By Sean Highkin
Kevin Durant has had things pretty easy in his seven-year NBA career. His rise to NBA superstardom came at a time when his humble, hardworking, clean-cut public image made him an obvious choice for the good-guy antidote to the post-Decision LeBron James. Any and all Thunder shortcomings have been laid at the feet of other people, usually either Russell Westbrook or Scott Brooks. So as Durant has gotten better and better each year -- developing into a first-ballot Hall of Famer and deserving MVP -- he's mostly been immune to the formative years of criticism that James, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki were subjected to before their dominance became undeniable.
By and large, Durant still gets the benefit of the doubt, as he should. Thursday morning's Oklahoman featured the already-infamous "Mr. Unreliable" headline, criticism that was unheard of for the most universally-praised player in the league. Berry Tramel's column was actually an entirely reasonable, nuanced, and well-considered analysis of Durant's poor performance in the series with the Grizzlies, and the paper has already backpedaled on the sensationalist headline that unfairly painted it as a #HotTake. Even still, the collective outrage over the headline, online and on TV, is telling -- and unfortunately predictive of what we may be in for on a larger scale if Durant can't lead the Thunder to a title before he reaches free agency in 2016.
The "Mr. Unreliable" controversy is the closest Durant has ever come to catching actual backlash as a basketball player. James's two greatest on-court failures -- the Cavaliers' 2010 second-round meltdown against the Celtics and the Heat's 2011 loss in the Finals to the Mavericks -- were painted as ultimate referendums on his career and character, even though he had previously been to the Finals and dragged some pretty terrible Cavs teams further in the playoffs than they had any right to go. The Lakers' loss to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals was treated as ultimate proof that Kobe couldn't get it done without Shaq. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love faced serious criticism of the "If they're so great, why don't their teams win more?" variety this year when the Cavs and Timberwolves struggled. Paul George is catching it now, in the midst of the Pacers' historic collapse. It's going to happen to Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis as soon as they run into any adversity. The need to immediately prove yourself at unreasonable levels comes with the territory for an NBA superstar. Durant is the only one who has remained completely beloved, which makes even one critical newspaper headline completely jarring.
Durant's timing has played the biggest role in his Teflon reputation -- the talking heads were focused on The Decision and the renewed Lakers-Celtics rivalry during his developmental years. Durant was never asked to be the face of an entire league until he was ready to step into that role. He was a can't-miss prospect who undoubtedly would have gone No. 1 were it not for our collective obsession with talented seven-footers - but there's a difference between being a blue-chip prospect and being touted as "The Chosen One" on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, as James was. James was never not going to have the entire world watching his every move, no matter what he did, which makes it all the more incredible that he's lived up to that early hype and then some. Durant's rise to that level of notoriety and scrutiny wasn't preordained -- he simply became so good that we had no choice but to talk about him in the same breath as LeBron.
Durant's slump through the first five games of the Thunder-Grizzlies series was his first bit of on-court adversity since his MVP candidacy began in earnest in 2011. Thursday was a return to form, as Durant scored 36 points on 11-for-23 shooting in the Thunder's series-tying win. It wasn't a transcendent LeBron-in-Game-6-against-the-Celtics-in-2012 moment, but it should be enough to stave off further criticism. For now.
Durant is 25 years old and, at worst, the second-best basketball player in the world. In two years, he'll hit the open market for the first time. Teams around the league will clear cap space to make a run at him in 2016, just as they did for LeBron James in 2010. Winning a title before then would solve everything, as it did for James, Bryant, Nowitzki and countless others. If he's still ringless as a free agent and his new team stumbles out of the gate as the 2011 Heat did, get ready to hear phrases like "Has Durant really proven that you can build a championship team around him?" a lot.
Should the Thunder prevail in Saturday's Game 7 and advance, nobody will remember "Mr. Unreliable." However, a loss -- coupled with the foregone conclusion that is Durant's MVP trophy -- could lead to a long summer of legacy talk for a player who has been mercifully above such nonsense for seven years.
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Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for USA Today, ESPN's TrueHoop Network, The Classical, and other places around the web. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.