The four-time scoring champ had struggled finding his form in the Oklahoma City Thunder's first-round playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies. Through five games (three of them Memphis wins), Durant was shooting just 40 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from beyond the three-point line.
The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel chronicled Durant's uncharacteristic troubles in a column for Thursday's paper. That alone wouldn't have caused any uproar, but someone gave Tremel's piece the headline "Mr. Unreliable."
The headline drew negative reviews across the basketball world and also led James to say the biggest challenger to his NBA throne owes it to himself to one day experience life as a big-ticket free agent, via ESPN.com's Michael Wallace:
LeBron came to Durant's defense on Mr. Unreliable headline: "He's got to become a free agent one day."— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) May 2, 2014
Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick provided further insight into James' comments:
LeBron's exact quote on Durant & Oklahoman: "KD got to be a free agent at some point." Was in context of all he's done for team & city.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 2, 2014
Durant's initial reaction to the headline was much more subdued. He said his play hadn't been living up to the standards he'd set, via Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:
Durant on The Oklahoman's headline: "That's what they're supposed to write. I didn't come through for the team."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) May 1, 2014
Durant delivered in a big way during Thursday night's elimination game. He poured in a game-high 36 points (on 11-of-23 shooting) and chased down a game-best 10 rebounds in OKC's 104-84 runaway victory.
Many wondered if The Oklahoman's unfavorable label for him added some energy to power his performance. Durant, though, said it had no impact on the way he played, via Royce Young of DailyThunder.com:
KD on any extra motivation from the headline: "I'm not going to give them credit for nothing. We were down 3-2. We needed to win this game."— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 2, 2014
Thunder coach Scott Brooks agreed with his superstar's assessment.
"He's self-motivated," Brooks said, per CBS Sports' Gary Parrish. "He's a tremendous kid who does everything for his team, for our organization. ... He gives everything he has."
The newspaper eventually issued an apology of sorts for the headline.
"The words were overstated and unduly harsh," sports editor Mike Sherman wrote. "The headline and presentation left the impression that we were commenting on Durant’s season, career or even character. We were not. We were referring only to the Memphis series."
A series that old reliable Durant just helped even up at three games apiece.
The 25-year-old has played the biggest role in the franchise's roaring rise from nothing (20-62 in his rookie season with Seattle) to something (119-45 over the past two seasons). A scoring savant since the start of his career (20.3 points per game as a rookie), he's since expanded his game to an MVP level across the board (7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists, career-best 29.8 player efficiency rating this season, via Basketball-Reference).
It's hard to question anything he does, let alone infer (even unintentionally) that he's failing his team.
That said, it's important to remember that the newspaper is an objective observer of the action. The publication shouldn't have a rooting interest in the action, even if it's the only game in town.
Could the paper have found some better wording? Absolutely:
Alternative headline: "Transcendent Player Facing Great Defense Makes NBA Town Relevant."— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 1, 2014
Would this headline alone drive Durant out of Oklahoma City? Not a chance, even if the rest of the basketball world hopes that it does:
Fans of the Knicks, Nets, Wizards, Lakers, Heat, Rockets, etc are all looking at that OKC paper headline & planning "The Decision 2"— Amin Elhassan (@AminESPN) May 1, 2014
Durant's current contract won't expire until 2016. Will anyone even remember the word "unreliable" by that point?
Well, some savvy executive might pin this paper on their bulletin board to make sure they don't forget. Maybe a(nother) transcendent talent will, too.