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Kevin Durant Has Become the Ultimate Basketball Player, Like Him or Not

The Warriors star has a seismic free-agency decision to make in the summer, but not before hunting for yet another Golden State title (and his third consecutive Finals MVP honor) as the most versatile player the league has ever seen. Here’s how he got there.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I was one year ahead of Kevin Durant at the University of Texas when he arrived in Austin in 2006. The world was different then. Social media was just getting started: Facebook was still limited to college students; Twitter had barely launched; Instagram didn’t exist. Durant wasn’t anywhere near as famous when he arrived on campus as Zion Williamson would be in Durham 12 years later. Few people in Austin cared enough about basketball to learn about the incoming recruits. The Longhorns had just won the BCS championship. The big debate on campus was whether Colt McCoy could replace Vince Young.

I had to talk friends into taking the 15-minute walk off campus to the cavernous Frank Erwin Center. There weren’t many fans coming to nonconference games against teams like Chicago State and Nicholls State in November and December. You could buy a ticket for $5, walk into the nearly empty lower bowl of the stadium, and sit a few rows behind Durant on the Texas bench. It was like watching the Beatles learn to play together in half-empty bars in Germany, years before they blew up back in England. It was the last time in his life when Durant could be a relatively normal guy.

His talent couldn’t stay hidden for long. The basic outlines of the player he is today were already in place. Durant was a near 7-footer with the athleticism, ballhandling, and shooting ability of a guard. There was nothing that NCAA defenders could do to stop him. The crowds started picking up after the turn of the New Year. It was obvious that something special was happening. There was a buzz around the Texas basketball program that hasn’t been there since, even when they were the no. 1 ranked team in the country a few years later. Everyone wants a piece of a superstar.

The most legendary game of his Texas career came in early March at Allen Fieldhouse in Kansas. The court is named for James Naismith, who coached at Kansas a few years after inventing the sport. Durant seemed to relish the chance to play in one of the cathedrals of basketball. He was as locked-in as he had been all season. There was no wasted motion: His shots weren’t touching the rim. He had 25 points in the first half, the most any player had scored in a half there since Wilt Chamberlain. Durant was forced out of the game for a stretch early in the second half with a sprained ankle, which only added to the legend. Who knows how many he would have scored had he not been hurt? 50? 60? The Jayhawks fans gave him a standing ovation when he came back in.

“He may be arguably the best player to play in Allen Fieldhouse in generations,” Kansas head coach Bill Self told the school newspaper in an oral history of the game. “Even Danny Manning [an assistant coach at the time] was on the bench saying, ‘That’s a bad man. That’s the baddest man to play here,’ and that’s Danny saying that, who had many big games here.”

Durant should have never been in college in the first place. He was part of the first class of high school seniors who couldn’t jump directly to the NBA, and he set a standard few of the players who have followed him could meet. Durant, Anthony Davis, and now Zion are the only freshmen in the one-and-done era to win the Naismith Award. Texas lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Durant’s one season in Austin, but it couldn’t change his legacy. We all knew that we were lucky to have a player like him for a season. It was obvious that he would go on to great things in the NBA. The stunning thing about following Durant at the next level is just how much better he has gotten.

Durant has turned himself into a hybrid of every great player who came before him. He went from starting at shooting guard as a rookie to winning an NBA Finals MVP as a small-ball center, having tacked on at least 30 pounds of muscle to a once painfully skinny frame. Durant now combines the size of the NBA’s greatest big men with the all-around game of its best guards. He can do everything on a basketball court at a high level. He can create his own shot off the dribble and in the post, finish in traffic, run pick-and-rolls, shoot off movement from anywhere on the floor, move the ball and set up his teammates, rebound, protect the rim, and defend all five positions on the floor. He’s become the ultimate basketball player.

Durant made his biggest leap when he signed with the Warriors. The goal was more than just winning championships. Golden State offered him the chance to get a master’s degree in basketball, in the same way Miami did for LeBron James. Durant had stopped growing by the end of his time with the Thunder. Oklahoma City played a simplistic brand of basketball, surrounding Durant and Russell Westbrook with defensive-minded role players like Andre Roberson and counting on their two stars to carry them on offense. The ball didn’t move much, and there was rarely enough shooting around the two. Durant was constantly isolating against two and three defenders. It was Texas all over again.

Things are different in Golden State, where Durant has added something new to his game each season. He became more comfortable moving without the ball in Year 1, going from the 59th percentile of scorers leaguewide when coming around screens off the ball in his final season with the Thunder to the 84th percentile with the Warriors, according to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports. He became a better defender in Year 2, averaging a career-high 1.8 blocks per game, and even getting some consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. And he became a better playmaker in Year 3, averaging a career-high 5.9 assists per game. He’s even averaging more assists than Steph Curry this season.

It’s an incredible change from his days in college, when he mostly operated on instinct. Durant hasn’t just transformed physically over the past 13 years. His feel for the game has grown by leaps and bounds. He averaged only 1.3 assists per game at Texas. He rarely passed the ball and didn’t see the floor well. He was a lot more like Carmelo Anthony than LeBron. Durant could score at will from an early age. He had to learn how to leverage that ability to make his teammates better. He can now play as a legitimate point forward, and he’s orchestrated the Golden State offense for long stretches this season when Curry and Draymond Green have been injured.

Durant always had a goal in mind. While LeBron spent his career chasing Michael Jordan, Durant has spent his career chasing the one player in front of him. When Durant was a rookie, LeBron was in his fifth NBA season, coming off a year when he almost single-handedly carried the Cavs to the Finals. Every milestone that Durant reached, LeBron had already been there. When Durant made the NBA Finals for the first time in 2012, LeBron was waiting for him. The Thunder lost to the Heat in five games, exposing the holes in Durant’s game. He could score with LeBron, but he wasn’t nearly as good a playmaker or a defensive player. James has offered a blueprint for Durant every step of the way.

There is nothing left for Durant to add to his game; he can only refine what’s arguably the most comprehensive skill set ever. He’s a new kind of 7-footer who is doing things we have never seen before. There have been only four seasons in NBA history when a player has averaged more than five 3-point attempts per game, five assists per game, and one block per game. Durant has three of them. (LeBron’s final season in his first stint in Cleveland is the other). He has his hands on every facet of the game. He creates open shots for his teammates and more space for them to operate on the floor. He also covers for them on defense while scoring with the efficiency of prime Shaquille O’Neal without dominating the ball. There have been only 27 seasons in NBA history when a player has scored more than 25 points per game with a true shooting percentage higher than 62. Durant has six of them.

Durant has become the most versatile player in the league, which is far more important than being the most valuable. The winner of the MVP has won the championship that same year only five times since the turn of the century. The award often comes down to degree of difficulty and which great players have done the most with the least amount of talent around them. That is not the best formula for success in the playoffs. Getting through the grind of an 82-game regular season is all about establishing an identity on both ends of the floor. The key to surviving and advancing through four seven-game series against elite competition is being able to change your identity on the fly.

That’s why teams with LeBron, who was the most versatile player in the league for more than a decade, always punched above their weight in the playoffs. It wasn’t that LeBron willed his teams to victory. His postseason success was based on his ability to handle any role that his team needed over the course of a series. He could play all five positions on both ends of the floor, which meant that his coaches could shuffle players around him until they found the lineups that neutralized the strengths of the opposing team and attacked their weaknesses. His teams were moving targets. Cleveland had a different starting five in each of the close-out games it played across three rounds in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season. Golden State never had an answer for him until it signed Durant.

The Warriors never had an answer for Durant, either. Acquiring him in free agency removed one of the biggest obstacles in their path. They barely survived Durant in the 2016 Western Conference finals. The big adjustment that Oklahoma City made in that series was putting Durant on Green. It was a preview of what was to come in Golden State. Durant spent the first half of his career playing primarily as a wing, but he can be one of the most dominant big men in the league too. He swallowed up Green on both ends of the floor, and he took away the pick-and-roll between Green and Curry by switching the screen and allowing his teammates to stay at home on defense. There were no four-on-three opportunities for Green, and no open shots for anyone else. The Cavs copied the same blueprint in the Finals with LeBron in the Durant role. The difference was they had Kyrie Irving instead of Westbrook, and 3-point shooters in place of Roberson and Dion Waiters.

The Warriors had weaknesses that could be exploited in a series before Durant arrived. He gave them an answer for everything. He’s fifth all time in career playoff scoring average (28.8 points per game), with a higher career true shooting percentage (59.1) than any of the players ahead of him. There’s no one in the league whom he can’t score on, and no one whom he can’t match up with. He averaged 28.5 points on 50 percent shooting in a second-round win over San Antonio in 2016, while being defended primarily by Kawhi Leonard, one of the greatest perimeter defenders of all time. Going back through league history to find a player who could guard Durant would be a fruitless endeavor because his skill set would seem more outlandish the further back you go. There was no frame of reference for what he was doing when he first started. Durant was the one who coined the term “unicorn” almost a decade into his career.

The balance of power in the NBA now revolves around Durant. LeBron famously boasted that he could win not five, not six, but seven championships when he signed in Miami. Durant could actually do it if he re-signs with Golden State this offseason. KD is 30, Curry is 31, while Klay Thompson and Draymond are 29. This team could stay together indefinitely. It doesn’t seem like it will happen, though. Durant has been linked to New York all season, and he will have many intriguing options in free agency if he looks elsewhere. It’s hard to know from the outside what will determine his decision. It would be a shame if the noise on social media makes it for him.

Durant occupies a weird space in the NBA hierarchy. He’s an all-time great player in the prime of his career who doesn’t have many fans. He is still hated in Oklahoma City, and he has never been accepted in Golden State. The perception is that his two championships and two Finals MVPs don’t count toward his legacy because the Warriors aren’t really his team. Even when the backlash to The Decision was at its peak, LeBron still had legions of devoted fans. One of the most revealing things about Durant defending himself with a burner account on Twitter is that there weren’t others doing it for him.

While it seems weird that he would leave such a great situation in Golden State, he can change the narrative surrounding his career with the decision he makes in the offseason. Durant can’t return to Oklahoma City, which is capped out for the indefinite future, but he can follow the rest of the LeBron blueprint. James made a pitstop in his late 20s in Miami before heading out to win a championship of his own in his early 30s. There could be a lot of star movement this offseason, and there are multiple teams in big markets (the Clippers, Knicks, and Nets) that either have enough cap space or can create enough to sign two players to max contracts.

The biggest domino looming over every free-agency decision in the league is what will happen with Anthony Davis. The Lakers and the Celtics have long been considered the front-runners in the Davis sweepstakes, but the former couldn’t complete a deal at the deadline and are on terrible terms with the Pelicans, while the latter may have to hold on to their best assets until they know what will happen with Kyrie. Durant can make the ultimate power move by getting Kyrie to go with him and joining up with Davis on either the Clippers or the Knicks, both of whom should have the assets to make a trade for Davis this summer.

Some people would criticize Durant for joining another superteam, but that would be a misunderstanding of how the league works in 2019. The greatest players play for keeps. The competition doesn’t end when the game is over. It lasts year-round. The stakes are too high to not build the best possible team. If you don’t, someone else will. LeBron thought he was creating a dynasty when he joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and he bailed once he saw a better situation in Cleveland next to Kyrie and eventually Kevin Love. Durant outmaneuvered LeBron in 2016. He could do it again this summer. And if he doesn’t, he could end up making the same mistake that LeBron made when he came to the Lakers.

LeBron vs. Durant may end up being a more interesting historical debate than LeBron vs. Jordan. Durant already has one of the most impressive résumés in NBA history: 10 All-Star appearances, nine All-NBA teams, one MVP, two championships, and two Finals MVPs. If he can stay healthy—no guarantee for a 7-footer who missed most of one season with a broken foot—he will fly up the record books. Durant is no. 31 on the career leaderboard for points (22,940). The only active players between him and LeBron are Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Vince Carter, and Dwyane Wade. The next four behind him are Pau Gasol, Jamal Crawford, Tony Parker, and Joe Johnson. You have to go all the way down to his former running buddies in Oklahoma City—Westbrook (no. 59 at 18,859) and James Harden (no. 63 at 18,627)—to find someone even in a position to chase Durant.

I had Zach Kram, our statistician at The Ringer, crunch the numbers. He used a model initially invented by Bill James for baseball and tweaked by John Hollinger for basketball, to assess the probability of a player reaching a career milestone. According to his findings, LeBron has a 69.9 percent chance of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (no. 1 at 38,387) and a 44 percent chance of reaching 40,000 points, while Durant has a 20.8 percent chance of catching Kareem and a 14.1 percent chance of reaching 40,000. The problem, as Kram pointed out, is that there is no way to model a player like Durant, whose skill set is unlike anything that has come before him—which means his aging curve could be too.

There is so much of Durant’s legacy yet to be written. His game, which is based on size and shooting ability, should age better than LeBron’s. The best 7-footers in NBA history, from Kareem to Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, all played at a high level deep into their 30s. The advantage that Durant (who is assuredly 7 feet tall, despite his listed height) has is that he’s starting from a higher baseline of speed and skill. No other 7-footer spent his 20s playing as a small forward. Players tend to move up the position spectrum as they get older, making up for any decline in athleticism by matching up with bigger and slower players. Duncan and Dirk extended their careers by moving from the 4 to the 5 in their 30s. Durant can do them one better. He slides from the 3 to the 4, and then again from the 4 to the 5, over the course of games. He could be one of the best centers in the league in his late 30s.

Durant and LeBron could go down as the no. 1 and 2 scorers in NBA history. The sport will look a lot different in the years after they retire. Few put Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in the discussion for greatest player of all time anymore because of the perceived level of competition in the 1960s. The same thing will happen for players from the 1980s and 1990s. Fans in the 2030s will look at non-HD games in the same way we look at games in black and white. They are going to wonder why the players aren’t shooting 3s, and the number of post-ups and on-court brawls will boggle their mind. Going from Warriors vs. Cavs to a Knicks vs. Heat playoff game in the 1990s is like going from laser battles in space to cavemen beating each over the head with rocks. It will be hard for future fans to think of any player from such an archaic era as the greatest player of all time.

The discussion around Durant will change. There have been several players who have been hyped as the next Durant, and none have lived up to it. It’s almost impossible for a 7-footer to be as skilled as he is. He’s an anomaly with no historical precedent and no successor on the horizon. Durant is one of the hardest-working players in NBA history. Players his size don’t play like guards without putting in an unimaginable number of hours in the gym. And players don’t become great passers in the NBA without untold hours of watching film. I was blessed to watch him up close and personal for one season at Texas. He’s an absolutely incredible player. All the baggage he’s carried with him doesn’t matter. It will be forgotten in time.

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