For the second season running, Kevin Durant was the Finals MVP, enabling the Golden State Warriors to repeat as champions.
The Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers tussle for glory (the fourth in four years, with the Warriors winning three) featured little competition this time. Durant helped apply the finishing touches, scoring points whenever Cavaliers threatened to keep it close, and playing suffocating defence against the great LeBron James and in the paint.
Few basketball connoisseurs will begrudge Durant his MVP awards. And no one who saw them will forget the dagger three-pointers that settled Game 3, both in 2017 and in 2018, away in Cleveland.
That said, despite his successes, Durant will not be spoken of in the same breath as LeBron, who will be credited with carrying a far inferior team deep into contention four seasons running. Durant, on the other hand, joined the world-beating Warriors that had broken the all-time regular season record in 2015-16 and had narrowly lost the Finals to a LeBron-inspired Cavs. There is merit to the argument that Durant, a former MVP who led the league in individual scoring in four of his first nine seasons at Oklahoma City Thunder, simply bandwagoned onto a team dripping with talent.
A squad that featured superstar Stephen Curry, his “splash-brother” Klay Thompson, Swiss army knife Draymond Green and versatile sixth man Andre Iguodala did not need Durant. His addition only launched the team further into the stratosphere of all-time greatness. For many critics, this diminishes Durant’s achievements; he will forever trail LeBron unless he drags a lesser squad to a title like The King did.
Durant has been discomfited by this argument, and has used the criticism to fuel his ambition. He has taken pay cuts to allow the Warriors to retain its strong talent. More importantly, he has sought to better himself as a player. Durant’s trajectory from scoring freak to all-round lynchpin is worth studying before judging him.
Durant was picked second in the 2007 draft by Seattle Supersonics, who later became Oklahoma City Thunder. Within a few years, Thunder became a powerful contender in the Western Conference — first as an athletic, three-headed scoring monster (forward Durant, point guard Russell Westbrook and shooting guard James Harden) and later as an all-round team. Durant was a key element of both units. He used his freakish length and unusual silkiness in jump-shots and guard-like play (despite being 7ft tall) to overpower perimeter defenders. He could also play one-on-one at the post, run hard and finish in transition.
Glory evaded the Thunder teams for various reasons — Harden was traded after they reached the 2012 Finals due to salary cap issues, and injuries sabotaged their chances. But primarily, Thunder seemed a squad where the sum of the individual talent was greater than the actual output, and Durant was partly responsible. He played in a one-dimensional offensive system that depended upon ‘hero-ball’.
Thunder’s best season, ironically, was Durant’s last. In 2015-16, they came close to upending defending champion Warriors. They led 3-1 in the series and were cruising in Game 6 before a Klay Thompson special put paid to their chances. During the Playoffs, Durant showed dramatic improvement in his defensive game — he played his height, his shot-blocking in the paint was first-rate — and commentators wondered if it was only a matter of time before Thunder caught up with Warriors. It was not to be, as Durant promptly switched to the Bay Area later in the off-season.
Despite the criticism of this decision, Durant has shown that his all-round performance in the 2015-16 Playoffs was no fluke. His shot-blocking has been off the charts as a Warrior, he has retained his efficient scoring (eased as it is in a stellar offensive system), and has adapted to playing both in the perimeter and in the paint. In sum, Durant has achieved what he set out to — develop as player and become the lynchpin of a phenomenal squad, forcing the competition to keep up. He deserves to be appreciated for this, even though not everyone can find it within them to cherish him.