In an interview with the Washington Post, Kevin Durant takes the subtle leap forward from “all humble all the time” in interviews to “No, really, I’m exceptional at basketball.” Specifically, Durant says that he’s done with people talking about how eventually he’ll have the league in his grasp, that it’s here, it’s now. The future and present are one, and no matter what happened in June, it’s Kevin Durant’s world.
“I’ve heard a few times, in three or four years, this league is going to be yours. . . . I don’t like that. Because I think I’m established now. My time is now,” Durant said. “I feel as though I’ve proved myself these last five years that I can be one of the top players in the league. I’ve got a long way to go to being the ultimate best, but I think my time is now. And I’m starting to enter my prime.”
It’s true that Durant can be considered “there.” This is the prime of his career, he’s just now getting there, and he’s got such a long way to go with it at just 23 years of age. But there’s a subject that should probably be gently unearthed here. It’s just the Thunder’s third season in the playoffs. It’s just their second of title contention. They’ve moved closer each year, taking significant steps forward.
But if they don’t get it done this season, there’s a very real possibility the window closes.
That concept sounds preposterous considering they were just a few good quarters away from stealing the Finals. The Thunder are going to have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka together for the next four years at least. They could very well have James Harden as well. They have no albatross contracts. Kendrick Perkins’ is pretty close, but they have retained their amnesty clause in the event they need to use it there. The four primary members of the core are only going to get better.
But how many times have we seen a young core never get there in their first few seasons, and then have the future robbed? You have to make the climb, and you have to reach the summit. Victory serves as a pacifist for things that can derail a team; unrest, injury, the desperation trade and the like. Sam Presti has been exceptionally patient with this group, but there’s now going to be the lure of that which has ruined so many young cores, the chance at a superstar gamble, a major move, a huge upgrade. The fact that the Thunder are so good guards against that to a degree, but eventually , the pendulum swings and teams find themselves looking “to make a change” for whatever reason.
The Blazers in 2008, the Magic in 2009, the Bulls in 2007, the Wizards in 2007. None of these teams look now like they’re in the same league as the Thunder and in many ways, they aren’t. But their falls were not foreseen. They had either young or stable cores, limitless potential, and players in the elite ranks. They and countless teams before them seemed destined for great things, if not a championship. That’s how quickly these windows close. Yes, you have the Spurs and you have the Mavericks, who kept cores essentially intact for over a decade but those teams stand out precisely because of that longevity, not as standard bearers.
Durant could wake to find himself as the best player on the planet in three years, but surrounded by talent that cannot get it together to compete. This is not built as an “anything is possible” kind of postulate, but as a simple reminder that contending teams that do not win a title seldom are able to keep the core together. Things fall apart, so to speak. Durant can talk to any number of stars about the situation. Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Brandon Roy, it seemed all would inevitably win a title (Garnett later would — when he was traded to another team). The Thunder play in a small market, and while Clay Bennett has been the very model of a modern major owner for OKC (not so much for Seattle), there’s still a lot to learn about how Bennett will react if the luxury bills start piling up.
Durant will be great no matter what, barring injury, knock on wood. He’s going to get better in every phase of the game. But the kind of youthful “golly, we’re just excited to be here” enthusiasm in the Thunder locker room is already shifting to a more focused, determined desperation to win the title, to get over the hump. Most stars don’t win a title before 27. Experience wins, traditionally, in this league. The Thunder are trying to buck that, and they have a great chance. But they have to get past that final hurdle. They needed to make the playoffs, then they needed to advance in the playoffs, then they needed to make the Finals. They’ve done that, but the last step is hardest to climb, especially with how the Heat have built themselves and the Lakers’ standing in the West ready to cause mayhem.
Durant said over the weekend that the Lakers are impressive “on paper.” But think back to how many teams thought they were great the season after they made the Finals only to discover that it was a fleeting moment in the sun, and that the league passed them by. Durant doesn’t have to go down like that, to toil for years. But he’s got to get there. Winning begets winning, stagnation begets change.
The expectations have caught up with Durant. His time is now. It has to be. It better be.