Sports

Is Kevin Durant The Next George Gervin?

Regular readers know that I have a man crush on Kevin Durant. But even I think this is ridiculous.

For some reason that is inexplicable, other than simple media kerfuffle, it has become fashionable to ask whether Durant should be an MVP candidate. I’ve seen several stories to that effect, and SportsCenter did a piece on it. ESPN’s Jamal Mashburn provided the voice of reason, saying, “Not unless LeBron James suffers a fiery death by meteor.” Or something like that; I’m paraphrasing.

That said, Durant is well on his way to being one of the all-time greats. And I genuinely feel empathy for Blazer fans.

The mantra used to be that Durant wasn’t and never would be a good defensive player. But now the Thunder are third in the NBA in defensive rating and third in defensive field-goal percentage, despite not having a great defensive center. Durant has played 150 more minutes than anybody else on a very good defensive team, which means he must be doing something right defensively.

Next the critics pointed to Durant’s plus-minus rating, which was awful last year. Never mind that he was 20 years old and playing the most minutes on a terrible team. This year, he’s among the top 20 in the league in plus-minus, and every player ahead of him is on a team with a better record, which plays a role in plus-minus.

And then there’s that streak of 29 straight games with 25 or more points entering Wednesday’s game. The Thunder are 20-9 during that stretch.

All of which has left the critics grasping at straws, rather than admit the Blazers screwed up by drafting Greg Oden. One friend of mine, with whom I have had a running Durant-Oden debate, pulled out the “Russell Westbrook is going to be better than Durant” card, which is more ridiculous than suggesting Durant is an MVP candidate. That was a couple months ago; I don’t know whether that’s his argument and he’s sticking to it.

But that brings us to a more legitimate discussion. One well-spoken criticism I read recently is that Durant is most similar statistically and stylistically to George Gervin. I don’t remember where I read it, or I would share. But the point was that Gervin didn’t make his teammates better, and therefore never won anything and never even reached the Finals, in either the ABA or NBA.

This might have some merit. Durant is a scorer; he’s not a facilitator like Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade, who have been the Alpha Dogs on recent title teams. And he’s certainly not a facilitator like LeBron, who has multiple titles in his future. Gervin, Dominique Wilkins, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson . . . NBA history is littered with players who could score at will but could not find success in the playoffs. Durant won’t lead his team in assists or come close to it, and that will require a team structure that is different from recent champions.

Yet the comparisons between Durant and Gervin are ill-founded. As anybody who has read Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball” knows, Gervin was concerned solely with scoring rather than winning, and Simmons calls him the worst defensive player among the top 35 players of all-time. I don’t know whether Durant will be the same; leading the league in scoring can be intoxicating. But at this point, I don’t see him becoming that selfish.

All of which makes this tantalizing. Durant is 21, he’s leading the league in scoring, he’s playing for a winning team, and he’s being talked about as an MVP candidate — as silly as that is. Most importantly for the Thunder, he has managed to answer every criticism that has been leveled at him, demonstrating growth year after year.

The most interesting of those criticisms is the one about the need for your Alpha Dog to be a facilitator in order to win a championship. (That brings up another question, which Brian T. Smith will answer in the coming weeks: Is Brandon Roy good enough to be the best player on a championship team?) In this regard, Durant’s career will be an experiment, attempting to buck recent NBA history. And if you’re a basketball fan, you have to agree it will be fascinating to watch.