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Will Kevin Durant Ever Be the NBA’s Best Player?

The maligned superstar is entering his third season with the two-time defending champion Warriors and once again finds himself at a crossroads. Can he find what he’s looking for in Golden State’s dynasty, or might destiny push him elsewhere?

Kevin Durant

We already know what it looks like when Kevin Durant is the best basketball player on the planet. It looks like Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals, when he stonewalled Kevin Love, swatting the ball away in the post before it even left Love’s fingertips, then took the ball coast to coast, stutter-stepping by LeBron James on his way to a miraculous layup with his body nearly parallel to the floor.

On the next Warriors possession, after the Cavaliers scored following a timeout, Durant sank an off-balance pull-up 3 and ESPN announcer Mike Breen howled; so did I from my seat at Oracle Arena. The whole sequence summed up Durant’s night. He had 33 points and was two steals short of a five-by-five, leading the Warriors to a 132-113 win. He was everywhere at once. The highlights don’t do Durant justice; he was ferocious defensively from start to finish, and, while Draymond Green was in foul trouble, Durant transcended his own limitations by defending every position on the floor. For a game, he surpassed even LeBron.

Five years ago, Durant told Sports Illustrated that he was tired of coming in second place. He’s since won an MVP, two championships, and two Finals MVPs. But self-actualizing in the Bay Area hasn’t done anything for the one title he doesn’t own: He’s not considered the best player in the world. LeBron is still the NBA’s alpha. Critics would point to the fact that Steph Curry is both the face of the Warriors and their most important offensive player, while Draymond is the most important defensive player. Despite playing the best basketball of his life with Golden State, Durant has never escaped second place. Just as the league seems stuck in a holding pattern waiting for the Warriors to fall off, it seems like Durant’s only hope of taking LeBron’s throne is the passage of time. But is waiting in the wings the only thing Durant can do to stake his claim?

When Kawhi Leonard made the leap to elite status during the 2016-17 season, he did so by becoming the kind of offensive player most viewers could recognize: a devastating isolation scorer. Sure, he was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, but greatness on that end of the floor isn’t as easy to identify as a turnaround fadeaway. Durant’s improvements have been the inverse of Kawhi’s: An already deadly scorer started playing the best defense of his life.

LeBron has said his time in Miami was like going to college, and the same could be said for Durant in the Bay Area. Durant has made leaps on defense over the years; once a scrawny 2-guard with the Sonics, he’s steeled his body, transforming into a positionless beast. With Golden State, his mind has gotten even sharper. He computes reads quicker as a rotating or helping defender. In the aforementioned Game 2 of the 2017 Finals, he made smart, athletic plays from the weak side, but also on the perimeter, shutting down Cleveland’s efforts to isolate Kyrie Irving onto him. Durant has never been named to an All-Defensive team, but his playoff performances reveal that he can dominate the defensive end whenever he wants to.

Durant has also been more versatile on offense. Playing with the best teammates of his career has taken the rock out of his hands, forcing him to become a better off-ball player. An already dominant scorer, he has become more well rounded as a screener and cutter.

The off-ball elements of Durant’s game didn’t emerge out of thin air once he landed in Steve Kerr’s pass-happy system. KD navigated screens and made intelligent cuts in OKC, but the system and the circumstances didn’t regularly demand those skills. With Golden State, they’re a necessity. Durant has always isolated from the top of the key like he’s Kobe Bryant, but on the Warriors he can also comfortably pop or roll like he’s Dirk Nowitzki, or fly through a screen like he’s Klay Thompson. Andre Iguodala has described Durant as “a 7-footer who can hit a hesi pull-up from 50 feet out.” There isn’t another player in NBA history you can say that about.

His instincts as a scorer have always been an all-time gift; his development as a passer is a different story. He’s a good-not-great passer who lacks the natural creativity and advanced vision of the NBA’s other great playmakers. You’ll rarely find Durant attacking the rim then zipping a kick-out pass to a corner 3 shooter, like LeBron does on a near-nightly basis. Playmaking is the largest skill differential between James and Durant. That’s not likely to change. But Durant has improved at making reads off the dribble with the Warriors. Sometimes you’ll see him whip cross-court daggers from the post:

Or fire entry passes through traffic using his off hand:

Durant still only sparingly uses his off hand to make clean passes off the bounce, instead bringing the ball up to his chest and using both hands in a more fundamental manner. If LeBron is the Aaron Rodgers of basketball passers, then Durant is the Kirk Cousins—only sometimes great and lacking in elite throwing velocity and accuracy. Durant will turn 30 before the season begins, but he still has room to grow, especially if he receives more opportunities to be a playmaker.

Durant functions differently than many of his superstar peers, and it’s most clearly seen in transition. While most either take the ball down the floor themselves or make themselves available on outlet passes, Durant typically darts to the wing instead. He finished last season with a career-high 2.6 possessions per game as a ball handler in transition, according to Synergy, but that figure pales in comparison to the averages from Westbrook (5.5) and LeBron (4.2), and it even trails Elfrid Payton (3.1). During his career, Durant has been every bit as lethal on the break as a scorer: He can glide toward the rim like Giannis Antetokounmpo or pull up from 3 like Kyrie Irving. But he’s never been a primary playmaker—in OKC it was Westbrook, and in Oakland it’s Curry—despite developing into a capable passer.

In the half court, Durant does a good job of delivering accurate pocket passes and lobs to the rolling big man, and he dependably targets open shooters when attacking or surveying the floor.

Durant doesn’t make nearly as many flashy dimes as LeBron, and his assist-turnover ratio is more like James Harden’s (1.8-to-1 with Houston) than Chris Paul’s (4.1-to-1 for his career). But Harden wasn’t viewed as a lead playmaker until Houston made him one; he wouldn’t have won an MVP award without honing his ability to facilitate. I always thought there was more to Durant’s game than we could see in Oklahoma City, and despite all the accolades he’s accumulated with Golden State, my hunch persists. Durant has never been the man on a team in the same way LeBron has for most of his career. KD has always shared, first with Westbrook and Harden, and now with the original Warriors Big Three. Yet his skill set always makes it possible for him to to expand his game within the context of his surroundings. After the Thunder dealt Harden to the Rockets, Durant improved when thrust into a heavier playmaking role, then made another leap within Golden State’s ball-movement system.

If Durant were given the keys to the car, it’s conceivable he could make a similar leap as a dominant score-first player. That could be the missing link to understanding Durant’s place among the greats. KD is gaining ground on James, but he still hasn’t done what most of the top 10 players in NBA history have: lead his team, as the face of the franchise, to a championship.

LeBron walked through the tunnel of American Airlines Arena with his head down after Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals when a kid shouted, “Good job! Good effort!” LeBron’s Miami Heat had lost and were down 3-2 to the Celtics in the series. It was a harmless comment from a child that happened to sum up his entire career to that moment. We know LeBron now as the athlete closest to knocking Jordan off his GOAT throne; back then, he was labeled a choker who consistently caved under pressure. But then everything clicked. LeBron destroyed the Celtics in games 6 and 7, then led the Heat to capture his first title. That was the moment LeBron became the LeBron we know today. The Eastern Conference was his playground for the next eight seasons. He struck fear and awe into opposing players and fans, just as Jordan did. He had ascended.

In Miami, LeBron matured by changing his game alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; he adapted to new schemes and new positions. And though he was the center of their solar system, he had worthy superstars who could make his job easier. LeBron played the best basketball of his career in Miami, much like Durant is in the Bay Area. LeBron’s experience in Miami equipped him with the tools to return home to Cleveland and guide the crumbling Cavaliers team to their first championship in franchise history. He’s sustained unprecedented success into his 30s. The blueprint is there for KD to follow.

Durant’s story arc hasn’t completely revealed itself yet. These next few seasons will tell us a lot about how he’ll be remembered once he calls it a career. Even though Durant won Finals MVP in 2017 and 2018, he won’t be able to escape Curry’s shadow in the Bay Area. If Durant finishes his prime years as the central force of his own team with a heavy scoring role like he had in Oklahoma City and an uptick in playmaking responsibility, he could change his career trajectory entirely. But would he want to take the risk in leaving the Warriors, with whom he can compete annually for titles, to construct his own team?

LeBron’s 2010 Decision created a new path for player agency. Over the past eight years, the idea of a player being able to decide for himself where he wants to play has been normalized. Durant followed in LeBron’s footsteps by joining the Warriors—and arguably did it better, considering Golden State has dismantled the Cavs in each of the past two Finals—so it follows that he supports LeBron’s latest venture. The King’s decision to join the Lakers in July was a sequel to his original eight years ago—this time focused on more than where to take his on-court talents. “I’m excited that he took advantage of this opportunity to play for the Lakers, and just take advantage of L.A in general. It’s what NBA players need to see: It’s great that he decided to take his career to the next step,” Durant said at Variety’s Sports and Entertainment Breakfast in July. “I think really great ones like LeBron has the opportunity to pick both: Have a great basketball environment, but also live in a place to help his business advance.”

While playing and living near Silicon Valley, Durant and his business partner, Rich Kleiman, have expanded the Warrior’s investment portfolio under Durant Company and created their own media company. Durant has said he hopes to own an NBA team someday, much like LeBron aspires to. The next logical step could be for Durant to follow in LeBron’s footsteps again and take his talents to a city with a massive media market. Front-office executives and agents have long speculated that Durant will have a wandering eye when he hits unrestricted free agency next summer; few expect Durant to finish his career with Golden State. James was able to join a team where he can run the show, eventually compete for titles, and advance his business. Why can’t Durant do the same?

The question is where. The Warriors play in a top-10 media market and are about to move into a new arena in San Francisco, so there aren’t considerably larger media markets aside from New York and Los Angeles. Nonetheless, it’s worth looking into Durant’s off-court allegiances. Kleiman is from New York and has dreams of someday running the Knicks; last season he reportedly pushed team president Steve Mills to hire Mark Jackson to fill the franchise’s coaching vacancy. The Knicks didn’t hire Jackson, but new head coach David Fizdale did hire Royal Ivey as an assistant. Durant has called Ivey his “favorite teammate ever” and “best friend in the league.” There are agents and executives across the league who think Durant could eye New York, and the tea leaves are there if you want to read them.

Durant would be in a high-upside situation in New York. Kristaps Porzingis, despite tearing his ACL, is blossoming into a superstar. Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox have tantalizing upside, but the team lacks a true alpha who can carry it to the promised land. Durant could be the big piece to lead a team that hasn’t won anything in decades and advance his business interests. A Knicks championship run led by Durant would break the franchise’s long streak of irrelevance and accomplish a feat that had gone unfulfilled by Knicks greats over the past five decades—in one of the NBA’s largest global markets. He’d also join LeBron, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Shaquille O’Neal as the only top-25 all-time players to have won titles with more than one franchise.

Will critics care in 30 years that Durant teamed up with the Warriors if he succeeds with the Knicks? Probably not. No one cares today that Bill Russell won 11 rings with rosters far superior to his competition. Russell isn’t the GOAT, but he’s cemented as one of the best ever and a symbol of dynastic success. It was only a few years ago many people thought LeBron creating the Heatles would be a stain on his legacy. James left Miami, won in Cleveland, and all has been forgotten. The focus now is largely on what’s ahead for LeBron in Los Angeles. New York has been a deprived franchise for decades, with a fan base that would welcome Durant with open arms. The “Messiah in the Mecca of Basketball” narrative would overshadow everything else.

The Knicks are an obvious big-market option, but they might not be good enough to lure Durant away. They can change that if Porzingis returns from his torn ACL and keeps getting better, if any of the young players make a leap, or if they add another high-impact player. The Knicks are a possible option for Kyrie Irving, but it’d be close to impossible for New York to sign Irving; re-sign Porzingis to his projected max, worth $27 million in its first season; and add Durant. LeBron chose Los Angeles for more than basketball reasons; for New York to be the answer, Durant would need to do the same.

Even then, a longer commitment to Golden State might be the safer bet. If the Warriors meet a worthy adversary this season, team dynamics could quickly change. They could need Durant more than they did in their seven-game series against the Rockets. It’s only if they continue slaughtering opponents that the taste of winning could get stale, and Durant’s development could seem as though it has plateaued.

Durant said to Yahoo Sports in June that he believes it’s harder to “stand out” while playing with great teammates than it is when you aren’t. In Oklahoma City, Durant and Russell Westbrook shared the spotlight, and the blame—remember “Mr. Unreliable”? Now Durant shares the love with Curry, Green, and Thompson, but takes virtually all the blame whenever the Warriors offense stalls out. The situation he put himself in is not one that most fans are conditioned to appreciate. He knows this to be true. “Narratives are what matter. Perception is what matters,” Durant told ESPN in May. “So when you’ve got the majority of the world worrying about perception and what they look like, then the people who don’t care about that stuff seem fake to them.”

But he has a point about the rigors of standing out. Think of it like resistance training; everything that Durant has improved on with the Warriors might not always be apparent, but the player he’s become has nonetheless closed the gap on LeBron. What happens next for KD is entirely up to him.