Kevin Durant (left), Thabo Sefolosha (right)
Last week's Sports Illustrated Magazine featured a picture of the superstar with the following quote behind him:
“I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second...I’m done with it.”
Durant didn't say this for publicity. He didn't say it to stir up any controversy.
What Kevin Durant did was attempt to lay out a mission statement that he hoped would propel his team—or, more specifically, himself—to its first NBA title.
While Durant is only 24 and the Thunder is only in its fifth year of existence, the franchise has been so successful since its move to the Southwest that they now enter each season with championship expectations; the sort of expectations we've come to know as belonging to fans of the Lakers and Celtics.
The Thunder have placed themselves on this top tier, and should be heavily praised for that. The franchise could have miserably failed after moving an already awful Supersonics team from Seattle to a relatively unproven NBA market.
Great drafting, great trading, great financial management and great coaching has now built what appears to be one of the NBA's two great small-market institutions (the San Antonio Spurs being the other).
However, Oklahoma City's success has been so rapid that thriving as a franchise is no longer enough.
In their first year of existence, the Thunder went 23-59. They made the playoffs in Year 2, winning 50 games and battling hard against the eventual-champion Lakers.
In Year 3, they won 55 games and went all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the Dallas Mavericks, another eventual champion. Last season, they pushed it further yet again, losing to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
For three straight seasons now, the Thunder have been eliminated by the best team in basketball. So when Kevin Durant attempts to remove this "runner-up" complex from his team's mentality, he's certainly justified in doing so.
Of course, Durant didn't mention his team in the Sports Illustrated quote about finishing second. He made it personal. He didn't say we came in second in the finals and we're done with it, he said he.
In doing so, Durant made two things very clear. The first is that he believes that he is the best player on his team—a fair assertion—and the primary reason that the Thunder are as good as they are—a more controversial claim.
The second thing Durant did was make the 2013 NBA playoffs his stage. All eyes would be on Durant to prove that he is the best basketball player in the world.
In Game 2 of OKC's Round 1 matchup with the Houston Rockets, the Thunder lost Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant lost his best teammate, but gained a golden opportunity to prove that he is, in fact, No. 1.
Round 1 hasn't only presented a platform for Kevin Durant, however.
James Harden was traded away by the Thunder just before the season. While the trade was done out of financial necessity, there was a clear value judgment made by Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti: that Harden was a less-essential piece of the team's championship puzzle than Durant, Westbrook or Serge Ibaka.
The decision made sense. Durant was the team's leader and seemingly best player. Westbrook was the indestructible starting point guard and one of the most freakishly athletic players of all time. Ibaka was the interior defender and developing post scorer that every championship team needs.
Even though he was the NBA's best in his role, Harden was still a sixth man. A supporting player. Not easy to part with, but not entirely indispensable.
After Harden essentially single-handedly carried his new team to the postseason, the young Rockets were rewarded with Harden's old team and the defending conference champs.
After a healthy Thunder team crushed Houston in Game 1 and held them off in Game 2, Westbrook was announced to have a torn meniscus. Since then, it's been more or less Durant vs. Harden.
To sit here and claim that Harden has outplayed Durant would be absurd. The Houston shooting guard has averaged 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4 assists a night on 40.9 percent shooting. Durant has averaged 33.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6 assists on 48.6 percent shooting.
Yet the Rockets have won two of three since Westbrook went down and find themselves with all the momentum in this once-lopsided series.
What inferences can be made here? It's not that Harden is actually better than Durant, it's not that Westbrook is actually better than Durant and it's not that Houston is a championship-caliber team.
The one thing that this has made clear is that the Thunder were—and still are—a unit, a group of guys that was better than the sum of its parts.
The Thunder were able to continue to be that unit this season without James Harden. Sure, they missed his game-changing explosiveness, but a career-year from Serge Ibaka, a great season from Harden's replacement Kevin Martin and another year of excellent work from role players Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins, Reggie Jackson and Nick Collison, along with more top-notch coaching from Scott Brooks, made the Thunder the West's top seed for the first time.
Even without Westbrook, the Thunder should still be an elite basketball team. They still have an unstoppable force in Kevin Durant, a dominant rim protector in Serge Ibaka, great role players with tons of playoff experience, phenomenal coaching and home-court advantage throughout the first three rounds.
The reason for the Thunder's struggles is that this unit started to deter when Durant made his comments on April 23.
Durant has made it clear that he believes he is a LeBron James-type player; a player good enough to carry his team deep into the playoffs regardless of circumstance.
James did this multiple times in Cleveland. He led the 2006-07 Cavaliers to the NBA Finals even though his supporting cast consisted primarily of Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden. Two years later, his Cavs won 66 games and made the Eastern Conference Finals with a roster namely featuring James, Mo Williams, Ilgauskas and Delonte West.
While being that talented is something to strive for, thinking of yourself in that vein when you are simply not that good is counter-productive. Not only does it lead to Durant playing hero-ball, attempting to put his team on his back but ending up stuffing the the stat sheet in a losing effort, but it also harms the confidence of his teammates.
When Durant says that he is "tired of being second," how is his team supposed to respond? They want to win a championship as much as Durant does, and in order to do so, they must believe in themselves.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a great team and a great organization. Kevin Durant is a great player. The odds are that within the next couple of seasons, the Thunder will win an NBA championship and Durant will likely be the Finals MVP.
However, an MVP award is something given to the player who best helps his team win, and it has nothing to do with whether you were the best player in high school and the first pick in the draft or not.
In order for Durant to be the MVP that he so badly wants to be, the first thing he must do is place the success of his team over a personal vendetta.