From an individual standpoint, Kevin Durant was obviously the big winner of this year’s Finals. His 35.2 points per game on 55% shooting–which includes a sensational 47% mark from downtown–ranks as the most impressive offensive performance by a Finals MVP since…well, let’s see…maybe Dwyane Wade in 2006? Shaq in 2002? Yeah, probably Shaq in ’02. Either way, it’s been a while since we’ve seen someone dominate like Durant on the game’s biggest stage.
So now Durant’s terrific resume is complete. One of the undisputed greatest scorers in NBA history is now a champion. But I’m sure there are some of you, perhaps even many of you, that still hold a grudge against KD for that “weak” decision he made to join the Warriors. His success is tainted! Put an asterisk on this title!
Let’s think rationally, though, and travel back to around this time last year. Here’s what many people were saying about the player with the fourth highest points per game average in NBA history: he’s a choke, a disappointment, an underachiever. Now, everyone, even pundits like Stephen A. Smith who still have a problem with his choice to join the Warriors, is hailing him as an all-time great.
Don’t kid yourself: if Durant had stayed in Oklahoma City, he would not be a champion right now, and his narrative would’ve remain unchanged. OK, maybe him and Westbrook would’ve found a way to beat the Warriors. Maybe. But the odds of the Thunder beating Golden State and LeBron’s Cavs would’ve been low. Durant would’ve faced another year with fans and the media alike placing him alongside Charles Barkley and Karl Malone as another great player who never won a title.
But he would’ve maintained his integrity. At least he would still have pride! In the words of Vince Vaughn from Wedding Crashers…
Let’s compare Durant’s legacy among other similar superstars from this generation. First, take Carmelo Anthony. Unlike his buddies LeBron and Wade, ‘Melo has never been a part of a super team. He’s been trying to “win one on his own” in New York. That’s admirable. And whether he wins a championship or not, Anthony, who ranks 14th all-time in points per game, is still going to be a Hall of Famer. But if we’re talking about legacy, have the past few years in New York really helped Carmelo’s reputation as an all-time great? No sir. He’s still title-less.
Another guy who gets a lot of heat for coming up short: Chris Paul. Paul, actually, has made more of an effort than Anthony to align himself with a potential super team (although the Clippers look anything but super these days). But as great as Paul is, two of the first words many people think of when they hear his name are: disappointment and overrated. After all, he’s never been to a conference finals, let alone hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy.
More examples: Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady…what do they all have in common? They’re all ultimately inhibited in terms of their place among the greatest in NBA history because they never won a title.
As a Celtics fan, I immediately think of one player in particular who almost could’ve been on that list: Paul Pierce. Before the Big Three assembled, Pierce was the Paul George of his day, capable of leading his team to the playoffs while dropping over 20 a game, but not known as a first or second team All-NBA player. Moreover, in terms of production, Pierce was really no different than Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady. Here were their resumes from the start of their respective careers until 2007-08, when the narrative around Pierce changed with the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen:
- Paul Pierce: 23.2 points per game, two third-team All-NBA, five All-Star appearances
- Vince Carter: 23.5 points per game, one second-team All-NBA, one third-team All-NBA, nine All-Star appearances,
- Tracy McGrady: 21.9 points per game, two first-team All-NBA, three second-team All-NBA, seven All-Star appearances
In short, their careers were essentially the same. If anything, Pierce was the least accomplished of the three. So why, then, is Pierce usually ranked among the 50 greatest players of all-time, while Carter and McGrady are left out? Simple: Pierce has a championship. And according to a recent CBS ranking of the 50 greatest players, Pierce was ranked 38th mainly because “he won games.” Look, I love Pierce, but the Celtics didn’t start winning until Garnett and Allen arrived.. Yet that just proves my point: as Max Kellerman noted on First Take today, people lose sight of the details. They just remember the headlines. Paul Pierce: 2008 Finals MVP! Kevin Durant: 2017 Finals MVP! Vince Carter…a great dunker…no titles. Tracy McGrady…two-time scoring champ…no titles.
Final point, because it’s certainly necessary to address the elephant in the room. I get it: Durant joined a 73-win team. In contrast to many other legends–Jordan, Magic, Bird, Kobe (not LeBron, though)–their titles, you could say, came more naturally. Bird didn’t join Magic, Jordan didn’t join the Pistons, yada, yada, yada.
Yet, like the Warriors, their teams were still stacked with Hall of Fame talent. No kidding the Showtime Lakers won five titles: they had two of the five greatest players ever. Of course the Celtics won three ‘chips in the ’80’s: they had multiple Hall of Famers. Jordan, meanwhile, never won without Pippen…and Rodman…and John Paxson…and Horace Grant…and Steve Kerr. And I’d say that Kobe needed Shaq, but maybe Shaq needed Kobe!
Despite how all these legends played on vastly superior, perhaps even unfair, teams, clearly none of them were opposed to it. Just as it was Durant’s choice to play alongside other Hall of Famers in Golden State, nothing was stopping, say, Magic Johnson from saying to the Lakers, “You know, I think I’m going to try to win a title on my own. Can you send me to the Clippers?” Michael Jordan could’ve said to the Bulls, “If I’m really the greatest player of all-time, maybe I need to prove that I can lead a poor team to a title. Can you ship me to Milwaukee?” And in Kobe’s case, it appears he was interested in winning without Shaq, but that turned out horribly because the Lakers were routinely bounced in the first round when they were strictly Kobe’s show.
Of course, it’s ridiculous to suggest that, say, Magic should’ve requested a trade to the Clippers in order to prove his worth. After all, these guys wanted to win, just like Durant. But if they had any integrity! Well, integrity obviously isn’t what we value in our superstars. We assess greatness mainly on rings, plain and simple, and we eventually lose sight over how and what it took to win them.
So Durant now has that long-awaited title. And after he was ridiculed last year after Oklahoma City’s collapse and routinely placed alongside the Barkley’s, the Malone’s, and the other great’s ultimately defined by what they did not achieve, KD has now cemented his status as an all-timer.
With more success on the horizon, be ready for the comparisons between Durant and everyone from Magic, Bird, Kobe, and, maybe one day, LeBron, to begin.
Durant #1 photo courtesy of Sporting News; Durant photo #2 courtesy of Ezra Shaw, Getty Images