The Oklahoma City Thunder came within two wins of returning to the NBA Finals in what would have been a rematch of the 2012 go-around against the Miami Heat. Chances are it won't be the last time this team comes within striking distance.
But the Thunder have some work to do if next time's going to be different. That work starts with Kevin Durant, but it certainly doesn't end with him.
"It’s obviously a team game, and we all got to do it together. I know that," Kevin Durant told reporters after his Oklahoma City Thunder succumbed to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. "I know we all have to be better and I think that I have to come back and be a better player, be a better leader."
Being a better player and better leader is hardly an insurmountable task for a guy who claimed the MVP trophy at age 25.
The bigger question is what exactly that progress entails. How does the most valuable player make himself even more valuable? How does a team that's already a clear contender get even better?
And while Serge Ibaka made an impressive return to action in Game 3 against the San Antonio Spurs this season, the club would have clearly been better off were he healthy enough to play in Games 1 and 2. That's not to say the Thunder would have beaten San Antonio with a healthier Ibaka—only that it's unfortunate we'll never know.
Teams have to get a little lucky down the stretch, but that's impossible to control.
Durant and his Thunder have to focus on the things they can control. The things that ultimately allowed San Antonio to prevail even when Ibaka was in the lineup. Those are the things that will either put the Thunder in position to win or forever hold them back.
A Little Extra Seasoning
Oklahoma City is a young team. It's almost unreal to think about how quickly this team rose to the top of the Western Conference, duking it out with the veteran likes of the Spurs and eventually doing battle with the Heat in 2012.
The Thunder have remained in that contender discussion ever since, and justifiably so. In the process, this team has created expectations that probably aren't entirely fair. On the one hand, sure they're good enough to beat anyone in this league on any given night. On the other hand, most teams led by a couple of 25-year-olds would only just now begin to get their collective bearing.
The fact that OKC entered the fray so early on is an achievement in its own right.
It's also an important caveat to coming up short.
Some will correctly note that this club is anything but inexperienced. It grew up fast, learned on the job and has more collective postseason experience than many of its up-and-coming adversaries (e.g. the Portland Trail Blazers or Houston Rockets).
The problem with that thinking is that it presupposes experience is a zero-sum game, that it's something which can be "maxed out."
To the contrary, the more the merrier. Gregg Popovich's Spurs often refer to the dynamic as corporate or institutional knowledge. It's the kind of synergy that continues to develop as teammates grow ever more familiar with one another and the system in which they live, breath and play basketball. This isn't the kind of thing you can ever have too much of.
From that perspective, it's only natural that the Thunder will continue to improve. The more things remain the same, the more they change for the better. Passes are better timed. Defensive rotations are more in sync. These are the little things that make differences at the highest level, which is precisely where the Thunder find themselves at the moment.
This all might sound like something Durant has little control over, but there's a long history of superstars who've pushed for shake ups in the wake of defeat. The good news is that's not Durant's style. Nor is it the organization's.
Their appreciation for continuity and stability should pay off in time.
Durant's offensive game is about as polished as it gets. That said, someone this gifted could be even better.
Two areas of improvement stand out.
First, as TNT analyst Charles Barkley noted several times throughout the postseason, Durant needs a better post-up game. He consistently finds himself guarded by smaller players, often because they're the only ones quick enough to stay with him.
In the first round, it was Tony Allen. In the second round, even Chris Paul saw a few minutes checking KD. When faced with those kind of opponents, Durant has to be able to back them down and create easy shots in or near the paint.
The second thing Durant could improve is his playmaking. He averaged a career-high 5.5 assists during the regular season in large part because Westbrook was injured for so much of the season. It was virtually inevitable that Durant would wind up with more assists practically by default.
The only player this season with a higher usage rate than Durant was Westbrook himself, and he only played in 46 games. That means Durant had the ball in his hands incredibly often. It would be strange had he not seen an uptick in his assist rate.
But Durant's assist average dropped to just 3.9 per game during the postseason. When Westbrook was around, KD's focus shifted to scoring the ball. That's not disastrous by any means, but it makes him a more one-dimensional player, a more predictable weapon.
Some will explain this away by pointing out that Westbrook is indeed the point guard and should be responsible for the lion's share of distribution duties. That's how it works on most teams, but it doesn't have to be that way—certainly not when a player of Durant's caliber is around.
Just ask LeBron James. He plays with a point guard, too—an a pretty solid playmaker in Dwyane Wade. Nevertheless, James prioritizes his teammates' opportunities, making the right play every single time, doing so even if not especially at the price of his own scoring.
So it's no surprise that James averaged 6.4 assists this season and five per game in the playoffs.
None of this necessarily means that Durant should be scoring less. If anything, the ball should be in his hands more often so that he has the opportunity to score and distribute alike. That may require a slight change in philosophy. It may mean fewer looks for Westbrook. But it will also mean better looks for just about everyone—including Westbrook.
It's hard to quantify leadership. There's no legitimate metric by which we can claim Durant needs to be a better leader.
All the same, there are some signs of a leadership vacuum in Oklahoma City. Down the stretches of games, it's somewhat rare to see Durant actually call for the ball. More often than not, Westbrook is the one who looks like the alpha dog. Durant takes what he can get.
Maybe that's only natural. Maybe it's a genuine reflection of their respective personalities.
But we should be clear about something. Durant should diversify his game and make more plays for others, but that's no reason to be deferential. Even if it's not in his nature to take what's his, he has to be the assertive one. He's the best player on the team, and he should act like it.
Westbrook may indeed be one of the world's five most talented players, but in Oklahoma City, he's still a sidekick.
Durant also has to find a way to make everyone in this locker room better. Oklahoma City's roster isn't the deepest in the league, but there are plenty of weapons on this team—weapons that probably should have played better against San Antonio in those conference finals.
Motivating others to be better isn't a science. Only Durant knows what he can personally do to reach these guys and get more out of them. Only Durant knows what kind of leader he's capable of becoming.
But the rest of us know he needs to become that for OKC to reach its potential.
In fairness, Durant has already demonstrated a number of important leadership qualities. During his MVP acceptance speech, he thanked each teammate individually and ultimately gave credit where it was due, per Inc.'s Will Yakowics:
Even though he broke Michael Jordan's record by scoring at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games this season, Durant remains humble. As any smart leader, he knows he hasn't achieved his success on his own. In particular, he gave the credit to his mother. 'When something good happens to you, I don't know about you guys, but I tend to look back to what brought me here,' he said.
That's the kind of guy a team can get behind. And in turn, Durant owns the kind of capital he needs to make demands of that team. He's built a trusting relationship with them, putting others before himself. He hasn't let all the accolades go to his head.
The rest of the league could probably learn something from Durant in that respect. Even as he continues to grow into his status as a legitimate icon, he's already way ahead of most.
Just don't expect him to admit it.