In Bill Simmons' wonderful Book of Basketball, he reveals "the Secret" to obtaining team success in the NBA. Championship teams have players who understand the need of putting the collective above self. Players must be resistant to the "disease of more" and curb their inherent desires to take more shots, gain more recognition, and individual glory. So long as the team comes first, champions can be born.
Simmons' theory is intuitively appealing. Case in point: If only Delonte West could have contained his lust for Gloria James, mother of LeBron James—who knows?—he might have been an NBA champion last season.
But if "the Secret" explains why some teams succeed and others fail, what factors cause separation among individuals? For instance, why is Kevin Durant so much better than Rudy Gay? Is it because of Durant's freakishly long wingspan? Does he play harder? Practice more? "The Secret" to individual success remains unclear.
The answer cannot be superior physical attributes. Consider the following table that shows basic measurements such as height, weight, wingspan, and speed of Kevin Durant and Rudy Gay from Draft Express.
Durant is the slightly taller and longer player. In terms of jumping ability and speed, Rudy Gay wins. But on the whole, the differences in physical characteristics seem pretty small. And while one or two inches might be a huge help in other areas of life, it seems unlikely that they can explain their significant gap in actual NBA production. Especially since Durant's second-year PER of 20.8 was much better than Gay's PER in any of his four NBA seasons. How is it that two players can be so similar with respect to physical talent, yet be so different in their ability to harness it?
Etan Thomas' open letter to the Thunder provides a clue. He wrote it recently to express gratitude toward the entire Thunder organization for treating him with such respect. And in it, he also discusses Kevin Durant:
Not only is [Kevin Durant] the youngest to ever lead the league in scoring, but he has a work ethic that will put him in the upper echelon of players for years to come. In fact, in three years he very well could be regarded as the best in the league. If he’s not better than Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo and D-Wade right now, he’s the closest one (excluding nobody).
Every day, he is one of the first people on the court as well as one of the last people to leave. Even after dropping 30 points night in and night out, he is never satisfied. That alone means that although he is nearly impossible to guard as a 6-foot-9 two guard, he is going to get better. He works in the weight room so he is going to get stronger. He plays good defense now and can cover so much ground with his length. Again, he is going to get better there too. And even though he possesses all of these gifts, and this incredible work ethic, he remains humble. He takes criticism. Encourages his teammates. Is gracious with fans and media. And is a leader by example.
Nobody on the team can complain about being singled out if Kevin Durant has no problem with being criticized, so everyone falls in line. The team sees how hard he works on his shot, his offensive moves, cuts to the basket and moving without the ball even after dropping 40 on an opponent the previous night, so they work extra hard as well. Everyone sees him going to chapel before the game and they start going as well. Everything starts with him, and when you have a leader like that, good things will happen. He doesn’t have to yell, curse teammates out, embarrass anyone. He leads by example, and at such a young age, it really was amazing to see that level of maturity.
For all of our obsession with reach, wingspan, verticals, PER, plus/minus, and a whole host of other observable measures of player ability, according to Etan Thomas, it's the unobservables that matter most for Kevin Durant. His leadership, maturity, perseverance, work ethic, humility, and other intangibles propel him and his beautiful game are a natural manifestation of them. What separates Kevin Durant from the rest is not his height or length (although it helps), but rather all the qualities that we do not see. With Etan Thomas' help, Kevin Durant's Secret isn't such a mystery anymore.