Will Kevin Durant Follow the LeBron James Path to First NBA Title?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 29, 2013

Kevin Durant wants what LeBron James has and to get it, he may have to pull a LeBron of his own.

Free agency is a lifetime away for the Durantula. He won't hit the open market until 2016, at which point he could have already led the Oklahoma City Thunder to a championship or two (or three). Winning titles would quell all of his concerns, taking the ambiguity out if his trek into the wild world of player sovereignty.

Gratifying his need for hardware isn't as easy as snapping one's fingers, though. If it were, Durant would have more than one. Instead, he has none, driving ESPN's Jalen Rose to make a prediction three years in advance.

"But I think, after he plays out his couple of years on his contract, that he's going to Houston to play with Dwight Howard and James Harden," Rose told ESPN Grantland's Bill Simmons.

Rose doesn't specifically mention titles as the reasoning behind his claim, but his manufactured scenario becomes more realistic if that's the basis.

The Chosen One left the Cleveland Cavaliers after seven failed endeavors. Desire for championships drove him out of Cleveland, nothing else. He bet everything on that decision. Win titles, and his prestigious standing would be salvaged. Continue to lose, and his legacy would come with an assortment of footnotes.

Durant is approaching that same crossroads.

Year 7 is when LeBron ultimately realized he wasn't going to win with the Cavaliers, so he left. Durant doesn't have that freedom. Lose now and, short of demanding a trade, he'll have two more years before he controls his own fate. Two more years in which to win.

Two more years before he has a chance to do what was once considered unthinkable.



How Badly Does Durant Want To Win?

Bad. Painfully bad.

With each passing year that doesn't culminate in a championship, Durant is feeling an increased sense of urgency and anguish.

"Last year, I was obsessed with it," Durant told The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry. "Like, I wasn't going to sleep because I wanted to win so bad. I was screaming at my teammates, at the refs, at the coaches. I got mad because I thought 'if we have a bad game here, we're not going to win a championship.'"

This all-consuming fixation on winning is nothing new. Players of Durant's stature are expected to win, to accumulate rings. After LeBron, there is no one in the NBA better than Durant. He, like LeBron, shouldn't just be contending for championships; he should be collecting them.

There are only so many rings to go around, only one team can win a year, but it doesn't matter. Survival of the fittest. Great players win; legends win. Pressures on supposedly superior talents that don't win are overwhelming. They bear down on ringless stars, eventually beating them into submission and swallowing their reputations whole, or forcing them to take drastic measures. Just like LeBron did.

Durant went on to tell Mayberry he's taking a more team-centric approach to winning this season, but the residual torment of failing to procure a title thus far remains obvious.

"But now, I've played in the All-Star Games; I've scored 30 points, 40 points before; had a triple-double before," he said. "I feel individually, like stats and stuff, I feel like I did my job with that and I established myself. But it's about winning championships, and the first thing I got to get out of my head is 'I.'"

He's still fending off that rightfully selfish desire to win. Durant wants to make it about the team, but not everyone has as much on the line as him. 

Numerous times, Durant has indicated he's sick of finishing second. Losing to LeBron in the finals, knowing he'll never usurp The King, being drafted behind Greg Oden—it's wore on him. 

Absence of a title taints legacies, regardless of public likability. What good is being great if you can't win? If you're constantly coming up short?

To escape this hellish prison Durant is openly aware he's residing in, he must win. And soon.


Can He Win With The Thunder?

Short answer, yes, he can. But it's not going to be easy.

You've seen what the NBA has become. So has Durant. We all have. The Association is a star-driven league, and superteam blueprints are cropping up like big-bad wolves at an all-Little Red Riding Hood party.

To Oklahoma City's credit, they've managed to play the new game effectively. Free-agency binges aren't the Thunder's M.O., but since 2007, they've drafted and developed four "stars"—Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden.

Their draft-day track record has allowed them to assemble one of the most consistently dominant outfits in the NBA. For four years running, they've won at least 60 percent of their games and been a major player in a deep Western Conference. So long as Westbrook and Durant are in the fold, the Thunder won't be going anywhere.

Pushing past that final stage, obtaining that championship has proved problematic. Though the Thunder have made it out of the first round of the playoffs in each of the last three years, including one NBA Finals appearance, they've yet to win that title Durant desperately seeks.

In 2012, against the Heat, they were just outmatched. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were too much for them to handle, and they went down in five games.

Oklahoma City responded by shipping Harden off to the Houston Rockets, capitalizing off what became a decreed departure. The Thunder weren't willing to pay into the luxury tax to retain Harden, who has since emerged as a top-10 superstar. They couldn't "afford" to.

But don't mistake their frugality for disinterest. They snagged Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a coveted first-round pick in return (Steven Adams). They also won a greater percentage of their games in 2012-13 (73.2) than in 2011-12 (71.2). All was fine.

Then, Westbrook went down in the 2013 playoffs. Durant got a taste of what life was like for LeBron in Cleveland, and the Thunder followed Westbrook's lead. No matter, Westbrook would return in full force for 2013-14. All would still be fine.

Yet again, however, the Thunder came up short and made subtractions more than they did additions over the offseason. Martin is gone. The Thunder weren't willing to dip into the luxury tax for Harden, they sure as hell weren't going to do so for a second-tier scorer.

This is what the Thunder and, subsequently, Durant are up against. Oklahoma City won't spend the way Miami did or the way Los Angeles and New York can. Unlimited resources aren't a luxury the Thunder have, and it's cost them two premier sixth men, one of which is now superstar.

At some point, it's going to put the Thunder at a disadvantage. Maybe they find a way to stay near the top of the conference sans Martin. Perhaps Lamb, Adams and/or Perry Jones III are diamonds in the rough. Reggie Jackson could be a star in the making, too. That could happen.

Long term, each of those players could also leave, when their financial demands become too much for Oklahoma City to juggle. Or they could Peter out. Or they could land somewhere in between, hardly busts but nowhere near enough to push the Thunder forward.

Don't make the mistake of thinking this is about one title, either. Winning a championship now or prior to 2016 won't end this cycle of turnover. The Thunder will always have to pick and choose between stars if it comes to that. We've seen it happen already; twice if you consider Martin a star.

Sacrificing talent for fiscal flexibility has already cost the Thunder Harden. One could make the case it also cost them last year's title shot. If he were in Oklahoma City when Westbrook got hurt, maybe things turn out differently.

In 2014, we could be saying the same thing. Scary as it sounds, we could parroting the same excuse in 2016, too.


Would Durant Actually Leave OKC?

Loyalty is always conditional for players who want to win. 

Kevin Garnett willingly left the Minnesota Timberwolves in search of a title with the Boston Celtics. Six years later, he and Paul Pierce allowed (yes, allowed) themselves to be sent to the Brooklyn Nets to do the same. Championships weren't even enough to pacify Kobe Bryant at one point. There was a time when he wanted to be traded from the Los Angeles Lakers.

Durant doesn't want to leave the Thunder; he's made that abundantly clear. But he also doesn't want to move forward without a championship; he's made that clear as well, per Mayberry:

I'm just taking it a day at a time. They believed in me when they gave me this contract that five years down the line, three years down the line, I'll be a person that can help carry the franchise. So I appreciate them for believing in me, because they could have easily just thought ‘He had that one good year. You never know what's going to happen.' So they put their trust in me, owners, GMs, teammates, that I could help carry this organization. So I like where I'm at right now. I'm just trying to take it a day at a time. We'll see what happens. I don't know, really, what to think. I don't know what happens next, or after this year what happens next summer. I don't know. So I'm just trying to take it a day at a time and keep getting better.

It's there, that Durant isn't alone. Oklahoma City needs to get better, too. His team must make the necessary adjustments and take the exigent leaps in order to win. If the Thunder can afford to, that is.

Finances will always dictate their decision more than most. Like every other small-market team, "spend, spend, spend" isn't a phrase or mandate they can embrace. Failing to overcome these constraints, to the point where they perpetuate a tendency to come up short for three more years, will force Durant to make a difficult decision.

LeBron didn't win his first title until his eighth season in the league. If Durant plays through Year 9 without bringing one home, that's going to mean something in 2016. So will his ties to the community.

Naked fingers or not, Durant is a part of Oklahoma City. When the area was hit by a devastating tornado that ripped through homes and changed lives forever, Durant responded by donating $1 million to the Red Cross for relief efforts. 

Normal people don't do that. It takes outstandingly committed human beings to display such kindness. People like Durant.

Need for a title, however, will eventually take precedence over everything, including Durant's loyalty. He's mapped out a plan for himself, an outline that includes winning.

"I want to be the greatest," Durant told Mayberry. "I want to be remembered as one of the greatest. When they redo that top 50 players (of all time), I want to be a part of that."

Will Durant follow in LeBron's footsteps? Will he leave for the Rockets in 2016 or join another franchise in a continued quest for that first championship and the greatness it comes with?

Only if he has to.



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