Maps and Tom Ziller, two All-Star traditions that never go out of style.
NEW YORK -- Tucked away in a far corner of a hotel ballroom on media day, the league’s reigning MVP held court for 20 awkward minutes. Normally an occasion such as this would commandeer a vast media army hanging on his every word, but instead Kevin Durant found himself defending his inclusion in the All-Star game and batting back innocuous questions from unfamiliar faces about his sneakers and Justin Bieber. He wasn’t in a particularly playful mood.
"My first few years in the league I was just finding myself," Durant said. "Most of the time I reacted based on what everybody else wanted and how they viewed me as a person. I’m just learning to be myself and not worry about what anybody else says. I’m going to make mistakes. I just want to show kids, athletes, entertainers so-called celebrities -- we’re not robots. We go through emotions, we go through feelings. I’m just trying to express mine. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m programmed to say the right stuff all the time, the politically-correct answers. I’m done with that. I’m just going to continue to grow as a man."
As for his All-Star spot, KD’s response was succinct. Despite playing just 26 games due to injury, he’s still having a typically brilliant KD season amassing 26 points, 6.6 boards and 4 assists per game. OKC’s been as good as ever when he’s been healthy, and it’s not as if Durant has slipped appreciably.
"When I’m out on the court I produce," Durant said. "I add value to our team. Sometimes people on the outside make you feel like you didn’t deserve it or you have to work for it. That made me appreciate it more. I’m glad I’m here, man. It’s one of those deals that you can mark down and nobody can ever take from you, so I’m very happy."
We’ve seen variations of the "KD is not nice" persona before, but that was tied to his cold-blooded shotmaking and always presented with a hint of a smile. The Durant that appeared before us on Friday seemed to mirror his team’s shaky hold on itself. Where once the Thunder were acclaimed as the Next Great Team, now they’re merely fighting for survival.
If he felt like an afterthought during the weekend’s biggest hype session it would be hard to blame him. For the first time in four years he wasn’t voted in as a starter, and after considering Durant, West coach Steve Kerr tabbed LaMarcus Aldridge as the replacement starter for the injured Blake Griffin. The hordes were elsewhere this year, as if KD has suddenly become passé.
All of it was enough to make you consider the fragility of time. Has it really been eight years since Durant first appeared before us as the good-natured antidote to LeBron James’ grim determination to take over the world?
It’s an odd state of affairs when we take a player like Durant for granted, but he and the Thunder have been largely absent from the narratives that have defined the NBA so far this season. The Hawks and Warriors have become the league’s darlings, riding a wave of success built around the kind of team play that transcends the brand of individual brilliance OKC has been known for.
The MVP talk has centered on emerging forces such as Durant’s former teammate James Harden and Golden State’s Stephen Curry. Then there’s Anthony Davis, who seems poised to rule the league for a generation, much like KD once did. Durant won’t repeat this year due to various injuries that represent his first extended time on the inactive list. But he made a forceful and salient point about the nature of such things, while also railing against the media’s voting power.
"I think the MVP is a lot about narratives and what may happen during that time," Durant said. "There’s a lot of guys that have been playing extremely well for years and years and are just starting to get MVP consideration. I think that consistent play sometimes gets a little boring to people. A guy like James Harden, he’s been doing it for three years and people act like it’s new. Steph Curry been doing the same thing for three years. The narrative around their team and what he’s been doing is new to everybody. Once you guys really watch games and realize what these guys been doing consistently for years, it’s nothing new. They’ve been doing it for years. I guess the hype around it is different. Of course everybody gets better, but when you stay consistent with what you do, it’s not like it came from nowhere."
Durant wasn’t talking about himself, but he wasn’t not talking about himself either. His periodic scoring outbursts these days are greeted with a nod, as if we sometimes need to be reminded that yes, Kevin Durant can still light up a cold winter night with his unparalleled shotmaking ability.
And what of the Thunder? For years they have been the supposed model by which other rebuilding teams should aspire. Build through the draft and sit back and watch as talented young players mold themselves into a contender. It’s the platonic ideal of roster building, but the cracks have started to show.
Harden has emerged as a serious MVP candidate in Houston and now GM Sam Presti is forced to figure out what to do with Reggie Jackson and his array of young talent. It’s the fatal flaw of the draft-and-develop path for a small market team on a tight budget: Young players eventually grow up and young players want to get paid and have more responsibility.
The Harden trade notwithstanding, Presti has been able to keep OKC’s window open long after other contenders have been forced to rebuild and reassess their roster. The Thunder’s accomplishments are impressive, including three conference finals in four years and one Finals appearance. Last season, Durant finally got the better of LeBron personally with his first Most Valuable Player award.
That’s a great run, but neither he nor they have that final validation of a championship. For the first time the clock is ticking toward a day of reckoning when Durant will become a free agent. It will coincide with the dawn of a new system that’s clouded by the mountains of television money soon to be sprung on the league. For the first time in his career, he will have options.
"To be honest I’m not even trying to think about that now," Durant said. "We’re in the middle of a tough, grind-out season and I don’t want to take any distraction off our brothers in OKC. I’m laying my body on the line for them and they’re laying their body on the line for me. That’s the only thing that matters."
No one knows what the future may bring, but there’s a sense of finality creeping into the Thunder’s existence. Where once they seemed inevitable, now OKC is facing an uphill climb back to contention.
There’s opportunity here, however. The Thunder’s rejuvenated play before the break leaves them poised to claim that final spot in the West from Phoenix and New Orleans. If they can keep it together over the final two months, they will enter the postseason as spoilers, something they haven’t been since those halcyon early days.
Perhaps that’s the way it has to be for Durant and the Thunder. We’ve been waiting on their arrival for so long that maybe it will take these kind of difficult circumstances to bring out their best. They have always operated with the luxury of time on their side, but even they have an expiration date.
That left KD defending what he and Russell Westbrook have accomplished over the years, which in many ways should be beyond reproach at this point. The unlikeliest of soul mates, KD and Russ have carved out a strong working relationship where others have long predicted doom. Yet, as impressive as their run has been, there is an obvious hole at the top of their resumé.
"Say what you want but we produce," Durant said. "We’ve done it for years and years. We haven’t won a championship and that’s the next thing in line for us. You can’t discount what we’ve done as a group. We didn’t look at ourselves like a duo. I know everybody talks about that, but if you look at us how we’ve grown as players and leaders we went through a lot, we’ve been through a lot, I love Russ to death. I love playing with him. We’ve done a lot of great things in this league. We’re just trying to take the next step."