Kevin Durant helped the USA Basketball program win the both 2010 FIBA World Championship and the gold medal at the 2012 Olympic games. His announcement yesterday that he would be dropping out of this summer’s FIBA World Cup is disappointing for Team USA, but ultimately a smart choice for Durant.
In his statement, Durant cited mental and physical fatigue as his reasons for ducking out of the tournament.
“This was an extremely difficult decision as I take great pride in representing our country,” Durant said in a statement. “I know that I owe it to my USA Basketball teammates to be totally invested in the experience. After going through training camp with USAB, I realized I could not fulfill my responsibilities to the team from both a time and energy standpoint.”I need to take a step back and take some time away, both mentally and physically in order to prepare for the upcoming NBA season. I will be rooting for USAB and look forward to future opportunities with them.”
As is the case with most superstars on good teams, Durant plays major minutes for his NBA team both in regular season and postseason. This year, he averaged 38.5 minutes per game over 81 regular season contents. In the playoffs, he played 42.9 minutes per game in 19 high-pressure affairs. Overall, he played 3937 minutes in 100 games this season.
While hoop die-hards care and follow the now re-branded FIBA World Cup, it’s not a tournament that the majority of casual viewers care about. There’s a reason it has been re-branded this year to try and group itself in with the international prestige of the FIFA World Cup. With Durant having been a huge part of the last two teams, as well as participated in team activities all throughout this summer, it’s not like he’s blowing off the importance of the international team. Other stars, like Blake Griffin and Kevin Love, dropped out earlier in the summer before he did. It’s not fair for him to have to carry the team, like he did in 2010, because other stars decided they didn’t want to play.
If this was the Olympics, Durant and the other major NBA stars would be participating. But it’s not. And for Durant’s legacy, winning an NBA title is far more important than leading Team USA to a win in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. While the 2010 World Championship was seen as a major step in his development as a superstar, and it was, it will ultimately be remembered as a footnote when Durant’s legacy is carved out. If he fails to win an NBA title, his career will be marred in many of the same ways that someone like Dan Marino was.
When Marino’s name is brought up in conversation, it’s almost always accompanied by “didn’t win a championship.” Superstars aren’t like everybody else. Nobody cares if Zach Randolph or Phillip Rivers ever win championships. But LeBron James and Peyton Manning were skewered in the minds of fans and silly talking-heads as “un-clutch” or “afraid of the moment.” They couldn’t win the big game! They crumbled under the excruciating pressure of the moment, when the weight of everyone watching collapsed them to their knees!
… And then they won championships and nobody criticized them anymore.
For Durant, he’s the next NBA’er in line. Given his teams’ luck with injuries over the past few years, it’s smart for him to err on the side of caution here. Most recently, it was international teammate Paul George who was lost for the season after breaking his leg in an inter-squad scrimmage. Two seasons ago, the Thunder were ousted in the second round in large part because Russell Westbrook was injured. Last season, they fell down 2-0 to the Spurs with Serge Ibaka sidelined and never recovered.
To win a championship takes a bit of good luck and Durant hasn’t had much, if any. The Western Conference is going to be an absolute bloodbath, again, and the Thunder didn’t do much in the off-season to give him any help. A full season of Westbrook should help, and maybe a role player like Mitch McGary or Reggie Jackson steps up to take more of the scoring load off Durant’s shoulders, but that’s unlikely. Pau Gasol would’ve been a great complementary piece, but the Thunder were unable to acquire him.
The worst part of Oklahoma City’s lackluster offseason were the moves they didn’t make. Scott Brooks shouldn’t be coaching them anymore. He’s taken them as far as they can go. His reluctance to sit Kendrick Perkins and inability to design an offense bites them in the rear every year and they do nothing about it.
Amnestying Kendrick Perkins is something they should’ve done ages ago. He makes a lot of money and isn’t that useful anymore. There are plenty of cheaper replacements that could adequately fill in and do what he does. This isn’t 1985 anymore. Teams aren’t pounding the ball down in the post to low-post centers anymore.
Durant’s absence is a crushing blow to Team USA, but it’s not fatal. With George hurt and a thin front-court – which was the case even when they had Durant – Mike Krzyzewski will have to get creative with his lineup combinations. However, there is still a ton of talent on this team.
Stephen Curry and James Harden can carry the load in the backcourt. Anthony Davis will be relied upon heavily to anchor the defense, but he’s tailor made for international play. He should dominate, assuming he can stay out of foul trouble.
As for replacing Durant, Krzyzewski could play Klay Thompson at the three in a smaller lineup, or go with Chandler Parsons. Gordon Hayward and Kyle Korver are options at well. They’re obviously not Durant-level players, but they’re fine options, especially in the international game where the three-point line is shorter than in the NBA.
We often talk about how players shouldn’t be chided for seeking max contracts at the expense of the team’s salary cap. We’re correct to feel that way. But then also we’d be hypocritical to rip Durant for dropping out of the World Cup. It’d obviously be great to see him play, but at the end of the day he’s not really letting anyone down.
He’s hardly the first major star to drop out and the team will still be good without him for this tournament that honestly doesn’t mean all that much. It matters, but isn’t nearly on the level of importance as the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics.
From watching Oklahoma City during Brooks’ tenure, we know that there will be a bunch of empty possessions throughout the season that will end in Durant having to create one-on-five. From watching Oklahoma City during the playoffs, we know that Durant will have to be superhuman for them to get to and win the finals. Between the Harden trade and bad luck with injuries, the Thunder have squandered good chances to win championships. As he enters his prime at age 25, Durant’s time to win is now. He doesn’t need another FIBA tournament victory on his resume. He needs an NBA championship.