of any letup in effort from Anthony. The guy’s giving his all out there.
And of course, Melo’s suddenly deadly three-point shooting has made him more efficient than he’s been in any previous season. Thanks to a 43.5 percent conversion rate from long range, Anthony’s true shooting percentage is at an all-time high of 59.9 percent.
For years, Anthony was viewed as a great scorer, but maybe not a great player. Now that he’s both the former and the latter, he’s primed to chase down a ring for the first time in his career.
Chronically underrated, Marc Gasol has parlayed the league's most varied set of big-man skills into plenty of wins for the Memphis Grizzlies this year.
As a capable facilitator, Gasol has helped keep Memphis’ offense afloat despite a serious lack of shooting to space the floor. His pinpoint passes and bone-jarring screens allow the Grizzlies to generate points around the bucket against defenses that pack the middle.
Teams know what the Grizzlies want to do in the paint, but Gasol’s offensive creativity and ability to find cutters make it surprisingly hard to limit Memphis’ chances at the rim.
If that weren’t enough, Gasol might also be the league’s best defensive player. He’s not athletic or particularly quick, but he knows precisely where to be and employs a terrifically economical approach to help defense. He moves just enough, and at just the right time, to end up in the proper position.
He got a few votes last year, but now that he’s anchoring a defense that allows just 96.5 points per 100 possessions (good for second best in the NBA), Gasol could actually win some hardware as the Defensive Player of the Year.
Of course, that’s not the award he’s gunning for this season. He’s got his sights set on his first Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Kevin Durant was probably the NBA’s second-best player last season, but he didn’t quite have enough to knock off No. 1, falling to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Durant’s teams have made steady steps forward in each year of his career, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he made one himself over the summer.
KD has ratcheted up his defensive intensity this year, but everyone’s talking about the amazing improvements he’s made as a shooter.
When one of the NBA’s best pure scorers is flirting with the elite 50-40-90 club, it’s not just noteworthy; it’s MVP-type stuff. He has added a couple of new step-back options to his arsenal and even flashed an improved handle that he’s using to get to the hole more frequently.
In addition to his technical improvements, the Durantula may have also sprouted some fangs. The intensity that earned him the first ejection of his career on Jan. 3 was pretty startling, but it showed just how seriously he’s taking things this year.
Durant may still trail LeBron in the race for the title of the NBA’s best player, but the margin has shrunk to an almost invisible width. If KD keeps up his growth rate this season, he could very well surpass King James.
On an individual basis, that’d be a huge accomplishment for Durant. But personal improvement is clearly just a means to a glorious end.
Durant was close enough to taste a title last year. This season, he’s ready to dig in.