Saturday, December 5, 2009
Who Is Kevin Durant?
I was watching the Thunder play the Celtics last Friday night. I realize this makes me a complete geek, but that's beside the point. It was interesting to watch Kevin Durant against a good defensive team like Boston. He had 36 points, and no assists. I like watching him play. He's exciting, seems like he has a good head on his shoulders, and is well liked around the league. Yet there are some diverse opinions out there on Durant: is he the next Kobe, or is he destined to become just a great scorer who never does much else? Is he a Jordan in the making, or is he the second coming of World B. Free?
After about two years, it looks like he was a much better pick than Greg Oden. At the time, I said I would take Oden, mainly because I believe you build champions from the inside out. I never thought Oden would be a big scorer, but I did think he could be a Bill Russell/Bill Walton-type. I thought he could give you 17 points each night, with a lot of boards and a lot of defense. Unfortunately for Blazers fans, Oden is looking too much like Sam Bowie--he appears extremely fragile. Meanwhile, Durant is already a force. But who is he?
I know who he is. I've shared this thought many times on the radio show, but never had time to go in-depth about it. Kevin Durant IS George Gervin. But is that a good thing?
ICE AND ME
First of all, full disclosure (not the book by the same name about the history of SportsRadio 1310 The Ticket--published by Benbela Books and available at book stores everywhere for $24.95). Disclosure about my basketball background: I grew up the biggest George Gervin fan in America. I worshiped the Iceman. He was unique. He was a trendsetter. He was unstoppable. He was skinny. He was my first real sports idol. I couldn't wait for the paper each morning to check out his box score. Of course, I had listened to the game the night before, so I knew what he had done--but I still loved seeing it in print. Gervin, 14-24, 10-11, 38 pts. Night in, night out.
Gervin started his career (at age 19, just like Durant) in Virginia and then San Antonio in the ABA as a small forward. When the Spurs were absorbed by the NBA, Gervin became a shooting guard. The league had never seen anything like him. A 6'7 guard. He was the first true big guard. Before him, shooting guards were 6'4. Gervin was a big guard before Magic. And the bank was always open for Ice--only Sam Jones ever used the glass more effectively than Gervin.
I feel like I am qualified to compare modern day players to Gervin. There never has been anyone like him. Until now. Durant and Gervin are so similar it's scary. Above all else, Durant is a pure scorer, like Gervin was. Both are so thin, you wonder why a pick has never broken them in half. Gervin was 6'7, 180 pounds. Durant is 6'9 and listed at 230 (I don't think so! If he's a pound over 215 I would be shocked). Durant has the narrowest shoulders in the history of the NBA. Only former Pacers/Knicks great Louis Orr was skinnier than Gervin and Durant (Orr was 6'8, 175).
Their early career numbers are almost identical. Through their first few seasons, each averaged around 23 ppg. Gervin pulled down 7 rebounds per game, Durant 6 rpg. Each posted negligible numbers in assists (about 2 per game), steals (1 spg) and blocks (1 bpg). Both shot between 46% and 48% from the field, and both shot about 85% from the line. Durant can smoothly score from anywhere, like Gervin. Durant is explosive, but doesn't possess Lebron-like explosiveness. Durant is not a superior athlete. Neither was Gervin. Ice dunked a lot in the early days, like Durant, but was never considered a great athlete. Gervin did possess a dazzling array of post moves, which he used to abuse smaller defenders. Durant doesn't have these post moves, or the finger-roll, or the cool nickname. Other than that, Durant is Gervin.
THE PROBLEM WITH BEING GERVIN
The Iceman was never much interested in defense. Or passing. Or rebounding (as his career went on). Durant isn't much interested in defense. Or passing. Or rebounding (when you are 6-9 and playing 40 minutes, 6 rebounds should accidentally fall your way). And this is the problem. The Spurs loved having Gervin--on one end of the court. He was a nightmare match up for the other team. But, he was a nightmare liability for the Spurs on defense. All Ice wanted to do was score. All Durant wants to do is score.
Gervin's great scoring never got the Spurs past the Conference Finals. And it wasn't because he had a bad cast around him. He always had at least one other 20 ppg scorer with him (Kenon, Silas, Mitchell). He even had a good big man for a few years in a later-day Artis Gilmore. But when your leader, your star, doesn't play defense, you have a problem (Dirk?). Gervin's four scoring titles were great, but zero NBA titles leaves a void on your resume.
Is Kevin Durant destined to have a George Gervin-like career? If so, that's not bad. He'll win his share of scoring titles. He'll be an perennial All-Star. He'll probably end up in the Hall of Fame. But, to be considered a true great, he'll have to start paying attention to all aspects of his game. To be mentioned in the same breath as Jordan or Kobe, he'll have to become a better defender. He should be a better rebounder than both. And for now, he's nowhere near the assist man than Jordan was and that Kobe became.
SO WHAT WILL HE BE?
Given his build, I'm not sure Durant will ever be a great defender. He's not a very strong man. Remember the story out of the draft camp in 2007, when it was reported that he couldn't bench press 185 lbs? But what's more concerning that his physical limitations is his mind set. Does he have the Gervin-McGrady-Dantley scoring-only mind set? If so, that can be a hard habit to break.
Wayne Winston, the former Mavericks stat guru and advisor, is not high on Durant. Winston was interviewed last month on TrueHoop, and was asked about building a championship team. He was offered the hypothetical of taking Kevin Durant, for free, to add to his team. He said no. He said "I would not sign the guy. It's not inevitable that he will make mid-career strides. He would have to improve a lot to help a team." And that's the ultimate question about Durant: will he be a superstar who makes everyone around him better, or will he be a superstar who makes everyone around him just sit back and watch him operate one-on-one?
If I had to bet, I would bet that Durant finishes his career as Gervin or McGrady, not Jordan or Kobe. To my eye, there is just something missing. I saw the same thing when he was at Texas in big games. Every time I watch him, I just don't see how he makes those around him better. How can you play 40 minutes against a team like Boston with the ball in your hands every possession and not record a single assist? It's the Gervin curse. It's not a bad curse to have--it will make you a ton of money and get you to Springfield. But it won't put you in the pantheon of the greats who are called "champions".
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to plan my social calendar for next Friday night. Looks like the Pacers host the Nets--I think I can catch that one!