I’ve never bought into the idea that winning a championship in a team sport is necessary to validate an athlete’s career. Boxing, track, tennis…these are individual sports in which victory alone is the best measure of individual greatness. Baseball, basketball, football…there are too many circumstances outside of one’s control to let team results color our view of solo accomplishments.
The list of great players to pass through the NBA without winning a title is too long — from Elgin Baylor to George Gervin to Karl Malone to Allen Iverson — and too full of transcendent talent to be downplayed as a collection of losers. They didn’t need title rings to earn the Hall of Fame accolades that have already or will soon come their way.
Kevin Durant doesn’t need an NBA championship to validate his career.
The league’s reigning MVP could retire right now and still make it into the Hall of Fame while going down in the annals as arguably the most gifted pure scorer the sport has ever seen. His five All-Star nods, four scoring titles, and status as the first franchise player in the history of the Oklahoma City Thunder is enough to put the seal of approval on his resume.
No matter what happens from this day forward, Durant will be considered one of the best players of his era — an era defined by names like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Tim Duncan.
But if Durant is going to be considered the best of his era, he has more work to do. And there’s only one way Durant can surpass the current king (LeBron) and take the throne as the NBA’s marquee attraction within the year:
Win a championship.
Assuming he stays healthy, Durant will get his usual numbers this upcoming season, his eighth in the NBA. He will score somewhere between 25 and 35 points per game. He’ll pull down between five and eight rebounds, hand out three to six assists, and collect a steal and a block or two.
Durant will hang onto his spot as one of the NBA’s most visible and marketable stars, moving tons of Thunder gear and No. 35 jerseys and his Nike KD7 signature sneakers (the “Bad Apples” colorway drops Oct. 4 at Champs Sports). He will be one of the faces of basketball.
But Durant won’t be considered the best until he wins a championship.
And I think this is the year he does it.
The reigning champions, the San Antonio Spurs, are vulnerable. I’m not dumb enough to say Duncan and Co. are “aging” or “over the hill” and therefore can’t contend for a title, because people say that every year and are continually proven wrong by the men in black and silver. But there must be something behind the fact that the Spurs have never won back-to-back championships in the Duncan/Popovich era.
LeBron and his new/old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, are also vulnerable. Even with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on board, the Cavs will need time to develop championship-level chemistry. This year could be a repeat of LeBron’s first year with Miami, when he and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh got close but couldn’t seal the deal. I fully expect LeBron to win multiple titles in Cleveland, but this year I wouldn’t pick them to win it all.
So who does that leave? There is no clear championship favorite. Chicago, Indiana, Brooklyn, Miami, Golden State, Houston, the Clippers, and the Lakers all have significant question marks going into 2014-15. The strongest title contender at the moment is Oklahoma City.
Championship teams are built in stages. The foundation is formed, then they get their first taste of success, then they get close to the brass ring and fail, and then — maybe — they can be lucky and good and tough enough to win it all. Even in cases like the 2008 Boston Celtics, who won a title in the first year of the “Big Three” era, those stages had to happen. The only difference was that Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen went through them individually in separate locations before coming together at the right time.
The Thunder are at the stage where they’re ready to win it all. The foundation is in place with Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Reggie Jackson. The failures of the 2012 NBA Finals and the 2014 Western Conference Finals will serve as fuel for a championship run. It’s not “now or never” for the Thunder, but I’d predict “now” for them over “never.”
Durant has proven he’s clutch. He’s proven he’s a franchise player. Now it’s time to prove he’s a champion. Not to validate a career that has already been validated, but to take his turn as the best player in the world.
Follow Amaar on Twitter at @UmmahSports