It’s hard to remember now, after the 2010 series against Boston, “The Decision” and the 2011 NBA Finals, but LeBron James was the NBA’s golden boy back in 2005. A pass-first perimeter player with a million-dollar smile who played for his home-town team, his rise to stardom coincided with Kobe Bryant’s fall from grace in 2004.
And just as Kobe was portrayed as the anti-AI, and LeBron as the anti-Kobe, Kevin Durant became the anti-LeBron in 2010. While LeBron left the small-market team who drafted him in a nationally broadcast prime-time special, Durant announce he would re-sign with his small-market team on Twitter. LeBron had “The Chosen One” tattooed on his back and referred to himself as “King James” without any irony; Durant was soft-spoken and humble, a throwback who played for the love of the game, seemingly without the threatening visage of tattoos most of the NBA’s younger stars had.
So when an image of a shirtless Durant, with tattoos covering most of his chest, began circulating the internet, many were surprised.
And while tattoos have long since become socially acceptable for NBA players, it’s a good reminder that Durant isn’t that different from his peers. He’s maintained a pristine public image on his route to super-stardom, but as Iverson warned LeBron, when you become one of the faces of the NBA, there are as many people rooting for you to fail as there are rooting for you to succeed.
So far, Durant’s career trajectory has only been upwards: going from 20 wins as a rookie, to 23, 50 and now 55 wins last season. Most importantly, his Thunder teams have exceeded expectations in both their trips to the playoffs: battling the eventual-champion Lakers in a tough first-round series in 2010, making it to the Western Conference Finals in 2011.
But now, as he enters his fifth season in the NBA, the toughest test of his career awaits him. The Thunder aren’t lovable underdogs anymore; they’re one of the top-5 teams in the NBA. And like every other star perimeter player before him -- from Iverson to Kobe and LeBron -- he’ll ultimately be judged by one thing: the number of championships he wins.
Forget that two of the teams in front of Oklahoma City in the Western Conference -- the Lakers and the Mavericks -- have won the last three NBA titles. Forget that both have a pair of seven-footers better than any of the Thunder’s big men. Forget that three young teams behind the Thunder in the West -- the Clippers, the Trail Blazers and the Grizzlies -- have better interior scoring as well.
It doesn’t matter how well Durant plays on the court or how well he conducts himself off it. If the Thunder don’t win a championship in the next three seasons, the same people who turned on LeBron will turn on Durant as well.
That’s part of the burden of NBA super-stardom in the post-MJ era. Michael Jordan changed the game in many ways; none more important than how he colored fans’ perceptions of those who came after him.
While he played with a fellow all-time great in Scottie Pippen, many of Pippen’s contributions to those Bulls teams were subtle and hard for the casual fan to discern. As a result, Jordan didn’t share the glory of success in the same way that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, both of whom played with multiple front-court Hall of Famers, did.
A simple narrative began to emerge around those Bulls teams: once Jordan learned the importance of playing selflessly from Phil Jackson, he became a champion. And due to his multiple retirements, once Jordan overcame the Bad Boy Pistons, he was never defeated in the prime of his career.
The NBA had moved from a league dominated by big men to one dominated by a guard who was cut from his high school team, someone who won by outworking everyone else, a 6’6 player that every young kid could dream of being one day. So when his successors inevitably failed to live up to his myth, people didn’t look for basketball reasons to explain why. They looked for narrative ones.
Kobe didn’t fail in Los Angeles because Shaq got old and the team had no big men until Pau Gasol came in a trade; he failed because he was too selfish. LeBron didn’t fail in Cleveland because he could never beat a Boston Celtics team with three Hall-of-Famers and an All-Star point guard; he failed because he couldn’t live up to the pressure of the moment.
And if the Thunder can’t get by the Mavericks or the Lakers, or if they lose to the Heat or the Bulls in the Finals, there’s going to be one overriding explanation in the media: something is wrong with Kevin Durant.
The NBA has always been a star-driven league, and as a new era begins and the stars of the last decade -- Duncan, Kobe, KG -- begin to fade away, all eyes will be on a 22-year-old in Oklahoma City whose already made two All-NBA first-teams. Waiting.