Had it not been for Kevin Durant’s “big-ass foot,” we may have been referring to the past few months as the Summer of KD.
The Nets star nearly propelled Brooklyn into the 2021 Eastern Conference finals with what initially appeared to be a game-winning 3-pointer but was correctly ruled a game-tying 2-pointer in Game 7 of the Nets’ second-round series against the Bucks. Milwaukee went on to win in overtime, of course, and eventually capture the NBA championship.
After coming up short in his quest for a third title, Durant shifted his focus to the Olympics. Despite getting off on the wrong, uh, foot with losses in multiple exhibition games and its Olympic opener, Team USA did manage to accomplish its mission in large part because Durant covered up the limitations of a flawed roster.
Why add one cherry on top when you can add 198 million of them? After winning gold, Durant returned to the U.S. and signed a four-year, $198 million extension with the Nets. Durant’s deal sets the stage for an extended championship window in Brooklyn as all signs point to fellow Nets stars James Harden and Kyrie Irving inking similar extensions in the coming weeks.
With his 33rd birthday and 14th NBA season approaching, Durant appears fully engaged and ready to deliver a signature season. With so much at stake, here are five burning questions involving Durant’s past, present, and future.
Did Kevin Durant’s NBA playoff and Team USA run change how we view him?
In a recent interview with Draymond Green as part of Bleacher Report’s “Chips” series, Durant discussed a wide range of topics with his former Warriors teammate, including their infamous spat from the 2018-19 season. That part of the chat grabbed the headlines, but Durant also touched on his social media habits and the amount of online vitriol he receives. He believes everything goes back to his decision as a free agent in 2016.
“I just think people are still upset that I went to the Warriors, and a lot of people who are Cavs fans, who enjoyed watching the Cavs beat y’all before — which is a lot of people. I ain’t realize that till I got there,” Durant told Green. “A lot of people enjoyed seeing y’all lose in 2016, and a lot of those people were upset that we were so good. And they’re still upset. …
“That’s really what it is. So many people are still upset with me that I chose to play basketball for the Golden State Warriors, which is sad at this point.”
Durant’s performances in the NBA playoffs and Tokyo Olympics should have served as a wake-up call for even the most passionate KD haters.
With Irving sitting out and Harden hobbling around on one leg, Durant almost beat the Bucks by himself. He posted 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks in a Game 5 win. Oh, and he didn’t sit for a single second. He finished with 48 points, nine rebounds and six assists in the Game 7 loss, but he didn’t play all 48 minutes of that contest — because he was on the floor for all 48 minutes, plus the five-minute overtime period.
Rather than taking it easy after elimination — an understandable approach given he missed the entire 2019-20 campaign while recovering from a torn Achilles — Durant committed to Team USA’s basketball program. He capped off an incredible stretch with 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting against France in the gold-medal game, ending the tournament as USA Basketball’s all-time leader in points, free throws and 3-pointers.
The always-online Durant immediately hopped on Instagram Live after the victory, calling out the critics who questioned whether Team USA should still be considered the world’s most elite basketball force.
“Talking about they’re catching up to us, like, are you serious? This skill is unmatched, you dig?”
The man wasn’t wrong. If you couldn’t appreciate Durant at this moment, you never would.
Is Kevin Durant the best basketball player in the world?
Durant is absolutely part of this conversation, but should he be the standard to which all others are compared?
The usual candidates will come up here with LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo among them. James and Curry both played at MVP levels in 2020-21, but their seasons ended earlier than anticipated. Curry’s Warriors were unable to advance past the play-in round, and James’ Lakers fell to the Suns after injuries took their toll.
Antetokounmpo has a strong claim to the throne considering he ended the season with the NBA championship and NBA Finals MVP trophy in hand. He closed out the series against the Suns with a 50-point masterpiece, putting himself in rarefied air reserved for only the legends of the sport.
Yet it was Antetkounmpo himself who supported Durant’s case earlier in the postseason. He said not just during but also after the Eastern Conference semifinals that Durant was “the best player in the world.”
“He’s still the best player in the world.” – Giannis on KD
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) June 20, 2021
Durant can score in every way offensively. He is a willing passer and solid rebounder. He can slide across multiple positions defensively, guarding along the perimeter or protecting the rim depending on the lineup. He clearly has the respect of his peers.
There are always several sides to these debates, but Durant may possess the argument with the fewest holes.
What would a championship with the Nets mean for Kevin Durant’s legacy?
One thing that would re-establish Durant as the undisputed preeminent player in the NBA: Winning a title in Brooklyn.
The most fervent Durant detractors lean on his success with the Warriors like a crutch, bringing up the fact that he jumped on a championship train that was already rolling down the tracks. Curry, Green, and Klay Thompson were the “true” foundation of the Warriors, and Durant was only along for the ride. He may have won two NBA Finals MVP awards and outplayed James on the biggest stage, but the negative chatter still exists, as silly as it sounds.
Durant is unquestionably the No. 1 option on a Nets team that enters the 2021-22 season as the title favorites. As dominant as Harden and Irving can be, Durant is the engine that drives everything in Brooklyn. He controlled key portions of the series against the Bucks in a way that neither Harden nor Irving ever could.
A third championship overall would give Durant the same amount of rings as those Warriors players and quiet the comments about Durant’s inability to build something of his own. Additionally, it would start to make some historical discussions really interesting (more on that below).
How far can Kevin Durant climb up the all-time scoring list?
After he went down during the 2019 NBA Finals with an Achilles injury, questions naturally emerged regarding his long-term health and whether Durant could regain his old form. Other NBA players who had suffered Achilles injuries had typically seen a drop in production the following season and beyond.
Well, Durant is doing just fine. He averaged 26.9 points per game in 2020-21, shooting 53.7 percent from the field and 45 percent on 3-pointers. The questions are no longer about whether Durant can be as good as his old self — they’re about whether he can be even better.
Durant’s return to full “Slim Reaper” status means it’s not unrealistic to imagine him climbing up the NBA’s all-time scoring list in a hurry. Durant has averaged 1,837 total points per season in his career. If he hits that mark in 2021-22, he will move inside the top 20 on the league’s all-time leaderboard.
Extrapolate that over five seasons, and Durant would be at more than 33,000 total points, giving him the No. 5 spot behind Kobe Bryant. If you want to be more conservative and estimate 1,500 total points in that stretch, he would land at more than 31,300 total points, good for No. 8 ahead of Shaquille O’Neal.
And that’s not factoring in what Durant could be on the back end of his career once he ages out of his prime. He may be more limited athletically in his mid-to-late 30s, but he will remain a 7-foot sharpshooter who can live off post-up and spot-up opportunities. As far as catching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James still warrants immediate attention. But as the years goes by, don’t discount KD’s ascent up the scoring ladder. Objects in rear-view mirrors are always closer than they appear.
Where could Kevin Durant ultimately rank among the all-time greats?
In May 2020, ESPN ranked the 74 best players of all time, and Durant stood at No. 14. Here’s what ESPN’s Royce Young wrote at the time:
Coming off an Achilles injury, Durant’s climb back into the elite of the league isn’t a given, but even if he retired tomorrow, he has stacked an all-time career. His eight years in OKC featured his best individual basketball, with four scoring titles and an MVP. No matter how you view his two championships with the Warriors — both of which included Finals MVPs — they will forever be high on the bullet points of his overall resume. Another title in a less controversial fashion could vault Durant into the top 10, and if he recovers to be even close to his pre-injury self, he could challenge some massive career numbers.
This is where that third title, the scoring list and Durant’s status in the league all come together. He has a legitimate chance to vault himself into the top 10.
Another ring would give him the same number of championships as Larry Bird. Two more, and he’s on the same level as James. Perhaps he could never equal them in the eyes of some, but the best small forward of all time debate would be fascinating in that context.
As Young noted, Durant could retire now and sleep soundly knowing he walked away as one of the greatest players to have ever touched the court. He has a secure place in basketball history.
But the opportunity to elevate his name into another tier is sitting in front of Durant. The Summer of KD could just be the start of something much bigger.