Kevin Durant’s title has elevated him to a level of one of the league’s all-time greats.
Discussing what a title means for a player’s legacy just 48 hours removed from the champagne being popped can be tough. Legacy is a concept that really needs time for the right perspective. In a lot of ways, however, the choices Kevin Durant has made over the past 12 months have left us no choice but to discuss him in terms of his legacy.
Ever since Durant left Oklahoma City for the Bay Area’s greener pastures, he has permanently linked himself with how he will be viewed after his time in the league is done. His public letter announcing his decision to join the Warriors used euphemisms like “growth” and “evolution,” but we all understood what he truly meant.
Durant went to Golden State to win titles. Plural.
Monday night was the first step, but Durant and the Warriors hope it will be just one of many to come. While KD hoisting his first Larry O’Brien Trophy as confetti poured over him may have seemed inevitable since last July, this outcome was far from a certainty.
While Durant may not have been the one fans were chanting ‘MVP’ for at the end of Game 5, he was the best player on the Warriors this season. He wasn’t just a piece added to a 73-9 juggernaut, he was a focal point of a team that completed the best playoff run in league history. All of the work Durant has put in since he entered the league in Seattle a decade ago culminated in that moment.
On Monday night, Durant became just the 17th player in league history to win both a regular season and Finals MVP trophy. He was just one made free throw away from finishing the playoffs in the 50-40-90 club; but on the positive side, he joined Courtney Lee (bet you weren’t expecting that) as the only two players to finish at least a 10-game playoff run at 55-44-89.
Durant has always been an explosive offensive force, but these playoffs showed just how efficient he could be. Every minute he was on the court he seemed as if he could get wherever he wanted at will. But as we look back on this run in the coming years, it will be his game-winning shot in Game 3 that will be the defining moment.
The magnitude of that shot on its own makes it great, but the fact that it came over LeBron’s outstretched reach makes it historic. Trying to stop Durant at times is a futile endeavor, and nothing says that more than LeBron’s reaction. One of the smartest and most gifted defenders in the league did well to contest an unblockable shot, and could do nothing more than slap his leg and move on.
That moment may very well be the indelible image these Finals create, but Durant’s performance cannot be boiled down to just that play. As his teammates struggled with fouls, Durant took on an enormous role defensively and the Warrior’s defense didn’t skip a beat.
Primarily for offensive purposes, Durant played more than half his minutes at the four or five this season. For most players that might mean they are a defensive liability on the other end, but Durant became an extraordinary defender. He blocked more shots than ever before, and became the roving rim-protector that the Warriors have craved when Draymond Green goes to the bench. Durant’s offense will always get the headlines, but he became a bonafide two-way star in ways the Warriors drastically needed.
While we can sit back and recognize all of this now that he won a title, none of it is to say he’s great because he won a title. The title came as a result of his greatness, not the other way around. We wait too long to recognize greatness, and value titles more than performance.
But now that he is a champion, MVP, and Finals MVP, we can start to put Durant among the greats of the sport where he belongs. And he absolutely belongs.
Because we haven’t had this conversation about Durant like we’ve had with LeBron for years, it might be surprising to realize just how high up the list he is. The table below lays out the 20 small-forwards with the highest points per game ever who played at least 10 seasons in the league (plus Scottie Pippen). It lays out each player’s shooting stats, as well as several “all encompassing” stats to compare.
Of the 21 players on the list, Durant is the only one who finished in the top three in every single category. None of these stats are perfect on their own, but the trend they show is clear. Durant belongs in the conversation whether you want him to be or not.
Durant and Bird are the two best shooting small forwards ever, point-blank period. LeBron has the edge in interior scoring as well as win shares and PER, which isn’t surprising either as he is the most well-rounded small forward ever. Each player shines in different categories, and while these stats don’t tell the whole story, they clearly show who the top three are.
Some might be inclined to argue that Scottie Pippen won’t be great statistically but he deserves consideration, and he does. Pippen is one of the best defenders the league has ever seen and won six titles, but he never reached the heights of Bird, LeBron, or now Durant. Pippen deserves his place in the top five small forwards of all time, but Durant has proven he deserves the edge over him.
While those stats alone might indicate Durant maybe should be considered the best small forward of all time, he still has a ways to go. Bird won three titles and three MVPs and LeBron has three and four of his own. LeBron’s defense has been consistently where Durant’s is just now reaching, and both LeBron and Bird are far and away the best passing forwards this game has ever seen.
Bird and LeBron have separated themselves at the top of this list. Durant has entered the conversation, but he has several steps to climb before he is truly a contender for the top spot.
Durant may not have arrived in Golden State under the pronouncement of “not three, not four…”, but you can be sure those are his intentions. He has already made clear his plans to re-sign in Oakland this offseason in the goal of turning Tuesday into the first of many parades he brings to the Bay. Durant knows he has a lot more work to put in to get where he eventually wants to go, but as of Monday, he can finally be recognized as the all-time great that he deserves to be.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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