Durant’s Incredible Season Aided by Connection to Oklahoma City, Thunder Teammates

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@okcthunder.com

In the summer of 2015, Kevin Durant had to wheel himself around inside the INTEGRIS Thunder Development Center on a scooter, protecting his injured right foot. In the summer of 2015, it was exciting when Durant was able to work out in swimming pool and cause for celebration when he was simply able to start walking again.

One year later, in the summer of 2016, Durant brought the Thunder to the precipice of the organization’s second NBA Finals appearance, pushing the 73-win Golden State Warriors to the brink in a seven-game Western Conference Finals series. The unbreakable resolve that propelled Durant from pickup games in his neighborhood as a youth to the heights of college basketball, to an NBA MVP and All-Star appearances year after year is also what pulled him from the depths of an unfortunate injury to yet another spectacular year for the Thunder.

With his feet back under him physically and mentally, Durant is ready to attack his next challenge, the 2016 offseason and a new season, just four months away.

“The season he had was just remarkable,” Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti said. “I remember when he started to just start walking - like it was celebratory - to go from that to having maybe his most efficient year.”

“A lot has changed in a year. I'm just grateful that I was able to stay with it and keep my head focused to move past that phase and make it to this point. That's an accomplishment for me in and of itself,” Durant said. “It means a lot that I had the support of the people here to help me get through that time. It's definitely something I'm always going to remember and just know I learned a lot of lessons during that time as well.”

Even after an early season hamstring injury that kept him out of eight games, Durant got on a roll and had perhaps one of his most productive and efficient all-around seasons in his career. The numbers speak for themselves, and they’re impressive as ever: 28.2 points, a career-high 8.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.0 steals per game while shooting 50.5 percent from the field, 38.6 percent from three and 89.8 percent from the free throw line.

Beyond the statistics, Durant helped usher in a new chapter of Thunder basketball by championing the strategies and schemes laid out by new Head Coach Billy Donovan and doing whatever it took to put his team in the best position to succeed. Durant underwent a change in his rotation minutes, being willing to sit out for a couple minutes in the middle of each of the four quarters. That change helped spark the team and unlock more of its overall potential. When the Thunder went through tough times, it was Durant who helped pull the team out of that slippage and return to form.

“It was a tremendous example of a franchise player putting the franchise first,” Presti said.

“I had to really think going into every game, how I'm going to be effective on the offensive end and defensive end, how I'm going to disrupt,” Durant said. “I learned a lot about myself as a player, and then just being the leader, I took huge strides in learning my teammates better, knowing when they need to be encouraged, knowing when they need someone to lift them up and knowing when they need someone to get on them as well, and listening also when they had something to say to me.”

“Coming down the stretch of the playoffs, the way he verbalized to the guys and communicated with the guys was really terrific,” Donovan said.

As a leader, Durant is constantly thinking about the team as a whole, and not just how he fits in individually. All around him, Durant was able to lift up teammates and help them ascend to new heights. Youngsters like Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters were sensational for the Thunder in the postseason, comprising half of the eight-man rotation in high-intensity postseason series against the San Antonio Spurs and the Warriors.

Ever the perfectionist, Durant’s eye was still on the ball just days after the 2015-16 season came to an end. It’s clear that Durant’s mind is focused on the “we” in his approach to his offseason training. The brothers he fought alongside of all season long mean a great deal to him, and he wants to see them continue to flourish.

“I think the next phase for all of us is what are our decisions going to be this summer? Will we work on our game and come back even better, are we going to be excited about what we did and be complacent, or are we going to want more?” Durant asked of himself and his teammates.

The Thunder’s core four of Durant, Russell Westbrook, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka have been in Oklahoma City for nearly a decade now together. Their cohesiveness, understanding of one another’s strengths and weaknesses and ability to work together as a leadership group has been remarkable.

“I love my teammates here. I love playing basketball here,” Durant stated.

It wasn’t only having Durant for just 27 games in 2015-16 that ensured that Oklahomans and members of the Thunder appreciate their versatile forward’s efforts. It’s his body of work both on the court and in the community and the way he has carried himself as the face of the franchise. That genuine spirit Durant exudes has generated a sense of reverence for the impact he has had on the team and on the state since 2008.

“The brand Oklahoma City is just so world known now, that just shows how much the organization put the players first and put basketball first, but also the community and this whole atmosphere,” Durant said. “We grouped it all into our organization and made it one, and that kind of drove us to where we wanted to go.”

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