Is Kevin Durant Ready to Become the NBA's Signature Player?

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Is Kevin Durant Ready to Become the NBA's Signature Player?
Chris Covatta/Getty Images

It might just be time to anoint Kevin Durant as he marches towards the paths of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

This isn’t to suggest he just arrived. After accumulating four scoring titles and the 2013-14 MVP trophy through seven seasons, I think it’s safe to say Durant’s been on the map for quite some time now. 

The question one has to answer now is whether the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar can become legendary. It feels like he’s been marching towards immortality since his first postseason appearance, where he coincidentally faced Kobe’s Los Angeles Lakers.

I think it’s fair to say Bryant was the league’s marquee player from roughly 2005 to 2010. He captured two of his five titles during that time span, coupled with two Finals MVPs, an Olympic gold medal and an MVP award.

The team success was a big component to his elevated status, but the one thing that put Kobe above everybody else was his ability to master the art of basketball. He didn’t just score and collect wins, he did it while seemingly controlling every aspect of the sport.

Bryant grasped the nuances of the game and worked them to perfection. He would make a pass here, a defensive rotation there and a clutch basket to seal a game. In retrospect, Kobe didn’t just live for the moment—he was the moment.

He married all of these together and reached the mountaintop, which made him the league’s alpha dog.

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No one captured this fact better than Bob Ryan during the 2010 Finals over at Boston.com:

But Kobe is the most intriguing challenger to [Michael] Jordan’s generally-accepted supremacy because he most approximates Jordan in terms of size, range of offensive skill, defensive prowess, and that wonderfully elusive quality, killer instinct.

Interestingly enough, Bryant wasn’t the undisputed king for very long.

During his reign, Kobe had to share some of the spotlight with would-be challenger LeBron. An argument could be made that Bryant and James were both the faces of the league, but Bryant held a slight edge by virtue of the ring count (five to zero).

LeBron was often right at Kobe’s doorstep and perhaps even close to walking through the door, but he stumbled a few times before ultimately regaining his footing.

James, as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, infamously pulled a vanishing act in Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics. The following season, he suffered a meltdown in the NBA Finals with the Miami Heat.

LeBron put it all together during the 2011-13 seasons when he won back-to-back titles with the Heat and earned himself two Finals MVP trophies. At the same time, Kobe faded just enough as a result of age to pass the baton. James' play certainly helped his ascension, but Bryant's decline was part of the equation, which resulted in James becoming the game’s biggest name.

Even in a year that ended with disappointment (Finals loss at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs this past season), he still stood atop the throne.

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“He’s been great at basketball for years and years, but now he’d figured out the sport itself,” wrote Grantland’s Bill Simmons in July when looking back at his performance in the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Indiana Pacers. “He reached that final level. This was art. This was genius plus performance.”

LeBron is the sport’s most dominant player, and that might be the case for another few seasons.

Where does Durant fit into all of this?

Well, he technically does not…yet. Since the 2011-12 season roughly, Durant has been in LeBron’s shadow and hasn’t been able to see the light. The reigning league MVP is widely accepted as the second-best player in basketball, and it irks him.

Durant said to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins in April 2013:

I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.

Durant desperately wants to be “the guy.” He wants to walk in the shoes of Kobe and LeBron, and I certainly can’t blame him. The tandem has carried the league for the past few years, and perhaps it’s time for Durant to take his rightful place alongside them.

In order to accomplish that, he will have to improve and conquer the league’s best (James). Durant doesn’t need to take him out in the Finals, but he does need to mount a huge takeover.

Earlier this summer, it looked as though Durant suffered a setback on this front after withdrawing from his USA basketball commitment due to mental and physical fatigue.

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However, I believe he needed the time off to gear up for a terrific season.

The 2013-14 campaign was perhaps Durant’s most trying one given the numerous obstacles he faced. Russell Westbrook, a three-time All-Star, missed 36 games due to a knee injury.

Also, with the Thunder facing a 3-2 first-round series deficit against the Memphis Grizzlies, The Oklahoman put Durant on its front page with a headline calling him “Mr. Unreliable.” Durant was averaging 28 points on 40 percent shooting prior to the newspaper’s controversial imaging, per NBA.com.

To his credit, he took it in stride. “Coming from my paper back at home, that’s what they’re supposed to write,” Durant said according to The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry. “I didn’t come through for the team. So they got to write that type of stuff.”

Although he took the high road, I have to think that headline shook him just a bit. Durant and Co. bounced back and made it to the Western Conference Finals where something strange happened. 

Durant disappeared in the elimination game at home. It’s not so much that he was invisible, but rather that he let Westbrook take command of the team in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Westbrook vacillated between great and reckless, but he was still Oklahoma City’s best player that night.

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The weirdest thing about it? I didn’t want anyone else with the ball. Durant is an incredible talent, but Westbrook was the Thunder’s motor, heart and alpha male in the biggest game of the season.

In the aftermath of the elimination at the hand of the Spurs, Grantland’s Andrew Sharp wrote an article titled, “When the Thunder Became Westbrook’s Team.” That might sound preposterous, but he was spot-on:

These playoffs saw Russ go supernova, and turn into Point Godzilla, and attack his way into America’s heart. He was at the peak of his powers. But we never really saw Durant at the peak of his, and that may not be a coincidence.

San Antonio took out Durant in that fateful game because of key weaknesses: He couldn’t take advantage of his 6’11’’ frame against smaller defenders (no post game), had issues getting open at times and he couldn’t totally shake great defenders off the bounce.

These series of challenges probably wore on Durant during the offseason, which partly explains why he dropped out of Team USA.

There is also another layer to this that is much more terrifying for the rest of the league: Durant has improved in every summer during his time in the league.

Basketball-Reference.com tells us he averaged 2.5 assists per 36 minutes and converted 28.8 percent of his treys as a rookie. No big deal, right?

Well, last season, Durant handed out 5.1 assists per 36 minutes and hit 39.1 percent of his long-range shots. That’s the product of an improved jumper, better ball-handling skills and greater understanding of defensive concepts.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that everyone can count on him to put in the work every year and improve. But that’s the thing: USA basketball couldn’t allow him to do that.

Playing in the FIBA World Cup would have robbed him of precious time to work on the few deficiencies in his game. Thus, the fact he dropped out is a warning sign of sorts.

Durant, who will be 26 when the season opens, is starting to put it all together in an effort to paint his masterpiece.

Chris Covatta/Getty Images

The signature player in the league can’t become an afterthought down the stretch of postseason games, and I firmly believe those days are behind us. This isn’t about winning a championship, although that would certainly help.

By Durant emulating his peers, the title will soon follow.

Durant needs to take all of his gifts and incorporate them within his team to the point that he becomes completely indispensable no matter how well those around him are playing.

At the peak of their powers, Kobe and LeBron would never become sidekicks. Starting next season, the same will be said about Durant.

He might have to share the spotlight with James for a season or two, but he’ll certainly be in the same conversation before taking over for good.

James' relocation to Cleveland will likely help Durant's case because I get the impression that LeBron wants to do a little less heavy lifting in his second stint with the Cavs. He will be a force to be reckoned with, but he'll take a small step back to allow his teammates to carry him for a change. 

James is the league's signature player, but Durant is in his vicinity. LeBron's statistical and physical decline is approaching, and KD will be there to pounce on it.

It’s your world, Kevin, and I’m ready to watch you ascend.

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