Posted Mar 6 2012 11:10AM
Sometimes it's better to be the superstar who hasn't gone to the NBA Finals (yet), who didn't leave his team for another, who doesn't have legions dissecting the moves he makes and also those he doesn't.
Kevin Durant isn't exactly low profile. But at least he can pass to a teammate on the last possession without being characterized as a loser.
"I saw that play," Durant said, referring to LeBron James famously giving up the ball last weekend in Utah. "Udonis Haslem was wide open for a jumper that he usually makes. You know what? I'd make the same play. It was the right play. I'd have done the same thing. I can't believe it was even an issue."
It's an interesting observation from Durant, perhaps the only player who can wrestle the MVP trophy from LeBron. Both are having terrific seasons, are generally recognized as the two greatest young players in the game, and they could meet this June in a championship summit that would coronate an already-blockbuster NBA season.
But they are judged, by the basketball universe at least, on completely separate planets. They are galaxies apart.
To the consensus, Durant is the humble star, smart player and consummate teammate who can do nothing wrong. He's the rare shooter who isn't considered a selfish gunner. Had he shoveled a pass with the game on the line to Russell Westbrook, or even James Harden, the ensuing debate wouldn't be heated enough to fry an egg.
Meanwhile, LeBron is viewed as the egocentric personality, fourth-quarter flop and championship goat who was too afraid to beat the Jazz. In the All-Star Game, the MVP award that Durant took home was decided more by what LeBron didn't do in the fourth quarter. He passed up three chances to take the last shot.
Because of his meltdown in the NBA Finals last June, LeBron simply can't win. This is the same player who famously destroyed the Pistons almost by himself in the playoffs several years ago, and who beat Derrick Rose and the Bulls with epic plays in the fourth quarter and overtime last spring. No matter what he does (or doesn't do), though, he will surely be rejected, even by folks outside of Cleveland.
While the characterizations and denunciations of LeBron are mostly over the top -- if not plain unfair -- at least the universe gets it right with Durant. He truly is a complete package, from a superstar standpoint.
In that respect, Oklahoma City is fortunate. There aren't many players at the highest level who are low maintenance, who are adored in their own locker room and respected by their peers and constantly praised by the public. Durant is mainly because his actions demand it. Humble and level-headed, he's the Derrick Rose of the West.
"He's a great superstar," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "He looks at himself as the 15th guy on the team. He works every day, doesn't see himself as better than his teammates, even though obviously he's one of the best players in the game. That kind of player is a treat to be around. He carries himself well on and off the court. He carries himself the same way with the staff and his teammates. He wants to be coached; we coach him hard and he listens and goes with the plan. He buys into what we're trying to do."
Understand, when players are handed the keys to the franchise, some take advantage of it. That's the case in every sport, not just the NBA, and even in most professions. Maybe the highest compliment anyone can give Durant is that he's big-time only in talent.
"He's one of those quiet competitors who goes about his business so smoothly that you don't even notice," said Brooks. "He competes every night, shows up to practice hard every day, and that carries over to the team. Those are the leaders you want to build your team around."
There aren't many MVP-level stars, for example, who could co-exist with Westbrook. Strong-willed and often stubborn, Westbrook has a superstar's mentality and more than once has tried to take over games, often at the expense of Durant. Can you imagine Kobe Bryant's reaction if he was waved off by Westbrook?
And yet Durant has a Tim Duncan-like approach to such situations. He's a fierce competitor who wants the ball in the clutch, yet never loses his composure and is always willing to do whatever it takes. Actually, if there is a knock against Durant, it's that he isn't much of a vocal leader. But he said he's working on it. And many great players have led more by showing than telling? Duncan, Julius Erving, Joe Montana, Derek Jeter ... the list is long.
Which leads us back to the superstar's philosophy with the game on the line. Durant says his approach isn't all that different than LeBron's.
"I just try to make the right basketball play," he said. "Somebody's open, you pass them the ball. I want to be known as a player who can beat you different ways, not just by shooting in that situation. Don't get me wrong, if they give me the shot, I'll take it. That's what I'm looking to do. But if they double, I'll try to exploit that, too."
Durant and LeBron are mutual admirers, cordial to each other and friendly, though not in each other's inner circle. From a distance, Durant understands the dilemma that LeBron finds himself in, post-Decision and all. But he also doesn't quite understand it.
"Take the All-Star Game," said Durant. "It's an All-Star Game, man. I don't see why people criticize so much over an All-Star Game. That's crazy. It wasn't like it was a championship game."
He paused and shook his head.
"It was an All-Star Game."
Yes, but it was also LeBron James, a human magnet for debate, a role Durant isn't wishing on himself, or anyone else.
"All I know is the guy is having a phenomenal season," Durant said. "Somebody's got to give him some credit for that."
Credit comes in the form of the MVP award. But when the NBA Finals arrive, and if it's LeBron vs. Durant, we all know who can't lose in that situation. Even if they lose the championship.
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