It’s a strange notion to assert—that Durant needs this one more than James—given that everything LeBron does and has done these past few years has been filtered exclusively through the prism of rings.
Unconsciously, of course, we’ve long processed and sorted all LeBron-related developments into two buckets: things that move LeBron closer to another title and things that push him further from one. There are other considerations, of course—MVPs and the like—but they’re of peripheral importance. For the King, the ring is the thing.
The reason for this is simple. James accomplished so much so quickly that, before long, the basketball-consuming public no longer compared him to his contemporaries, but to the The Greats: Michael Jordan. Bill Russell. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. These were the lofty standards against which LeBron’s career was and would be considered, we decided.
And there was only one reasonable way to make these cross-generational comparisons: championships. So LeBron needed the requisite hardware. But here’s the thing: He got it. And while more would help, it would only move the needle so much.
Yes, more rings equals more rings, but there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to jewelry. That Magic Johnson won five championships isn’t dispositive evidence that he was greater than Larry Bird, who only managed three.
Furthermore, as we’ve argued before in this space, basketball fans are increasingly sophisticated in the way they judge players. Advanced statistics are shedding more and more light on previously mysterious aspects of the game. We simply know more than we used to about how much each player contributes to his team. “Titles” used to serve as a proxy for greatness, but it’s a stand-in that we no longer need.
There’s an elegant expression that religious folks of a scientific bend use to explain how they reconcile a belief in the Almighty with all that science has taught us: The God of the Gaps. Basically, they’re content to limit their notion of God and his powers to the (many) things that science can’t explain. In other words, what reason can’t tell us is the domain of faith.
The gaps, however, when it comes to NBA player evaluation, are fast being plugged by SportVU, win shares and a panoply of other effective and articulate ways of explicating what happens on the hardwood
But that said, you do need at least one ring to enter the GOAT conversation, to prove you belong in the club. And Kevin Durant is still looking for it.
Not long ago, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Durant would get his hardware—someday, someway, somehow. But that’s now been cast into doubt.
Grantland’s Bill Simmons spoke to this in a column last week. OKC’s window, he wrote—Durant’s window—might not be quite as wide open as many think:
Every A-list contender has a built-in window, and almost always, you know what it is. When that window slams shut well before you’re ready, you never really get over it.
Will we remember Oklahoma City that way someday? We know that it’s Kevin Durant’s seventh season and his sixth with Russell Westbrook. We know they’re playing for a small-market franchise that actively avoids the luxury tax. We know Durant’s contract expires in 2016, and Westbrook’s deal expires one year later. We know Westbrook endured three knee surgeries in the past 12 months. We know that bad luck comes in all shapes and sizes. We know the West is loaded, and we know LeBron is never going away. We know they easily could have blown the Memphis series, and we know the bumbling officials saved their season Tuesday night.
Long story short, Durant needs to strike while he can. Life is short. So, as Simmons pointed out, are the periods in which in the NBA's finest players can credibly compete for titles.
But while OKC is weakened at the moment, they’re still in the final four. And with Durant and Russell Westbrook, they have the finest one-two punch left standing.
If they can’t win the title now, when can they? Eventually, the criticism that dogged James before he finally broke through in the 2012 NBA Finals will find Durant. And when it does, it won’t stop until he stops it.
“I don't know when he's gonna start hearing it," James told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick in February. "I hope he doesn't. I don't think he should have to go through that. What he's been able to do for that city of Oklahoma City, what he's been able to do for his teammates is amazing. And we'll just see what happens with it. He's going to be in contention every year because of the player that he is, and they've got a great team. And we'll see what happens."
James has the luxury of waiting to see what happens. It’s a luxury his younger rival is yet to earn.