Kevin Durant's leadership style is an important aspect of the Oklahoma City Thunder's development and is the No. 1 reason they improved by a staggering 27 wins over their 2008-2009 season.
To start this article, I want to separate his basketball talents and physical skills from his leadership style. His talents include leading the league in free throw attempts per game and being a prolific scorer; his leadership skills allow him to translate that hard work into motivation for his teammates to accept and improve their own roles for the team.
His leadership primarily affects his teammates and what they do, while his talents affect his impressive nightly stat line and nothing else.
Oklahoma City fans already know what the rest of the world is learning: Kevin Durant is a firm believer in “Leadership by Personal Example.” What is so natural for small families and military units becomes a rare trait in the world of multi-million dollar athletes.
Has anyone seen this hilarious Allen Iverson video? Statistically, they both have regular season scoring titles; for philosophy, they couldn't be farther apart.
Leadership by example is the strongest type of leadership and is actually fairly rare in sports. It is legitimately difficult to demand someone making $15 million dollars a year, worshipped by hundreds of thousands of fans and his own national brand, to accept the same standards as a bench warmer.
LeBron James had his entourage fly with him on the team plane; Barry Bonds had a designated leather seat in the dugout, and we all know many other stories of over-pampered adult men. I know of no such Kevin Durant story and while one may emerge, his example right now is one of hard work, effort, and discipline.
The best example is how many times Kevin gets to the free throw line per game: 10.24, with a 90% success rate.
Besides Dirk Nowitzki, I can't think of a player that tall who makes so many free throws.
More importantly, it takes a strong commitment to aggression and absorbing a relentless physical beating to earn that many free throws in the NBA. He took 840 free throws this past year: that is a lot of NBA-level fouls, fouls from centers and power forwards who weigh in excess of 240 pounds per person.
His personal example is what sets up Thabo Sefolosha to selflessly play defense (and not much else) for every game of the year, similar to Tim Duncan's leadership encouraging Bruce Bowen to work hard for little personal reward and recognition.
It is important to remember that while NBA teams win and lose as a team, they get paid individually, often based on scoring and perception with less emphasis on defense and rebounding.
Many collections of "talented" players under achieve and fail to make waves in the playoffs (think Golden Sate Warriors 2007-2008 or Atlanta Hawks 2009-2010). Neither team had a leader able to inspire selfless acts, merely a collection of scorers focusing on their stat lines.
His personal belief in work hard combined with his physical tools have made him one of the best players in the NBA. A man who will inspire peak performances from his teammates not just on game day, but during off season workouts, off days during the season, and in the film room.
That is why they improved 27 games over the previous season, and while they won't improve by 27 wins again (that would mean 77 wins next season!), they can easily set their sights on earning home court advantage for at least one round of the playoffs, perhaps more.
The best thing to occur during the "Summer of LeBron" for the Thunder was Kevin Durant signing a five-year contract extension worth about $86 million. That will take him to age 26, the age where most players focus on simply maintaining their abilities rather than improving.
Oklahoma City gets to watch one of the preeminent leaders and players of this generation mature, grow, and ultimately create a legacy that will be remembered.