Kevin Durant Vs. The Spurs: The Shade Awakens

Oct 28, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 28, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives to the basket against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the third quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

The San Antonio Spurs’ championship shadow continues to fall over an increasingly pressured Oklahoma City Thunder–and Kevin Durant.

It’s never easy being “one of,” instead of “The One.”

Until this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have always been in the championship conversation. What more could be expected of any team boasting the dynamic duo of All-Star locks Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook? Durant is considered one of the best small forwards in the game, along with being a former NBA MVP.

When he went down with various injuries over the past two seasons, fans and ownership could count on Westbrook to unleash an unholy scoring fury to keep the Thunder in said conversation–and he more than delivered.

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This year, the 2015-16 season, was supposed to be the Thunder’s year: the year that sees Durant and Westbrook, along with the rest of their roster, healthy and ready to bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the prairie. They made trades and extended contracts in the latter part of the previous season, as well as the offseason to ensure this.

Then this happened:

And this:

Plus this:

Not to mention this:

Suddenly, the Thunder were being shunted aside as also-rans to the Warriors and Spurs. Despite ranking third in the Western Conference and fourth overall behind the Cavaliers, it seemed as if the Thunder were suddenly relegated–nay, assumed–to be sitting at home in June, watching yet another year slip by without adding a championship banner to the Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Needless to say, the team wasn’t happy. By “team,” I mean Durant, specifically. His warfare with sports media hit a new high (or low, depending on your point of view) when he stated that the media pretty much have an agenda against the Thunder and refuse to give his team the respect due their talent and current record.

Durant’s rants against the media are nothing new, but now he’s beginning to focus his discontent on the nearest conference obstacle (and perhaps the more accessible target): the Spurs.

Durant has gone on record with disparaging remarks against the 2014 NBA champions: most recently regarding the team’s relative lack of ball movement compared to the Silver and Black.

Last week’s rather close loss to the Warriors cast an even brighter spotlight on GSW’s seeming unstoppability, although the way the Thunder played them so close was enough to give a moral victory. Not that Westbrook cared about moral victories:

Durant bristled (as expected) when asked about the increasing probability of facing the Warriors and/or the Spurs en route to the Finals. There’s nothing wrong with bravado and, for a guy like Durant who grew up in the hood in the Washington area, it was a necessary key to survival.

You don’t back down or bow down to anyone. You have to believe that you are the baddest dog in the fight

Even when the odds may suggest otherwise.


The Thunder aren’t taking the Spurs lightly, and are like their nemesis in one regard.  They aren’t sweating a February loss when April through June will be the true proving ground.

Still, the Spurs have already proven they are a multiple championship-caliber team, and their free agents have already been locked up for the next few years; a sixth ring would be just an additional polish on an already shiny pedigree.

Meawhile, the Thunder are under a double whammy. First, trying to earn the team’s first ring in this incarnation (lest we forget, the Team Formerly Known As The Seattle SuperSonics had already won a championship in 1979, long before they were hijacked to Oklahoma). Second, trying to give impending free agent Durant a reason to stay in OKC.  The two goals are not mutually exclusive.

Based on his remarks, Durant has a love/”hate” relationship with the Spurs, and that may have trickled down in the locker room. On one hand, he is among the many admirers of the league’s gold standard: from ownership to coaching to players to plays, the Spurs are that one team that most aspire to be, even if they only admit it to themselves.

On the other hand, it must be irritating to constantly be in the shadow of such a team, no matter how well one plays (just ask Golden State). 

So if you aren’t pegged to beat them, perhaps you should join them?

While pundits take bets on whose training camp Durant will show up to in September, all of the recent sniping by @easymoneysniper (Durant’s social media handle) makes me wonder if he wouldn’t secretly want to play for the Spurs.

You can’t get much better indication of championship possibilities than five banners hanging in the arena rafters and legitimate striking distance of a sixth. Unfortunately for Durant, there’s no room at the Silver and Black Inn.

Kawhi Leonard, a fellow small forward, has been anointed the new face (or at least co-face) of the Spurs franchise. He is meshing well with new Spurs addition LaMarcus Aldridge, as evidenced by their combining for 51 points against the Miami Heat for a win to start their annual Rodeo Road Trip.

Even with the eventual retirement of franchise pillars Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs have never been ones to chase the shiniest object in the case–and make no mistake, Durant is one of the shiniest objects, if not THE shiniest, in the upcoming free agency class.

[Sidebar: Aldridge was the biggest free agent coup this past summer, and the Spurs made their pitch, but they didn’t roll out the red carpet like other teams. And Aldridge, with all due respect, was not and is not on Durant’s celebrity level]

It would be hard to fathom Durant taking a step back to play “The Spurs Way” and be just one of the guys after being the primary option in Oklahoma City, though players have done stranger things in the pursuit of a championship ring. There would also be questions of whether Durant could attain his level of play without Westbrook by his side.

He is an immensely talented player, but Westbrook is a catalyst that helps boost Durant’s play to another level–and vice versa.

Durant’s spate of injuries over the past year would also give one pause–he could go on to thrive in the mold of Wesley Matthews, who overcame a season-ending injury way ahead of schedule; or he could go the way of prematurely retired players Brandon Roy or Grant Hill; or the Chicago Bulls’ current point guard Derrick Rose.

Durant’s potshots at the Spurs could be considered a poorly disguised seething over an obstacle that, despite its age, remains a major barrier to to achieving his dream of appearing in a pre-game ring ceremony at the beginning of next season. Or it could be considered more of a longing to be mentioned, without qualification, as one of the true elite.

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Only a championship ring will hush the naysayers, and perhaps calm the inner disquiet that helps fuel Westbrook’s triple-double machine. Only the Larry O’Brien Trophy can allow the Thunder (read: Durant)  to stand in their own light and escape the long shadow of the Spurs.