Kevin Durant's Evolution Pushing OKC Thunder's Ceiling Higher Than Ever

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IJanuary 26, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) waits to take a foul shot in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. Oklahoma City won 105-97. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets just days ahead of the 2012-13 season, many wondered if the team was sacrificing a potential dynasty for short-term financial flexibility.

With Harden departed and the Thunder’s All-Star core down to two, OKC was banking on both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook taking their games to the next level.

Or two. Or three. Or five.

As it turns out, Durant has ALL OF THE LEVELS. 

Over his last five starts, OKC’s rangy basketball rock star has demonstrated that a changing of the NBA guard—for years now the sole property of LeBron James—may finally be afoot.

From The Oklahoman’s Anthony Slater:

In reality, the streak is merely a microcosm of Durant’s first month of 2014: In 13 January games, he has failed to crest the 30-point mark only twice, having met or bested that number in 10 straight contests.

His stats for the month have been flat-out cartoonish: 36.5 points (on 53.5 percent shooting, including 39.0 percent from three-point range), 6.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.6 steals.

Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal did a superb job of putting Durant’s streak into historical context. Spoiler alert: It’s really impressive.

Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the last player to score at least 130 points over a three-game stretch was Carmelo Anthony in April of last season. To make the requirements even more stringent, no one since Michael Jordan had recorded 130 points in three games while shooting at least 65 percent from the field. 

Jordan did that in November 1991.

I didn't even think this type of dominance was allowed anymore.

In short, what Durant is doing is what separates simple superstars from the game’s pinnacle pantheon. If he keeps it up—the overall efficiency, if not the absurd scoring—he might start staking out his own corner.

More importantly, the Thunder have used KD’s exploits to rattle off seven straight wins and propel them to the Western Conference’s top seed. What’s more, they’re doing it all without Durant’s trusted sidekick.

Opponents are taking notice, too. Here's what Philadelphia 76ers big man Spencer Hawes said of Durant, per USA Today's Jason Wolf:  

Obviously, the way he's playing right now, you can try every defense you can try, put every person on him, but when he's going there's not much you can do. And now, I think he's figured out how to make everybody else better, which makes him that much more valuable to the team.

Everyone knew that losing Westbrook would mean a bigger burden for Durant: scoring, defense, leadership, you name it. To say that Durant has held up his end of the bargain would be a criminal understatement, but he hasn't done it all by himself. 

Indeed, after Westbrook was sidelined following an in-season knee procedure in late December, the Thunder have somehow managed to keep pace in virtually every statistical category.

In Westbrook’s absence, OKC’s defense has, predictably, fallen off. At the same time, a slowed pace has resulted not only in a more straightforward, Durant-centric offense, but fewer turnovers as well.

With OKC’s firebrand expected to return in the next few weeks, the Thunder’s fortunes are bound to improve, even if it means Durant’s incendiary shooting undergoing a slight regression.

But if there’s one lesson to be learned from LeBron’s otherworldly output, it’s that scoring, while valuable, is secondary to efficiency.

The King is finding out that even that castle is no longer safe. From our friends at mySynergySports:

With nearly half the season left to play, there’s plenty of time for the numbers to shift—for means and metrics and kingdoms to be reclaimed.

At the same time, it’s the psychological underpinnings of what Durant is doing—making the strongest case yet for taking the title of "World’s Best"—that could prove the permanent phenomenon.

In Durant, the Thunder have a singular superstar who, at just 25 years old, might well have more leaps to make.

That’s bad news, not just for LeBron and the defending-champion Miami Heat, but for the rest of the league as well.

Some people just make life look too easy.
Some people just make life look too easy.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Meanwhile, OKC’s controversial gambit to jettison Harden—to assume that at least one and preferably both of their remaining superstars could take it to yet another level—looks like it might’ve been the right one.

Ask any casual NBA fan whether they’d rather have two or three All-Stars around which to build a team, and chances are most will take the second option.

It's the logical answer given the nature of the game and the league, where one player can single-handedly alter the outcome of a game, a series and a season.

Fortunately, with each passing game, Kevin Durant has gone to greater, ever more jaw-dropping lengths to show that when you make the legend's leap, logic no longer applies.