‘Check the numbers, I did my part’: The validation of Kevin Durant

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    Kevin Durant, of the Golden State Warriors, whose offensive prowess is unrivalled in today's game (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

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    Few holidays possess the allure of fourth July weekend. It is an opportunity for people nationwide to immerse themselves in hot dogs, burgers and maybe a beer or two … or six. Who’s counting?

    But the 2016 version was no ordinary holiday. The decision of one Kevin Durant, could potentially shift the balance of power across the entire NBA landscape. It would subsequently break the hearts of one franchise while changing the fortunes of another for years to come. The latter, is exactly what happened.

    The possibility of the 2014 MVP joining the Warriors was a hotly debated topic the throughout the 2015-16 NBA season. I, like several pundits and commentators, found it hard to believe Durant would be willing to leave his city, his community, his team of nine years in search of greener pastures.

    After all, it would seem as though Durant had all the necessary tools in place to deliver a championship for the Thunder. His long-time teammate, PG Russell Westbrook had elevated his game to superstar status and along with Durant, formed one of the more dynamic duos in NBA history.

    His new head-coach, Billy Donovan, guided the Thunder to a 55-win campaign in his first season at the helm. Combine that with a wide range of specialist role players such as Enes Kanter, top ten in PER (player efficiency rating), the rough and rugged Steven Adams anchoring the paint, the multifaceted shot blocking and 3pt shooting Serge Ibaka and, the explosive bench-scoring ability of Dion Waiters, it was surely just a matter of time before the Thunder would return to the finals and capture their first title since their move from Seattle.

    Additional confounding variables appeared to further dilute the notion Durant would leave the Western Conference finalist Thunder. OKC was the only team that could offer Durant a five-year max contract with an average annual value over $30 million per year.

    Then, how could he, Durant, co-exist on the same team as Steph Curry. The same Steph Curry who had already won a championship, along with two consecutive MVP awards (one being the first unanimous MVP in the history of the NBA) and had just guided his team to a second straight Finals appearance on route to eclipsing the 1995-96 Bulls regular season wins record of 72 (73).

    Moreover, how could a team (the Warriors) integrate two former MVPs in their prime, on the same team, while also maximising the growth of arguably the most explosive player in the game, Klay Thompson.

    Did I mention he holds the NBA record for most points in a quarter with 37? No, that’s not a typo. Ask the Sacramento Kings if you don’t believe me.

    Well, after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Warriors, who subsequently blew a 3-1 series lead to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, ending the 52-year title drought in Cleveland, the stage was set for Durant to leave the Thunder.

    (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

    In the days leading up to his final decision, various teams flew to the Hamptons to meet and pitch Durant as to why their franchise was the place he could call home.

    The Boston Celtics brought the big guns with them, as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady attended the meeting along with GM Danny Ainge and a host of other players.

    However, the Warriors and a constituent of front office personal, coaches and players, headlined by head-coach Steve Kerr and players Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala pitched Durant as why they would be a perfect fit.

    For KD, the opportunity to play for a team that plays basketball the right way, prioritising ball and player movement as opposed to isolation 1v1 basketball was a significant factor.

    Furthermore, the off-court opportunities available in Silicon Valley would aid his post playing career ambitions.

    As for the elephant in the room, is it Steph’s team or KD’s team?

    Curry assured Durant that should he come to Golden State he could care less as to whose team it is. And should Durant go on to win MVPs and scoring titles, Curry would be in the front row applauding with genuine happiness and not jealousy.

    Kevin Durant with future teammate Klay Thompson

    (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

    The pitch had been made, the seed had been planted and on the fourth July 2016 at 8:39 am ET, Kevin Durant announced to the sporting world, via The Players Tribune that he was leaving The Oklahoma City Thunder, to join the Golden State Warriors.

    Following his move, Durant quickly faced a barrage of criticism for ‘jumping on the bandwagon’.

    ESPN and First Take commentator Stephen A Smith described it as ‘the weakest move he’d ever seen by a superstar player’. The criticism was inevitable following such an unprecedented decision. LeBron James could attest to that better than anyone after he decided to ‘take his talents to South Beach’.

    However, when the season came along, Durant knew his play would do the talking. After a brief adjustment period, Durant and the Warriors would proceed to have the highest offensive efficiency rating (points per 100 possessions) 113.5 per game since 1984, eclipsing the 1986-87 Showtime Lakers.

    They also had four members of their death line-up selected to the all-star game and three members (Steph, Durant and Draymond) making an All NBA team.

    The Warriors once again bolstered the best record in the NBA with a 67-15 mark and the No.1 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. Durant’s season and the Warriors’ title chances nearly came to an abrupt halt when he suffered a hyperextended left knee injury putting his status for the rest of the season in doubt.

    Durant worked diligently with head performance therapist Chelsea Lane and the rest of the medical staff to get back before the start of the playoffs enabling him to get his legs under him in preparation for the intensity of playoff basketball while also shaking off the rust from missing 20 games.

    Durant and Curry were devastating and steam rolled through the western conference by sweeping the Blazers, Jazz and Spurs and going 12-0 heading into the finals.

    Finally, the moment we’d all been waiting for had arrived. Warriors versus Cavs III. The rubber matching.

    This one was for all the marbles, for all the bragging rights. One way or another, we were about to find out whose era this belonged to. Facing the task of going up against the best player in the world in LeBron James and the second coming of Houdini in Kyrie Irving was no layup. But the Warriors wouldn’t have wanted to face anyone else.

    The taste of the previous Finals still lingered in their mouths. Durant had a finals performance for the ages en route to Golden State defeating Cleveland 4-1 in the best of seven series.

    Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives past Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant

    (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

    KD averaged 35.2 PPG, 8.2 REBS and 5.4 AST. He dazzled at both ends the floor of scoring over 31 points in each of the five games, frustrating LeBron James with his 7’6 wingspan, blocking shots at the rim when playing the four or five in the newly acclaimed ‘Hampton 5′ line-up.

    Offensively, nobody had an answer for him. Whether it was getting to the rim at will, scoring in the post, dunking in transition, facilitating for others or lighting it up from the 3pt line, the basketball world had a courtside view to a guy showcasing his talents on the biggest stage.

    Don’t let those four scoring titles fool you, the 6’11 Durant is as gifted and complete a player as the game has ever seen.

    As for letting his actions speak for him? The signature moment of the finals occurred in the final minute of Game 3. Off a missed corner three by Kyle Korver, Durant inhaled the rebound, galloped down court and with no hesitation, pulled up for the game winning three over LeBron James.

    After winning the all-important game 4, the Cavs finally had momentum on their side. With game 5 hanging in the balance and begging for someone to take a strangle hold on proceedings, Durant answered the bell time and time again in the fourth quarter scoring 39 points for game, 11 in final 12 minutes and being named the unanimous MVP of the Finals.

    Durant was now a champion. The 8-year-old boy from Washington who told his mother he would play in the NBA had now finally checked the last box.

    He would no longer be in the ‘yeah but…’ conversation that surrounded other greats who failed to capture that elusive ring such as Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller or Patrick Ewing.

    Durant was now on the other side of the fence with the likes of MJ, Magic, LeBron, Kobe and Bird. When asked in a post-game interview with Rachel Nichols about his thoughts on the yearlong chatter about him jumping on the bandwagon, Durant responded ‘Check the numbers … I did my part’.

    Durant received endless amounts of adulation and praise following the finals and rightfully so.

    No player had faced that level of pressure and scrutiny to deliver a championship in their first year with a new team. And deliver he most certainly did. Durant had one more sacrifice to make in the upcoming weeks during free agency.

    Instead of asking for the max contract of $34.8 million it was understood he would instead take a pay cut of roughly four million dollars to provide the Warriors financial flexibility in their hopes of re-signing key free agents such as Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West and others. Durant did one better. He decided to take a pay cut of roughly $9.4 million dollars making his salary for the upcoming season $25 million.

    The selfless act enabled the Warriors front office to aggressively pursue and re-sign Iguodala, Livingston and West while also bringing on new comers in Nick Young and Omri Caspi. The Warriors have now retooled and are reloaded for the upcoming season. Vegas has them as an overwhelming 5-11 favourite to win the title next year and barring any significant injuries, it’ll be hard to envision any other ending.

    To coin the phrase Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey used after acquiring Chris Paul and exploring the possibility of adding Carmelo Anthony, ‘you’re either in the weapons race or on the sidelines.’

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James is defended by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry

    (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

    Add the Celtics and T-Wolves in that race as each team significantly bolstered their rosters for the upcoming season with Boston signing Gordon Hayward and Minnesota acquiring Jimmy butler and Jeff Teague as well as veterans Jamaal Crawford and Taj Gibson to pair with their young stars, Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins

    For the Warriors, Redemption. For Durant, Validation. Both parties have sent a clear message to the rest of the NBA, ‘We’re not going anywhere’.

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