One year and two signature sneakers ago, Kevin Durant was the star of the “KD is Not Nice” ad campaign, Nike’s light-hearted jab at the misconception that the NBA’s most lethal scorer and admirable role model lacked a mean streak.
It was a campaign that could only work for Kevin Durant and not, say, Kevin Garnett, who actually scares people when his mean streak is unleashed. It worked because KD really is nice. He’s likeable. He’s so nice and so likeable that it’s holding him back from tapping into the dark side he needs to find to reach a level of greatness known most recently to LeBron James and Kobe Bryant–that level where he is not only the best player in the game but also has the championship hardware to prove it.
That’s not to say Durant isn’t motivated, that he isn’t a self-starter, or that he has to morph into a snarling ogre in order to enter the G.O.A.T. conversation. But the way I see it, Durant hasn’t yet reached LeBron and Kobe status because he hasn’t been pushed hard enough to battle back and earn it. His spotless reputation has granted KD immunity from the kind of harsh public scrutiny and media criticism that once hardened LeBron and Kobe into snatching the crown by force just to save face.
Earlier this month, KD’s Thunder lost Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals to the eventual NBA champion Spurs. It was the Thunder’s fifth straight trip to the playoffs and the fifth straight time Durant exited the postseason stage without a title.
And what a quiet exit it was.
Unlike LeBron, who even with two rings on his resume was still voted interim mayor of Loserville when he couldn’t lead Miami past San Antonio in the Finals, Durant was again sent fishin’ this summer without catching widespread criticism. OKC’s shortcomings were generally blamed on point guard Russell Westbrook, coach Scott Brooks, and the supporting cast that didn’t do an adequate job supporting KD and Russ. Durant, everyone seemed to agree, did his part.
LeBron and Kobe could only wish for so much leeway and level-headed analysis.
For the majority of their respective careers, the King and the Black Mamba have been polarizing figures that are loved by many, hated by many, and given free passes by few.
Post-Shaq, Kobe’s collection of buzzer-beaters and scoring outbursts wasn’t enough to free him from being the most criticized man in basketball. He ultimately responded by leading the Lakers to back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010.
Post-Decision, LeBron’s stash of triple-doubles and MVP trophies wasn’t enough to keep him from being the most criticized man in basketball. He responded by leading the Heat to back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
Kevin Durant hasn’t been there yet. In the most overly critical, nit-picky, unforgiving era in sports and media history, somehow KD has managed to not only avoid the worst of it, but he’s also become the NBA’s most family-friendly superstar since…well, Kobe Bryant pre-Colorado.
At 25 years old, seven years into his pro career, with an MVP and four scoring titles and zero championships to his name, Durant still hasn’t hit that point where the sports world is collectively looking at him like a longtime girlfriend seeking fiancée status. (“Uhhh, where’s the ring, bruh?”) And he may never get there as long as he is so universally loved that he is relatively protected from scorn.
You might know the line from The Five Heartbeats: “Donald Matthews will be a great writer one day when he suffers more.”
And you, like Duck, might be asking yourself what that means.
LeBron James knows what it means. Kobe Bryant knows what it means. Even Michael Jordan knows what it means.
Yes, once upon a time, Jordan was the most criticized man in basketball. Before 1991–before the six titles were won and the Dream Team was constructed and the majority of the Air Jordan collection was conceived–Jordan was still a flashy, ringless superstar looking up at Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Isiah Thomas, waiting for his turn.
Back then, Jordan was criticized for his jump shot and his defense. They said he didn’t make his teammates better and questioned if he had the toughness to break the “Jordan Rules” and become The Man on a championship team.
Jordan, of course, took those criticisms and used them as fuel to drive himself right into mythical lore. Kobe absorbed the barbs against him and flipped them into his fourth and fifth titles. LeBron shut his critics up–well, until this year–with his first two titles. (Surely there are more to come.) All three living legends endured a period in which they were the NBA’s top individual talent and its top attraction, and yet it seemed all anybody wanted to do was talk about what they were doing wrong.
As annoying as it was to watch–and as frustrating as it was for those who appreciated their talents to argue in vain with the most dedicated haters–that relentless criticism made MJ, Kobe, and LeBron better. Even if they didn’t read the opinion columns and watch the TV segments themselves, the media and fans helped create a climate of pressure and expectations that even the most tunnel-vision athlete couldn’t ignore.
Durant has yet to live in that climate. But perhaps his time is coming soon.
Before the Thunder were able to knock off the gritty Grizzlies in the first round of this year’s playoffs, The Oklahoman ran a headline calling Durant “Mr. Unreliable.” (KD answered with 33 points in a Game 7 victory.) Three weeks after the Thunder were eliminated by the Spurs, OKC center Kendrick Perkins gave some constructive criticism to Durant via The Oklahoman:
“I feel like he could get stronger, in my opinion,” Perkins said, adding that it seemed Durant was getting tired as this past season wore on. “I think that would help him a lot. I told him all the good and great players that played the game, from Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, they all put size on them, and it helped them.”
So maybe KD won’t be immune much longer. Maybe the same forces that challenged LeBron and Kobe to reach the next level will soon be knocking on Durant’s door, nagging him in his sleep, pushing him to limits he has not yet tested. Those forces can be the difference between a Hall of Fame career like George Gervin’s or Dominique Wilkins’, and an unforgettable career like Kobe Bryant’s or LeBron James’.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with Kevin Durant wearing the white hat. There’s nothing bad about him being cast as the ultimate good guy. Trustworthy role models can be hard to come by these days, and it’s actually refreshing to see at least one sports star that the public hasn’t committed to tearing down at every turn.
But until KD occupies a spot on both the Most Loved and the Most Hated lists, he may never become the kind of athlete that defines an era; he may instead peak as one who played a scene-stealing supporting role.
It’s far from finishing in last place, but it may be all this nice guy can manage.
Follow me on Twitter at @UmmahSports