When Does Kevin Durant Start Getting the LeBron James Pressure Treatment?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2013

Jun 19, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) is guarded by Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) during the third quarter in game four in the 2012 NBA Finals at the American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

People hope Kevin Durant will someday win an NBA title, but they don't really demand it. And as long as LeBron James is the league's undisputed king, that isn't going to change.

For the six seasons Durant has been in the league, he's managed to skate by without having to face the burdensome expectations that James shoulders on a yearly basis. Until he won his first ring, James started every campaign with questions about when he'd finally get over the top. And once he finally got there, the pressure lingered.

Instead of answering doubters who said he'd never break through, he had to face those who wondered if he'd be able to do it again.

Durant hasn't had to face that kind of pressure. Not even close, really. 

What gives? Why is LBJ held to a championship-or-bust standard while KD gets pats on the back for accomplishing so much less?

The answer is complicated, and it says a whole lot about context, fan perception and the hierarchy of the NBA.

Not Totally Immune

MEMPHIS, TN - MAY 11:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts after a foul during Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum on May 11, 2013 in Memphis, Tennessee.  (P
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Ironically, Durant came under fire for the first time in his career when he least deserved it. When the Oklahoma City Thunder lost Russell Westbrook against the Houston Rockets in the first round of last year's playoffs, Durant was still able to carry his team through the series.

But against the more dangerous Memphis Grizzlies, KD struggled. Especially down the stretch in close games.

Words that had never been uttered in regard to Durant started popping up in headlines as the superstar muddled his way through a series of disappointing fourth quarters. "Choke" suddenly became acceptable verbiage.

After Durant went just 2-of-13 in the fourth quarter and overtime of a Game 4 loss, USA Today's Adi Joseph wrote a recap titled: "Kevin Durant, Thunder choke away Game 4 vs. Grizzlies."

When he missed a shot that could have kept OKC alive in Game 5, critics came out of the woodwork, questioning Durant's fitness as a closer.

Admittedly, the heat Durant took after that series loss wasn't the same as the season-long championship demands James has faced for the past few years. But it was indicative of a potential shift in the way people viewed Durant.

It was ridiculous to pick this particular failure as the moment to begin putting pressure on him, though. Anyone with a brain would have noticed that many of the crunch-time minutes in which Durant was said to have "choked" were minutes he shared with Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 01:  Derek Fisher #6 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Houston Rockets at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 1, 2013 in Oklahoma City, Okla
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Grizzlies are a terrifying defensive team when they play opponents straight up, but when they don't have to give a second thought to two players on offense, they make life miserable for guys like Durant. Toss in the absence of Westbrook and the startling revelation that head coach Scott Brooks had absolutely no idea how to run an offense that didn't feature two elite superstars, and it's clear that nobody could have succeeded in Durant's position.

Though it was totally undeserved, that was one isolated incident in which critics finally hinted they might someday heap pressure on KD like they do on James. But for the most part, the 24-year-old star has been given a pass.

Age, Circumstance and Small Markets

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 17:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on as he answers questions from the media after the Thunder lost 91-85 against the Miami Heat in Game Three of the 2012 NBA Finals on June 17, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Mia
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Maybe Durant has avoided championship pressure because he managed to lead his team to a Finals berth as a 23-year-old. What Durant and the Thunder did in 2011-12 was a truly impressive accomplishment, and perhaps one that earned him something of a grace period.

Instead of viewing that success as the new bar Durant would have to meet every year, public perception labeled it as an impressive overachievement for such a young player. The Thunder had arrived ahead of schedule, and even though they fell to James' Miami Heat, their season was viewed as a triumph.

It certainly didn't have the effect of creating expectations for the Thunder to take the next step in 2012-13. People rooted for it to happen, but there was a sense that Durant and his plucky teammates would get another chance down the line.

There was no urgency.

Clearly, though, it wasn't Durant's youth that earned him a pass. James took the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals when he was just 22, and every year of his career before and since has been marked with inflated expectations and a mountain of pressure.

SAN ANTONIO - JUNE 07:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots a free throw in the first half against the San Antonio Spurs in Game One of the 2007 NBA Finals on June 7, 2007 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expres
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If it's not Durant's youth that has helped him avoid pressure so far, what else could it be?

Perhaps the Thunder's status as a franchise making the most of its small-market opportunities is a factor. We know that expectations exploded when James linked up with the high-profile Heat in 2010, so maybe the fact that Durant plays in what amounts to a college atmosphere in OKC shields him from big-market demands.

Even when viewed in combination with his youth, that still doesn't provide a satisfying explanation for Durant's "Get out of Pressure Free" card.

Actually, It's Because of That Other Guy

Feb 14, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) handles the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the second half at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.  Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

In the end, it all comes back to James. He's the reason Durant hasn't had to face real pressure so far, and he's the reason why that'll continue to be the case.

For the entirety of Durant's career, James has not only been better than him in terms of one-on-one comparisons; he's been the best player in the league. KD's rookie year was the 2007-08 season, in which James ranked second in the NBA with 15.2 win shares, per Basketball-Reference.com.

In every year since then, LBJ has ranked first. Durant has checked in at No. 2 a couple of times, per Basketball-Reference.com, but hasn't ever made a real run at the King's statistical throne.

James has also led the NBA in PER during each of Durant's six NBA seasons, won four MVP awards and collected two championship rings.

Durant has been spectacular in his own right, winning scoring titles and putting up efficiency numbers no high-volume shooter had ever produced. In the process, he has cemented his position as the NBA's second-best player.

But even during the 2012-13 season, when Durant took a huge step forward, James took a bigger one. LBJ morphed into the most versatile (and probably best) defender in the league while becoming Durant's equal in scoring efficiency.

James is better than Durant, and he might be better than everyone, ever. That's why he faces unparalleled pressure to win championships, perform in the clutch and generally play flawless basketball. It's unfair, but it comes with the territory of being an undisputed alpha dog.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 20:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat reacts in the third quarter while taking on the San Antonio Spurs during Game Seven of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 20, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

And as long as James is the NBA's best, Durant is always going to duck championship demands and semi-hostile criticism of his game. Maybe he'll get more scrutiny as the years roll by, but he'll never face the kind of expectations we pile on James.

By all accounts, KD is a genuinely nice human being who works extremely hard at his craft. People will always hope he does well, but nobody's going to crucify him if he doesn't.

Maybe five years from now, Durant will surpass James in the league's pecking order. If he still doesn't have a ring by then, perhaps the pressure will start to mount. But given the way James has avoided injury and adapted his game over the years, it's probably not safe to assume that there will ever come a point when Durant overtakes him.

And who knows? If there is a window in the future in which Durant leapfrogs James, it might take place at a time when another young star has also hurdled KD. Nothing's guaranteed.

As crazy as it sounds, Durant won't ever face the same kind of pressure James does. In that sense, I guess being second-best has its advantages.


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