In the fervor of the moment, three different players have been anointed best player in the world over these playoffs. It’s a fascination we collectively, even the smartest, most well-informed of us, can’t possibly avoid. I’m speaking about San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich who, during the first round of the playoffs, couldn’t help it and said, “Kawhi Leonard, is in my opinion, the best player in the league right now.” Paul Pierce, from maybe a more provocative motivation, said Kevin Durant, “may be the best player in the world today.” And of course, the LeBron James versus Michael Jordan discussion rages on out of boredom, fear, loyalty, and even rational thought.
As it has always been, this is a fluid conversation; one that will be answered today only to be debunked tomorrow. There’s a king of the mountain component to the conversation where the last man atop the hill, at the end of the season, assuming he’s in the conversation and proves himself, can seize the title – at least for the summer.
During the playoffs last year, after the hand wringing about whether James or the league’s first-ever unanimous MVP, Stephen Curry was the best, Bron demonstratively grabbed the title. Violently, sneeringly, shit talkingly. It was definitive to the point that he rode it into the 2016-17 season and all the way through to the finals where, in the dead week leading up to tip-off, the MJ/Bron debate peaked.
Now though, the Jordan/Bron debate is shelved, and quicker than a KD dunk smash, Pierce’s volley into the national TV consciousness that KD just might be the best player in the world is the topic du jour.
What actually is doesn’t even matter as much as what someone says is. If we’ve learned anything from the spectacle of Donald Trump’s ugly ascension to President of the US, it’s that reality is malleable and just because someone says something, that’s enough to make it worthy of discussion. I’m not here though, to debate who is the best basketball player on the planet.
Regardless of who you think it is, these playoffs, and the finals in particular, have become the tunnel through which the KD bullet train speeds towards inevitability in the form of a finals MVP and a first career title.
Despite amazing performances from Curry and desperate all out efforts from James, it’s KD who’s seized the media’s imagination in saving his best for last. At no point throughout his first season with the Warriors had KD scored 30-or-more points in three consecutive games and yet in these three finals, he’s gone for 38-33-31 including a game-stealing three in game three.
Unencumbered from the historic model of a single star carrying an out-sized responsibility for production, the beauty of Durant’s game has flourished. He’s not forced to hunt shots or isolate. Rather, he’s liberated to exploit mismatches and fluidly find opportunities within a balanced offensive flow. Playing aside another superstar in Curry has created a parting of the defensive seas whereby KD has encountered soft paths of undefended space free for his long-striding forays into one-handed dunks. In game one of the series, seven of his 14 made shots were dunks.
Life isn’t easy just because Cleveland’s defense is poor and they lack a rim defender. Life is easy because the Warriors pack the court with deadly attacking players. KD’s first dunk of the series was a lob made possible by three primary strengths:
- KD’s own range which requires that Bron play him tight
- Steph’s range which forces the defense to attempt to anticipate a downscreen from Curry onto KD’s man
- Draymond Green’s recognition and passing ability which pull the beautiful read together
- Bonus: Bron gets roasted on this back cut
His next bucket came off a Curry screen, the following two off Curry passes and strong Durant drives against Bron. And the fast break dunk after that was probably the most clear example of the Cavs caught somewhere between miscommunication and questionable defensive strategy and, again, the presence of Curry acting as a magnet attracting both Bron and Kyrie Irving towards him while KD flies downhill for his fourth dunk of the first half.
That’s five buckets, all assisted directly or indirectly, by Curry. This is luxury, for the rich and famous. This is the rich getting richer, the basketball equivalent of a tax break for the ultra-wealthy. KD didn’t need the game to be easier, but in its ease, we’ve been able to witness a full range of his game that’s rarely uncovered in this league due to circumstance, team construction, and all the other wonky shit that holds back NBA players and teams. The ideal scenario for any of us is the opportunity to achieve our potential, whatever that may be, and playing for the Warriors has allowed Durant to ascend in ways that most players don’t experience.
We know KD can do it on his own. He won his first scoring title at 21, his first MVP at 24. His finals performances have been less a surprise and a more a Cinderella-in-the-glass slipper moment whereby the most perfect player possible for the Warriors team schemes has slipped into the most perfect offense for his skills.
As Tristan Thompson has struggled through the series and the Cavs have no rim protector on the roster, Durant is often the tallest and longest player on the court. When the Warriors stretch the floor with their shooters, Durant as a ball handler is able to attack with multiple options. He shot four of eight from three in game two and the threat of that jumper keeps the defense perpetually off-balance. Defenders can’t give him space, but if you crowd him he can beat even elite defenders off the dribble and the Cavs aren’t exactly flush with elite defenders. When he puts the ball on the floor, he beats opponents with varying attacks. There’s the slaloming dunk shots, the one-legged off-balance kisses off the glass, and the pull-up jumpers. He’s too long for most any NBA defender, but particularly for a Cavs defense that lacks length.
If game one was a chance for KD and Golden State to show just how easy it can be, for KD at least, game two came with slightly increased degrees of difficulty as he had a stretch of play where he shot 14-straight jumpers from all over the court. Pull-up jumpers, step back threes, one-legged horse shots, fadeaways … it didn’t matter. He had a true shooting of 71% in game two. And when he wasn’t carving up Cleveland’s defenders from the perimeter, he joined Curry on the same backdoor cut off screen motion that he opened the series with. Again, Green with the pass, Curry with the screen attempt, and KD with the cut:
For the finals in the restricted area, Durant is shooting 16-21. He’s at 11-21 from three. I can only imagine Daryl Morey of MoreyBall fame watching this games salivating, fantasizing at the obscene efficiency and concocting crazy schemes to acquire the man. My focus here hasn’t even been his defense (two blocks and over a steal-per-game), rebounding (10-per-game), or passing (six assists-per-game). Despite his ability to both assimilate into the fun-loving Golden State infrastructure while still standing out with his precedent-setting combination of length, size, and skill; despite the fluidity of the socialist democratic team approach of these Warriors, Durant has been a one-man avalanche living in a new world with cool new friends, but doing the same old things and suddenly, somehow viewed differently because of it.
Jordan was a me-first ball hog before he won his rings. LeBron a choker who had to team up with other superstars to win (this narrative still pervades). Curry a gimmicky player who couldn’t possibly have survived the rough and rugged NBA of the 80s. The long list of denigrations and narratives are pre-packaged, ready to be consumed and spewed out at anyone who has the audacity to try and be the best. (How dare you?) But KD was always this guy, his head has always been shaped to wear this metaphorical crown. Between the boos and the cheers, between KD and Russ blowing a 3-1 lead last year and being on the verge of a playoff-sweep this year. Between it all, KD the player has remained steadfastly deadly; a Frankenstein amalgam of Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowtizki. That he is or isn’t the best doesn’t matter, for a moment of some immeasurable transience in the summer of 2017, the crown is his.