After watching a season (or two, really) that have been characterized by disarray, with vaccine-refusing Kyrie Irving playing only half the season, James Harden being shipped to Philly for a clinically depressed guy (allegedly) that hasn’t played a lick and perhaps the most promising (yet disappointing) offensive trio in NBA history dissected after only a handful of games together, I had a revelation.
At no point in the game’s history has Kevin Durant been the league’s best player and at this point in his career, he never will be. Hear me out.
Most basketball fans will tell you that regular season games mean little, however, there are quite often statement games that mean more than most. With a scant few games left in the season, the Milwaukee Bucks traveled to Brooklyn with playoff positioning on the line for both teams. The Bucks still had a shot at the top seed. The Nets, after the season they’ve had, were jockeying for position in the play-in games.
That was not the only jockeying going on for post-season acknowledgement.
Bucks’ superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t win league MVP last year, which was largely political. The tall, lanky, freak show who has taken the league by storm finished fourth in MVP voting to Nikola Jokic. That’s not to say that Jokic wasn’t deserving of the award. He was. But there was no way on God’s Greek earth voters were giving Giannis the award. An MVP last year would have made it three in a row for the big fella and that sort of honor is strictly reserved for legends.
Only four players in league history have won the award three consecutive times: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell. Not LeBron, not Magic, not even Kareem won the award three seasons in a row. Voters understood the significance of naming Giannis MVP that year and were hardly about to let that happen, all but saying he’s not yet worthy of being mentioned with the all-time greats. And he’s not.
Not long ago, on an otherwise ordinary night in Brooklyn, Giannis may have locked up his third MVP in four years, reminding all he’s the best player on the planet, or at least the most valuable. And he did so against Kevin Durant.
In a game that the Nets had all but sealed, Milwaukee was down by seven points with two minutes left. Down three with 18 seconds to go, Giannis nailed a three-pointer that was more than just a bucket. It was a message to Brooklyn that they are still not afraid. Giannis tied the game and forced an overtime, which Milwaukee won. Symbolically, that bucket thrust the one they call the Freak into Milwaukee’s record book. He became their all-time leading scorer, not bad for a team that once boasted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It also reminded us that he is un-guardable and yes, the best player in the league. He dropped 44 points that night on an efficient 14-of-21 shooting. He finished second in the league in scoring, seventh in rebounding and, like last year, instead of looking for reasons to give him the MVP award, we’re once again looking for reasons not to.
Giannis is 27 years old.
Kevin Durant is equally as unstoppable, yet we are once again reminded that this Nets team he wanted to build, recruit for, and carry, is not as good as Milwaukee. They’re not as balanced, not as determined, and not as inspired. If you’re keeping track at home, the Nets are one NBA title behind Giannis. And they’re closer this year than Las Vegas would have you believe. Expectations are still high. They are even money against the Boston Celtics in the opening round of these playoffs despite being the road team.
But back to Kevin Durant. Sure, he has an MVP award and three scoring titles, all of which he won in Oklahoma City. He even has two Finals MVPs for his years at Golden State where he was free to score at will thanks in large part to who he played alongside. But many basketball purists still hold those Oakland years against him, as much as titles can be held against players for jumping ship for an easier route. We NBA fans are a finicky lot.
These arguments are silly of course. No one can take those accolades away from Durant, but those Golden State teams are not considered his own. They are considered Curry’s. One could even make the argument that Curry was the better player on that team for that very reason. Those were probably Durant’s best years, or at least his most efficient, despite never having outscored Steph.
Two years earlier, Durant led the league in PER (Player Efficiency Rating), a summation of all player stats into one. It was the year he won his only MVP. LeBron James, who already had four MVPs, won that year’s title in Miami. Despite Durant’s insane season, it would be hard to argue he was better than LeBron at that point, or perhaps at any point.
Something happened on the way to Durant’s dominance, and it was more than just an Achilles injury that kept him out of the 2019-20 season, a season in which we admittedly missed watching him play.
One of the incalculable qualities that vaults icons into the all-time Top Ten list… is leadership. That’s not to say Durant isn’t a great leader. That’s not to say he’s not among the greats. He’s a joy to watch and a bear to stop. It does, however, suggest that Kevin Durant has yet to take a team of his own and win a title, if not multiple. It is through these NBA lenses that we view greatness. These things matter. Giannis is poised to do so again and has the upper hand. As a result of Brooklyn’s seven-seed, Durant will now have to travel through Boston and then Milwaukee just to get to the Conference Finals. Long is the way and hard that out of Hell leads up to light.
One could easily make the argument that Kevin Durant is a top twenty NBA player of all-time. Ironically, I’m not ready to put Giannis on that list yet, although six years younger, he still has time. There is plenty of history yet to etch for both players.
There is no shame in always being the second or third best player in the league, and never the first. Phil Mickelson always played in Tiger’s shadow. Charles Barkley, Pat Ewing and everyone else Michael Jordan beat in the 90s always played in his. Kevin Durant is an insanely talented, basketball player, one I would unquestionably want on my team yet as much as I love watching him play, he’s not the best basketball player in the league and I’m not entirely sure he ever has been. Tell me I’m wrong.
Kevin Durant dropped in 55 points in a basketball game the other night. His team lost. He’s as unstoppable as he’s ever been. Yet he probably won’t finish in the top five in MVP voting this year.
Durant still has plenty of high-level basketball yet to play in his career. He will unquestionably finish a top ten all-time NBA scorer. He’s already 24th on the all-time list. But sometimes careers come around that coincide with others that are better. Such is the case with Kevin Durant.
In my eyes, and the eyes of so many others, until Durant can lead his team to a title, until he can put his stamp on his own squad, he’ll lack something only very few possess. Therein lies his challenge. He knows that. Let’s see, this year, if he can get it done.