Joining the company of LeBron James isn't all NBA MVP awards, statistical preeminence, ironic nicknames and exposure to free-thinking misanthropes who secretly wish they were you.
Make note, Kevin Durant.
Nearly seven years into his career, the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar is gearing up for his most important playoff campaign ever, reaching a crossroads that was both inevitable and fueled in part by him pirating much of King James' spotlight.
When the regular season concludes, Durant's run of finishing second will end with it. He's going to be named this year's league MVP. The decision isn't even difficult anymore.
Some of the premises are overblown and fustian—the idea that carrying the Thunder without Russell Westbrook for 36 games is somehow far more remarkable than James carrying the Miami Heat without Dwyane Wade for 28, for instance—but the end result isn't wrongfully doctored by their existence.
Durant is your league MVP. He is the closest thing to a peer James has. He has the makings of a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. And for the first time in roughly seven years, it's become clear he needs to become subject to the same pressure and inescapable expectations that come with said territory.
To this point, Durant has spent most of his career lurking behind James—not in the shadows, but emitting light regularly eclipsed by James' lucent performances and postseason accolades. Visibly frustrated, Durant has never attempted to suppress his displeasure or deny such an inferiority complex exists.
"I’m tired of being second," he told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins last April. "I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it."
Spoken like a player truly sick of being the guy behind the real guy.
The thing is, while irritating, James' shadow also acts as something of a shield, inoculating Durant against criticism of glaring absences and persisting shortcomings. There has never been shame in him finishing second in MVP voting. Losing to James is expected of him and everyone else, rationalized and accepted because of whom the former is.
But in rivaling and exceeding James for most of this season, Durant has played his way out any protection and into his own, open space.
This, again, is Year 7 for Durant. He is still ringless now, just as James was then during his seventh season.
All hell broke loose for James after that seventh year, after he once again failed to nab a title. He left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Heat, a move many saw as cowardly. Yet those same people lampooned him for the absence of a title. And some of those people, as Ric Bucher explained in January, will still downplay the significance of his past success and demand his latest quest be considered the standard to which his legacy is measured against:
James’ detractors, of course, will note that the first championship came in a lockout-shortened season, the second came courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs’ blowing a five-point title-clinching lead with 25.3 seconds left and the third would arrive with only one team of any substance in the entire Eastern Conference (the Indiana Pacers). For me, playing 400-some games, cramming nearly a full season more than everybody else into the same four-year span and three-peating shouldn’t be diminished by circumstances beyond James’ control.
Besides, how people outside the league view James isn’t what is important here; how those inside the league do is. He led the way for players flexing their power and monetizing their image; now he has the chance to be a ringleader for a concept simpler yet grander: That being a ringleader means, above everything else, making it all about rings.
James put his legacy on the line when he went to Miami with no championships to his name. It was hanging in the balance when he came up short in 2011. It was unconvincingly secure when he won in 2012. It was whatever when he won again in 2013.
Two championships later, the pressure is still on James to win. Why, then, has Durant effectively flown under the radar when his fingers are bare?
This kind of talk just doesn't find Durant. Even now, the strain of winning isn't on him like it is James.
In part, because of James. The pedestal on which he's held is so high, no active player grazes it. He will always be expected to win because of whom he is. But that doesn't explain everything.
Traces of doubt and criticism should at least approach Durant. If we're to believe he's in the same class as James, his championship-less postseason forays shouldn't be met with indifferent acceptance.
Which is where this season comes in. Durant needs what James has, including the unflattering commodities.
Right now, even his technicals are met with amusement. He's still the stainless talent with a boyish smile, guilty of nothing save for beloved competitive fire. Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick further addressed this notion in February:
The public and press have gushed, with good reason, about Durant's spectacular, MVP-worthy statistics this season—all while remaining largely quiet about his championship quest. There's been little conversation, prior to the upcoming All-Star weekend, about the consequences if he fails to capture his first title this June.
That should all change.
If he fails to win a championship again, we should start to talk, we should begin to question his legacy and his standing and find a way to humanize what has become an infallible personality. If we really think as much of him as we're supposed to, we'll start to doubt. We will notice the absence of championships, not overlook it.
Unless, of course, Durant wins. In that case, perception should remain largely unchanged, his squeaky-clean persona justified by a championship. But if he loses, there will be, there should be, hell to pay.
"When I retire," James said when Skolnick asked when the pressure to win will fall on Durant. "When I retire."
Durant better hope not.
In a way, it's a compliment, a backhanded form of praise.
Criticizing Durant is viewed as sacrilegious, an insult to one of the NBA's greatest powers. Yet shouldn't we expect more from Durant, especially now, after what he's done ahead of the playoffs?
This postseason won't be just about winning or losing for him. It's about what winning or losing will reveal about him as a player. Those are some high stakes.
This playoff push, whatever the result, means everything. Durant must deliver a championship or a reaction that shows not delivering a championship is unacceptable.
If he is whom he is, in fact, made out to be, he will be doubted or touted according to his playoff result, exposed to the same backbreaking standards James has always been.
If he's not, if his postseason end fails to move the needle in the direction of impatience or long-awaited satisfaction, then it says just as much.
But nothing good.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
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