Even if the Western Conference is as stacked as it's ever been, featuring plenty of teams capable of knocking the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the running, the time is now for the league's reigning MVP. While the Thunder have been quite quiet during the offseason, acquiring Anthony Morrow and not doing much else, the summer has only added tinder to the fire.
In the past, Durant hasn't been under an inordinate amount of pressure in his quest to earn a ring and adorn his hands with the first bit of jewelry he'll win in his still-young career. That was reserved for LeBron James, and each time Durant came up short, the widespread assumption seemed to be that he'd get to the top eventually.
Eventually is now. It has to be.
Everyone responds differently to heaping loads of pressure. Some remain cool, calm and collected in the face of high stakes, while others crumble with the weight of the world on their shoulders.
In 2014-15, we'll figure out which side of the spectrum claims Durant.
Winning MVP Changes Things
When you're the best at your craft, things change.
Whether your personal opinion pegs Durant or LeBron as the No. 1 player in the NBA heading into the 2014-15 season, there's at least a debate. Convincing arguments can be made for both players, especially because it was KD who dethroned a certain four-time MVP, held up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy and made a teary-eyed acceptance speech that won the hearts of everyone who listened.
Then he fell short in the playoffs.
OKC ran out of gas against the San Antonio Spurs, falling to the eventual title-winners in the Western Conference Finals despite a spirited, Serge Ibaka-inspired comeback to level the series after Game 4. It was just the latest postseason disappointment, one year after Russell Westbrook's knee injury made things rather difficult against the Houston Rockets and the Memphis Grizzlies.
Durant is no longer a young up-and-comer.
He'll turn 26 years old shortly before the start of this coming campaign, and he's already built quite the impressive resume. Since he was selected just after Greg Oden in the 2007 NBA draft, Durant has racked up the following accolades:
- Rookie of the Year
- Five All-Star appearances
- Five first-team All-NBA selections
- Four scoring titles
- One NBA MVP
It's the last one that's so key.
In addition to achieving statistical anomalies like joining the 50/40/90 club while competing for the league lead in points per game, Durant has achieved everything possible during the regular season. He's been the Rookie of the Year, established himself as the most dangerous scorer in the Association, proved himself to be one of the two best players in the world and consistently helped the Thunder finish at or near the top of the Western Conference year after year.
That MVP trophy completed his collection, which shifts the focus to the next thing he needs to check off—a championship.
Think of these awards as stepping stones. Most players make an All-Star appearance before they're selected to an All-NBA team (if the two don't happen in the same year). Then they win MVP if they're good enough. Then they win a title as the featured player.
LeBron, for example, made his first All-Star squad during his second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, all the way back in 2004-05. He earned second-team All-NBA honors that season, and he moved up to the first team the very next year. It wasn't until 2008-09 that he earned his first MVP, and that was when the pressure to win a title really ramped up. But it wasn't until he joined the Miami Heat that a championship was in the cards.
Durant is rapidly moving along the path, but the hole in his resume is even more glaring now that everything else is filled in.
The LeBron Factor
"When I retire," LeBron told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick when he was asked at what point Durant would start feeling the title pressure. "When I retire. They're still talking about, am I going to win a third? You know..."
That quote came back in early February, and it seemed like a valid statement at the time. Dan Feldman, writing for NBC Sports, certainly believed it and bought into the concept:
LeBron is the most analyzed athlete of all time. The best player in basketball, a sport with the most identifiable stars, he's failed and succeeded in dramatic fashion during the internet era. Nobody before him has been put so thoroughly through the ringer on Twitter, television and hundreds of other forms of communication.
He's won the last two NBA titles, so thoroughly capturing our attention that Durant and the Thunder don't have a chance. The pressure on LeBron to win a title his first season in Miami was higher than on any non-defending champion ever, so it sure hasn't gone away now that the Heat have entrenched themselves as favorites.
Not even Durant's MVP-caliber season will change that.
Durant's MVP-caliber season didn't change the level of pressure on LeBron.
The evisceration at the hands of the Spurs didn't do the trick. LeBron has lost in the Finals before while with the Heat and only felt the intensity of the pressure rise. Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks did that for him. However, he changed everything by leaving South Beach and returning home.
With the Heat, titles were expected, no doubt fueled by the infamous introductory ceremony and the on-stage quote that is still taken out of context to this day. Anything less than a Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy was viewed as a massive disappointment, even in the first year after the Big Three assembled.
But now, perception is different.
With the young Cleveland Cavaliers roster around him, LeBron is engaging in an uphill battle. Sure, he's trying to help bring a title to his beleaguered hometown team, but it's widely acknowledged that this isn't going to be something that happens immediately. James himself deferred the expectations when he announced his return via Sports Illustrated:
I'm not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We're not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I'm realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I'm going into a situation with a young team and a new coach.
Now, the burden has been lessened rather significantly.
There will always be weight on LeBron's shoulders, with each playoff series offering him a chance to further define his legacy, silly as that may be.
However, it's different now.
Whereas in Miami, championships were expected, a title in Cleveland would be a pleasant surprise. Few expect the Cavs to compete with the representative from the stacked West, even if they advance through their own weaker conference. It won't be viewed as a massive disappointment if LeBron comes up short this year, though that could change in a heartbeat.
And if pressure on LeBron was the only thing keeping Durant from feeling the full brunt of public expectations...
The Clock is Ticking
It's not only LeBron who is adding to the pressure; Durant is doing a fabulous job of turning up the cooker—and not only by winning MVP.
He could be buying himself time, scoffing at any notion that he might leave the Thunder and eventually join a new team, commonly assumed to be his hometown Washington Wizards. Instead, he's not unequivocally refuting the idea, as was the case when speaking with ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne:
I'm going to do what's best for me. It's hard to talk about that right now when I've got two years left in Oklahoma City. I'm just going to focus on that. I'm not going to make a decision based on what anybody else does. I grew up watching the Bullets/Wizards. I grew up taking the train to that arena, all the time, to watch Georgetown, the Bullets, the Washington Mystics. That whole city is a part of me. It's in my blood. I love going back home, seeing my family and playing there, but I love Oklahoma City too.
Look, we going to put it out on tape. It's been talked about. Everybody's asked me about it every time I go on Instagram or Twitter. All my friends ask me about it. So I'm not going to sit here and act like I'm naïve to the fact that people think about that stuff. But I just tell everybody that I'm here in Oklahoma City, [and] I love it here. Who knows what will happen? I never close the door on anything. But I like where I'm at right now, so I can't answer that question.
By failing to close that door and refusing to deny the possibility of an eventual departure from the team he's always played for, Durant isn't helping his cause.
I'm not suggesting he will leave. I can't read his mind, and my conjecture is just pure speculation two years in advance of something hypothetical even having a chance of becoming a reality. But there's a possibility he leaves OKC behind, and that means he has to win a championship before he does that.
In other words, he has two more shots. Two more chances to bury the ghosts of the past, two more opportunities to avenge his Finals loss to the Heat, the early loss to the Grizzlies and last year's Spurs-aided destruction.
Two more attempts at laughing in the face of pressure.
Maybe he has more, but we can't guarantee that.
Historically, winning a ring with a different team will be just as important to Durant's legacy, but it won't immediately appease the throngs of critics who can't be convinced he's done enough. Chances are, he'll be joining John Wall (establishing himself as one of the top point guards) and Bradley Beal (looking like a future max player) if he leaves OKC, and then he'll inevitably be accused of teaming up with stars to win, even if he's also leaving stars behind.
Earning a championship is special no matter what, but it just seems to matter more in the court of public opinion when the title is won with the team that drafted you, one that was built as organically as possible. By making the types of comments that you can see above, Durant is just placing more urgency on the present, even if he's not fully cognizant of the repercussions.
The free passes from the front office trading James Harden have all been used up. Now, the reigning MVP is adding fuel to the fire, one that was already stoked by LeBron's decision to return home.
James won a ring in his ninth season, but the eighth featured his move to the Heat and the ratcheting up of that pressure dial, one that was already approaching unbearable levels at the end of his Cleveland tenure. Hearkening back to the past for the inevitable comparison, Michael Jordan won the first of his six rings in his seventh go-round with the Chicago Bulls.
Durant is now entering his eighth professional season. Like it or not, here comes the pressure.