(Basketball Panel Answers Four Questions About Kevin Durant’s upcoming season. Panel: Alex Khalifa, Ben Kalra, Dan Park, Mallory Stith-Wheat, Julian Billick, C.J. Hampshire, Brendan Gillespie)
How will Kevin Durant’s free agency impact his regular season as far as his mood and his performance?
Ben Kalra: So far, the talk about Kevin Durant’s free agency has not impacted him much. He lightened the mood recently by telling reporters that he would not leave OKC because he did not want Russell Westbrook to be pissed at him. He has tried to make it clear that he is focused on this upcoming season, but at some point it will inevitably impact his mood, which could in turn impact his performance. There will be so much attention given to his free agency that it will be unavoidable. However, if the Thunder succeed this season then it will become less of a distraction and Durant will be able to focus on basketball, but the more struggles that ensue, the more we (and Durant) will hear about his possible departure.
Alex Khalifa: I don’t believe Durant’s production will drop sharply. There are always distractions of some form: family emergencies, injuries to teammates, or even just the pressure of making the playoffs. Furthermore, I’m not sure what there is to worry about: ultimately, where Durant ends up in 2016-17 is going to be his decision. Perhaps the uncertainty will impact his mood, but I think getting back to playing will be good for his psyche.
Julian Billick: Durant has something to prove this year. Last year he had to sit out and watch the season. I don’t think he really cares about his free agency in a take care of it right now sense. He’s more concerned with getting the Thunder back to the Finals. Remember when the Thunder was supposed to be the team to get there every year?
Mallory Stith-Wheat: No one knows, not even Durant, how it is going to impact him to hear the same question over and over again. His canned responses, at this point, is like listening to someone made out of cardboard. He hates the question, he wants you to know he hates the question. But this Thunder team has a legitimate chance at the Finals. He’s rejuvenated only because last year was so horrible. It won’t be real until after the All-Star break.
What is the likelihood that Durant actually leaves Oklahoma City? If he leaves, why? If he leaves, where?
Ben: It’s a toss up. It is clear that Durant has emotional ties to the Oklahoma City Thunder, as was seen during his emotional MVP speech. He cares deeply about the organization and his teammates, especially his main running mate, Russell Westbrook. He was also very close with ex-Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who was fired after last season. There is a chance he leaves in order to return home to Washington, D.C. and/or to give himself the best possible shot at a ring. Not only did he grow up just outside of Washington, but the Wizards have an outstanding young core that could thrive around Durant. John Wall has no problem getting his team involved, as he was one of two players (Chris Paul) to average double-digit assists last season. The Wizards would have almost unlimited potential if Durant joined forces with Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat, and Kelly Oubre Jr.
Alex: I think there’s a 75% chance he stays put. However, if he were to leave, why not go big? The bright lights of Madison Square Garden await, and the Knicks will have the cap room to sign him.
Dan Park: This upcoming season will be a huge factor for Durant’s decision on staying or leaving Oklahoma City. The team’s stars are all healthy going into the season. The players are going to have to adapt quickly to a new system under new head coach Billy Donovan. If things go south and Billy Donovan can not seem to utilize Durant and Westbrook to their fullest potential, Durant may consider leaving next off-season. It’s tough to imagine Durant leaving OKC, but if he wanted to go somewhere that has the best chance of winning, I could see him reuniting with James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Dwight Howard may possibly leave after this season, creating cap space for Durant. I believe Durant is all about winning at this point in his career, and making a move to teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks are too risky and much harder win-now situations.
C.J. Hampshire: Why are we talking about this? I mean, really. It’s October. Durant isn’t leaving until July. Do I think he leaves OKC. Yes. Why else do you sign with Jay-Z? Jay-Z is about global and there isn’t anything global about OKC. That said, Durant is invested in the team right now. As for landing spots, I like the Heat. I put nothing past Pat Riley. He is the best there is at selling a dream and frankly that is what free agency is: who can weave the better dream?
Two seasons ago Kevin Durant was the MVP. What do you think he has to accomplish both on an individual level and on a team level for him to win the award again?
Ben: He must have a similar statistical season to what he accomplished two years ago, and he must lead OKC to a top-4 finish in the Western Conference. Durant will have a plethora of competition for MVP this season, with Curry, Harden, LeBron, Anthony Davis, and his teammate Russell Westbrook all gunning for the award. When he won the MVP, Durant averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game; this needs to be duplicated if he is going to pull off another MVP season. The Thunder also need to be successful, because when was the last time you saw an MVP whose team was unsuccessful? The MVP award itself is an individual award, but it is usually given to the player who gives his team the best chance to win.
Alex: The Thunder had to be relieved that Durant was still able to play at a high level after returning from injury last season. Still, one wonders if his minutes will be managed more than some other potential MVP candidates. He averaged 32 points in his MVP season of 2013-14, and may need to approach that in order to win again. The Thunder will likely have to finish in the top half of the West for Durant to get major consideration, but expectations are that they will.
Brendan Gillespie: The Thunder have to have a top seed, that’s the first thing and barring injury that can happen. Then Durant has to have Durant like numbers and in big games he has to be the difference maker. He needs a couple of game winners. He has to dominate the Warriors and Spurs. No way Curry wins that MVP award last year if Durant was healthy.
Julian: I’ve penciled Durant in for MVP already. He has the most to prove. He has to prove he is healthy. He has to prove that he can dominate in Donovan’s system. He has to prove he is mentally tough to handle this year when everyone, I mean everyone, is wooing him. His therapy will be on the court. He’ll drop close to 30 every night.
Has Kevin Durant changed? He seems a lot moodier and less friendly than when he came into the league. Is that a good thing?
Ben: Durant’s change in behavior is a reflection of his disappointment and his urgency to win. Durant achieved so much in the regular season throughout his career, but keeps having his championship aspirations taken away. In the 2013 playoffs, Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus, taking away the Thunder’s chances of a championship. Last year, Durant’s season ended because of a foot injury. Durant is feeling the pressure to pull off a successful postseason run, which is reflected by his serious attitude. He has no more patience to be friendly because he is tired of losing when it matters. Although a business-like, no-nonsense approach can be productive, a positive spirit and energy could give OKC a better shot at a title.
Alex: I once heard legendary baseball broadcaster Vin Scully say that Jackie Robinson was one of the few men he watched who could play better due to anger. I’m not certain what motivates a generational talent like Durant, but he doesn’t need a chip on his shoulder in order to excel. At the same time, his intensity isn’t something that requires an apology, and I expect that a full healthy season will be beneficial.
Dan: Kevin Durant hasn’t really changed, but he is becoming more serious and focused about his legacy. He knows he is entering a very focal part of his career where he has to win championships to cement his legacy as great. After their 2012 NBA Final appearance, the OKC seasons have been riddled with huge injuries that have wasted prime chances of winning a championship. Westbrook tore his meniscus during the 2013 playoff run, Serge Ibaka’s calf gave out before the 2014 Western Conference finals, and last season Durant had foot surgery which made him miss the majority of the season. After three seasons of wasted opportunities because of injuries, Kevin Durant knows he has to be serious about his remaining chances. It is good to see Durant in this type of mindset and I believe it will help the Thunder win.
Mallory: I hope so. He came into the league as a kid. The point is to evolve, in basketball and in life. He’s been through some things and perhaps he is not as trusting, perhaps the criticism stings more than it used to when he was taking it all in with wonder. He’s a veteran. He knows what he wants. He has drawn the line on what is important to him and more importantly who is important. Change is always good.
photo via llananba