Last Thursday’s news that Greg Oden will miss the entire regular season certainly put a bit of a damper on the greatness of the incoming rookie class, but we must remember that we have many, many good players to look forward to. As great as Oden has the chance to be, Kevin Durant has been considered the most exciting player in this class for quite some time, and, now that Oden’s out, I want to take this post to focus on the great things we have to look forward to about Durant’s game. However, instead of taking a broad look at Durant’s talents, I want to compare one aspect of his style with the same trait in the game of the greatest player ever, Michael Jordan.
When watching Jordan in his younger years (essentially any time up until his first retirement), it’s interesting to see how all of his movements and plays seemed completely natural. When Jordan made a play, it rarely seemed like he was actively trying to make that play throughout the possession. Instead, Jordan appears to have sized up the defense instantaneously and made his move based entirely on what the defense gave to him.
If that sounds like something that many players do, it’s because they all do something quite similar. But, with a player like Kobe, the time it takes to get from decision to play is always noticeable; in short, it looks like they’re at least thinking about what they’re doing. Jordan, on the other hand, internalized that process to the point where it’s not even really noticeable. He didn’t need time to decide; he operated so many moves ahead of everyone else that the domination looks like something he was born to do. In a way, he’s simultaneously and indistinguishably reactive and proactive. A player like Kobe more closely resembles the older Jordan, who clearly inflicted his will on the opposition.
I believe Durant has the same general quality to his offense game as did the younger Jordan. Playing for the strategically-challenged Rick Barnes, Durant rarely had plays run for him, requiring him to improvise in order to score. Whereas most young players—even the most talented ones—Durant took almost entirely quality shots, with the type of that shot largely determined by the defense situation. To be sure, the majority of his looks came from the perimeter because, like Dirk Nowitzki, he can get a perimeter jumper off against his usual defenders due to his height, but only a fool would say that Durant didn’t post up or drive on virtually everyone who guarded him.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about both players in regards to this naturalness is that they don’t appear to change when at their best. For instance, on paper, Jordan’s six three-pointers in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals against the Blazers is one of the best examples of a player enforcing his will on a game in recent memory: Jordan responded to critics who said he wasn’t as good a shooter as Clyde Drexler by setting the finals record for threes in a half. In practice, though, Jordan doesn’t look to be doing anything other than taking the shots when they’re available to him; the Blazers were playing his drive, so he took outside shots.
Durant’s most famous clutch moments at Texas played out in similar fashion. In many cases, he appeared to take control of games in the final minutes, but those moments were more like extensions of his fantastic play at other points in the game. It’s for exactly that reason that I’ve had trouble referring to Durant as clutch—that term implies that he raises his game in a way that I just don’t see. It might be more apt to say that he maintains a high level or doesn’t shrink in crunch time.
The lack of change in Jordan and Durant’s styles from moment-to-moment likely comes from the immense amount of time they spent/spend in the gym. When one spends so much time practicing, everything becomes second nature. That combination of skill and athleticism separates Jordan and Durant from athletic players who also don’t appear to think much when playing. (I don’t mean to suggest that Kobe hasn’t spent enough time in a gym for his style to work in the same way; Kobe puts in more work than anyone else in the league. As I said above, though, his play seems predetermined in a way similar to that of the older Jordan. I don’t think that’s surprising considering when Kobe entered the league.)
The natural feel of his game is exactly what makes Durant such a promising player. As Bethlehem Shoals said last Thursday when Oden went down, we do not know what Durant will look like as a finished product. The free-flowing, seemingly improvised nature of his game is what produces that sense that anything is possible. When it seems like anything can happen at any single moment involving Kevin Durant, it logically proceeds that his career has no ceiling, too. I use that term in the truest sense; we really just don’t know what he will look like. The McGrady and Nowitzki comparisons make very general sense, but Durant will almost assuredly carve out his own style, if he hasn’t already. Even if he doesn’t reach the highest levels of the pantheon, he will be unique.
Before I finish, I want to make it abundantly clear that I’m not predicting that Durant will become a player of Jordan’s caliber. Durant has his faults (although I think that post goes overboard, most of it is well-reasoned) and has a lot of work to do before he becomes a top-shelf star in the NBA. In particular, Durant needs to improve his defense and passing before he can call himself an overall natural presence on Jordan’s level.
For now, though, these issues are inconsequential. Durant’s game has an exceedingly rare quality to it, and we have the privilege of getting to see what he does with it. Until training camp starts, let that be enough.