I’ll be the first to admit — the last few weeks have been a strange time for Thunder fans. On one hand, we really have nothing to do with the NBA Finals whatsoever. On the other, morbid curiosity won’t let us ignore it. Like browsing your ex’s Facebook page after one too many glasses of chardonnay, we can’t help but take a peek. No, I don’t miss Kevin. It’s just… I was just… wondering… you know? It’s not that big of a deal. I’m over it.
*takes a sip
With the Warriors up 3-0 on the Cavs and appearing like the most dominant squad of basketballers since the MonStars of Moron Mountain, something strange has started happening. I don’t know if it’s boredom (it’s boredom), but suddenly we’re discussing Russell Westbrook like…. way too much. Way, way too much. Because opining about how bad he is for Kevin Durant is a tradition unlike any other, fans and talking heads alike have decided to give the story line another ride around the block. For old times sake.
Seeing as how I’m a responsible adult with an eye toward letting sleeping dogs lie, I’ve tried to remain un-triggered throughout the madness. After all, I know the truth here. But when I saw an article from a Warriors blog titled “Watching Durant dominate in the Finals has made me realize just how much better Curry is than Westbrook” — that pushed me over the edge. The length of the title alone is infuriating, not to mention poor practice of search engine optimization techniques. Rudimentary work out of the Bay.
Anyway. The issue at hand:
The idea that KD has unlocked his final form by playing sans-Westbrook is complete and total malarkey. You understand that, right? I’ll admit Curry’s skill set may be better suited alongside #35, but even that is missing the point entirely. Has Durant been other-worldly in his first season in Oakland? Yeah, of course he has. Has he been any better than he was last season? No, not really. Either way, none of this has anything at all to do with Russell Westbrook.
This KD is the same as that KD
The first notion we need to dispel is the trendy idea that KD is somehow better today than he ever has been. To suggest he magically transformed into this death machine when he bolted for the Bay is not only ignorant, it’s flat out incorrect. We’re talking about a 7 foot point forward that can score easier than most people can breathe, while possessing Chris Paul’s handles and elite defense when he feels like it. No one is surprised by what he’s doing, OK? To borrow a line from his latest Nike ad campaign, this is “Still KD.”
I went back and watched his introductory press conference after signing with the Warriors, and he was introduced as “The Rookie of the Year, an Olympic gold medalist, a four-time scoring champion, a seven-time All-Star, and MVP of the league.” That’s who KD was when he arrived in Silicon Valley, folks. A career 27.4 PPG, 7 RPG monster that shot 52% from the field and 38% from downtown in his pre-Warrior days. Everyone knew this is exactly what would happen. His Game 3 shot over LeBron that’s being billed as the greatest of his career? That instinctive pull-up when his defender makes the critical error of backpedaling to the point of no return? We’ve seen it a thousand times. Game 3 wasn’t even the first time he’s done it to King James.
So knock it off already. Durant signing with the Warriors wasn’t terrifying because of what he might become. It was terrifying because of what he already was — and that’s one of the greatest to ever lace them up. He’s a superstar enjoying his prime, and this would have been the case had he decided to sign with the Thunder, the Spurs, the Celtics or the Washington Generals.
To Be Fair
To be fair, Durant did experience career-bests this season in the following categories:
- Field Goal Percentage: 54%
- Effective Field Goal Percentage: 59%
- True Shooting Percentage: 65%
- Offensive Rating: 125
- Defensive Box Plus/Minus: 2.6
- Rebounds: 8.3 RPG
- Blocks: 1.6 BPG
- Turnovers: 2.2 TO
- Fewest Minutes per Game: 33.4 MPG
- Lowest Usage Rate: 27.8%
When you factor in the war path he’s been on during this postseason (27.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 4.2 APG, 56% FG, 45% 3P), it becomes easier to understand why folks like Paul Pierce are ready to crown him as the best player in the league. His numbers through three games of the Finals (34 PPG, 10 RPG, 6 APG, 56% FG, 52% 3P) are, for a lack of better terms, absolutely stupid — I get that and I agree. He’s the easy pick for Finals MVP, has played with ice cold calculation and appears ready to begin his reign of terror as if he’s some sort of elongated Joffrey Baratheon. All these things are true, as much as I hate to admit it.
But the reason this is happening — everyone being forced to recognize the devastating power of KD’s talents — is the same reason it may be somewhat of a mirage. It’s the exact reason why people think he’s better now than he ever has been, and also the exact reason why Steph Curry is suddenly better for him than Russell Westbrook ever could be:
It looks easy because it is easy. That was the point. Kevin’s team is a juggernaut, which changes absolutely everything.
Say what now, my man?
Before the hateful tweets arrive, let me be the first to say that none of this would be possible if KD didn’t have the talent to make it possible. He’s wandered into a situation that maximizes his abilities, and I’ve been told it was his right to do so. I won’t argue it, but can we really sit back and marvel at his 2016-17 accomplishments without first addressing what made it possible? I mean, he was his most efficient self for a very clear reason.
For fun, let’s check out his shot chart. It’s beautiful in the way an asteroid steaming toward earth is beautiful. Bright. Colorful. Ultimately the source of a lot of pain and suffering.
Without diving into the math, Durant took more shots in catch-and-shoot situations, took far less pull-ups off the dribble, took more shots within 10 feet of the rim, and more than ten percent of his total shots were taken with no defender within six feet of him. When every player on the floor is a weapon, and the offense is built to share, someone is always open and no one is getting double-teamed. Works out pretty well for the best scorer in the world.
My point — KD has always been a legendary scorer, but now he’s playing on a team that gives him easier opportunities to do so. In fact, it makes life on both ends of the floor easier for everyone involved. I wanted to go on-and-on about how ridiculous all of this is, but nobody has said it better than Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated in his open letter to KD:
“You have the two best pure scorers in the league (you and Curry) and two of the five best defensive players (Klay Thompson and Draymond Green). That’s it. That’s the whole screenplay. The rest is just special effects.
If I see one more analyst point to a piece of lint in front of you and claim it’s a hurdle, I’m going to get physically ill. Your coach couldn’t sit on the bench? Come on. You had to learn to “coexist” on the floor with Curry … I mean, really? This is like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett figuring out how to split the dinner check. It’s not adversity; it’s accounting.”
That pretty much nails it, yeah? It’s been dominant but it was always going to be dominant. He signed paperwork on Warriors letterhead for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc on every man, woman and child that loves the NBA. Mission accomplished.
Why Hate on The Brodie?
We’ve established that KD is no greater than he was last season, acknowledged his extraordinary numbers this season, and examined why the entire universe is aligned to make those extraordinary numbers seem rather predictable. It took a winding road to get here, but let’s discuss how any of this could possibly have anything to do with Russell Westbrook.
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.
I imagine this will change as time goes on, but the first year of the post-KD & Russ era has been far less about celebrating the good times than it’s been about justifying their separate existence. KD gets to play free. Russ gets to do what he wants. The world has pit them against one another, while Oklahoma City has tried to wipe the last decade from its collective recollection. It’s not healthy, but it’s also problematic in the sense that it becomes easier to remember their combined efforts as whatever the narrative claims at the time.
But since it’s popular to remember KD & Russ as a failed experiment in alpha male coexistence, I’d like to remind everyone of what actually transpired. Here are the facts:
- Durant and Westbrook played together for eight seasons in Oklahoma City
- In that time, the Thunder won 62% of its games (68% if you remove the first season and KD’s injury-plagued 2014-15 campaign)
- They made five Western Conference Finals together
- They made one NBA Finals together
- They won five Northwest Division titles
- They won a Gold Medal together at the 2012 Olympics
- Durant made seven All-Star games, won four scoring titles, made six All-NBA teams, and won an MVP
- Westbrook made the All-Rookie team, made five All-Star games, won a scoring title and made five All-NBA teams
All of that? It happened while they were both on the Oklahoma City Thunder payroll. And look — I get it. They didn’t win a championship together. When you factor in James Harden, that particular era of Thunder basketball becomes one of the greatest “What If?” stories in the history of organized sports. ESPN will probably do a 30 for 30 on it someday. I don’t necessarily know when it will get easier to discuss, but I can say the folks around here aren’t there yet. That’s part of it.
But make no mistake: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were something special together in OKC. Thunder fans will go to the grave saying it was a Westbrook knee injury (and one Game 6) that kept the duo from realizing its fullest potential, but KD was great long before the idea of Oakland ever crossed his mind. The success he’s enjoying shouldn’t change the way we remember his time with Westbrook, and claiming they were completely incompatible is simply revisionist history.
I presume Durant will raise his first Larry O’Brien trophy on Friday night in Cleveland — and if it’s not Friday, I reckon it will be Monday at Oracle Arena. Regardless of the date, countless stories about his journey to that moment are bound to arise. People will say he’s never been better, that he was meant to be a Warrior and that he didn’t reach the top until Westbrook was no longer around to hold him back. That’s the thing about people, though. They’re always saying something.
There will come a day when time will have healed old wounds, life will have moved on and we’ll remember KD & Russ for what they were — way too much fun. For now the stories have diverged from one another, and what happens with Kevin Durant has absolutely nothing to do with Russell Westbrook anymore. Whether it ends up being the hard road or something different, they’re on their own now and that’s OK.