Kevin Durant is not a champion yet, but he's near the top
Monday night saw the Dallas Mavericks slip by with an 85-84 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder to steal the home court advantage for the series. The Thunder promptly regained their home court advantage with a win on Thursday, but it did little to calm an increasingly prominent narrative that Thunder forward, Kevin Durant, is a choker.
The narrative began after the Thunder were stomped on in the 2012 NBA finals by the Miami Heat. The Thunder have found little success in the postseasons since then.
In 2013, Thunder point guard, Russell Westbrook, suffered a knee injury during the first round of the playoffs and, despite still having Durant and forward Serge Ibaka, the Thunder were barely able to handle the Houston Rockets, a mediocre eight seed, before being mercifully dispatched by the Memphis Grizzlies in five games.
In 2014, the Thunder got pushed to the brink in round one by a Memphis team that was significantly worse than they were the year before due to personnel changes and injuries. This series prompted an infamous headline from The Daily Oklahoman calling Durant "Mr. Unreliable." The Thunder then beat the Clippers after a very controversial series of calls changed the outcome of one of the games in that series. The Thunder were then just overmatched by the eventual champion Spurs, who beat them by 25 or more points twice.
After Westbrook and Durant both spent time out of action last season, the Thunder missed the 2015 playoffs entirely.
The Thunder have continuously blown large, third quarter leads this season as well.
These playoff failures and Durant’s long time in the NBA without a title play a significant role in the star player’s legacy for many fans. The scene from Monday night’s game — featuring Durant badly missing two three-point shots while the Thunder were down four points, before missing a game winning layup in heavy traffic — did not help Durant satisfy his detractors.
However, this reputation is unfair. In between those two plays, Durant hit a three-pointer that brought the Thunder within one point and put them in a position where they could have won the game. The layup he missed at the end went through two different Mavericks and would have been nearly impossible to score.
His previous performances during the season and in the playoffs show that Durant performs well in high leverage situations.
It’s hard to remember now that the Thunder have been consistent contenders in the Western Conference for so long, but Durant’s amazing performance in the 2010 playoffs snagged an upstart, young Thunder team two wins against a juggernaut iteration of the Los Angeles Lakers that steamrolled their way to a title after the Thunder gave them fits.
The 2012 trip to the Finals saw the Thunder overpower three good teams, including a Spurs team that won 75 percent of its regular season games. The talk of these playoffs was that Westbrook was hurting the team with poor decision making and Durant had saved them.
The 2014 Clippers were a very good team and, even if the game with controversial calls was overturned, it would have forced a game seven in that playoff series. The Thunder still won three games very convincingly. Durant not only made his usual immense scoring contributions, but he also had some notable defensive games that helped the Thunder come out on top.
Durant may have not won an NBA title yet, but that’s not a fair way to judge an individual’s legacy. Basketball is a team sport and it features multiple teams. Durant has seen bad personnel decisions hurt his teams while he consistently sees juggernauts on the other side of the court.
The infamous James Harden trade that saw the shooting guard move from the Thunder to the Rockets for a number of players who were never nearly as good had little financial justification and permanently damaged the Thunder’s trajectory by jettisoning a legitimate star. The Thunder consistently surround their stars with subpar players like shooting guards Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson. It’s hard to win basketball games when the whole team is not good.
Further, the Thunder have had incredibly bad luck with the rest of the league. Their first finals appearance came against a Miami Heat team that featured the best player in the world, forward LeBron James, and two other superstars. The Spurs machine won a title in 2014 and no one was particularly competitive with them. The Golden State Warriors just won the most games in a single season by a team in the history of the league after FiveThirtyEight ranked last season’s version as the fourth-best team ever by one measure.
The Thunder, meanwhile, seem to sustain injuries to key players consistently and because of this have trouble maintaining year-to-year consistency with rotations.
The “choker” narrative has followed just about every great player in history until they win. James was labeled a choke until he won two finals. Former Bulls shooting guard Michael Jordan was considered a choke until he won separate three-peats later in his career. So were former Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Rockets forward Charles Barkley and former Philadelphia Warriors, 76ers, and Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain despite being some of the the greatest players to ever play their positions. It’s an attempt to try to add human features to superhuman feats and it only serves to tarnish legacies of people who were nothing short of extraordinary.
Despite missing most of last year due to injury, Durant has spent every other year being an undisputed top three player in the league. Durant may not have an NBA Finals victory, and he may never have one, but he’s consistently among the league’s best players and has been since he was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in 2007. It’s silly to let incompetent management and bad luck distract from the incredible things we get to see Durant do on a daily basis.