Kevin Durant: Is Oklahoma City a Big Enough Stage for the Next NBA Superstar?
There are a few things to keep in mind when you are watching your next Kevin Durant highlight on ESPN's "Sportscenter."
First, Durant—the blossoming young superstar out of the University of Texas —is only 21-years-old. Second, he is only in his third season in the league after pulling a one-and-done deal with the Longhorns in 2006-07.
Third, his numbers at this age and stage of his career (29.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals, and 47.7 percent shooting from the field through Sunday) are comparable with the game's current "golden boy," LeBron James. When James was in his third season in the league at age 21, he averaged 31.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.6 steals on 48 percent shooting.
James, with his 6.6 assists in his third season, was the better passer, but Durant—with his 37.8 percent three-point mark and 88.3 percent free throw percentage—is a better shooter than LeBron was back then.
Both Durant and James are listed as small forwards. And although it has not become official yet, Durant will probably make the playoffs for the first time this season, his third year in the NBA. LeBron also cracked the league's postseason for the first time in his third season.
There is one more thing that Durant and James share in common: neither one of them plays in a large or glamorous media market.
For James, it is different. He grew up just 30 miles south of Cleveland in Akron, Ohio, and he is as familiar with the area as you could imagine. He has resurrected a franchise in the Cavaliers that has been around since 1970 and is on the verge of delivering a championship to a historic yet title-starved sports town. Cleveland has seen better days, and none of its major sports teams have won a title since 1964—46 long years ago.
And although Cleveland isn't exactly New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Los Angeles, let's get this straight right now: It's certainly a more visible market than Oklahoma City, which Durant calls home.
With a metro population of around 1.2 million, Oklahoma City is effectively the smallest market in the entire NBA (yes, including Salt Lake City, Memphis, and San Antonio). On top of that, the Thunder are only in their second year of existence and are the only professional sports team in a city that has virtually no history in that department.
Things have worked out for James seven years into his career. The Cavaliers have become a first-class organization that continually has one of the league's highest payrolls.
But rumors still surround James about the possibility of him eventually leaving Cleveland this summer as an unrestricted free agent. With the New York Knicks, the team located in the country's No. 1 media market, having salary cap space, many have viewed that as a marriage waiting to happen.
If it makes sense for James—which many believe it does—then it makes sense for Durant, too. In fact, it may make even more sense for him.
The Thunder have virtually no fanbase outside of Oklahoma City. There is a negative stigma that surrounds the franchise in the wake of their owner's controversial move from Seattle, which had the franchise for 40-plus years. Many longtime NBA fans who fondly remember the Sonics and Seattle's place in basketball history vehemently root against the Thunder because of the manner in which their owner, Clay Bennett, uprooted the team.
And although this is the case more than you may want to think, it is also a downright shame. The relocation is of no fault of the team's players, who have become a dynamic young group that fit around each other well and feed off of their young superstar.
But although diehard sports fans know his name well, Durant is not nearly as much of a household name as LeBron James was during his third season in the league. Given the similarities in their productivity and significance to their respective teams, that just does not make any sense.
Despite a season that should place him right in the discussion for the league's MVP award, Durant has not even crossed the league's top 10 in jersey sales. In fact, he ranks 15th, with players such as David Lee, Pau Gasol, Derrick Rose, and even a washed-up Allen Iverson ranking ahead of him.
While Nike built ad campaigns and slogans centered around James in his third season ("We Are All Witnesses") and gave him his own line of shoes, the company stuck Durant with B-listers like Rashard Lewis, Andre Iguodala, and Mo Williams in their "Hyperizers" campaign this past summer. Hardly befitting of a guy battling LeBron himself for the league's scoring title.
Facts and statistics like those beg the question: Would Durant be the megastar he was meant to be if he played in a larger market with a franchise more visible than the Thunder?
Even had the Sonics stayed in Seattle, this would probably be a moot point right now given Seattle's respectable size and the rich history of the Supersonics. The sports media would not be anywhere close to even beginning to mercilessly cram him down your throat the way they have LeBron.
Yet ask a casual sports fan if he or she knows who Kevin Durant is, and the response you get won't be anything close to justifying the special season this 21-year-old kid is having right now.
Durant is scheduled to be a restricted free agent following the 2010-11 season, during which the Thunder can match any offer he receives. He is also up for a contract extension this summer, and although he has come out and said that he does not worry about these things, he will have to start worrying about them sooner than he wants to.
And there will be a lot of people in his ear, so don't put too much stock in his down-to-earth attitude and amicable words for Oklahoma City if you are a Thunder fan.
If he continues to let the process play out instead of committing to the franchise by 2011, he can sign a one-year tender and become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012, when he will only be—get this—23-years-old.
With the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring after the 2010-11 season and rumors of decreasing player salaries after that, OKC fans do have hope of keeping their superstar around beyond just his rookie contract. In fact, these circumstances may be what leads Durant to ultimately re-sign in Oklahoma City—at least for a few years—beyond his current deal.
And that's one more thing to keep in mind the next time you see No. 35 on "Sportscenter" in the days and weeks to come.
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