Let’s hope Kevin Durant’s metaphorical journey through the FIBA World Championship isn’t as arduous as the actual journey he took with Team USA to Spain for a tournament warm-up. The poor guy didn’t even have a well air conditioned hotel room when he got to Madrid.
(Serious side note: Who the hell booked the travel arrangements for Team USA? Who stops twice from the East Coast to Western Europe anymore — were they on a World War II bomber or something? And then stick them in hot hotel rooms? I don’t understand. Maybe they got some guy who books AA baseball teams on bus trips to figure this thing out.)
Durant and the rest of Team USA are only beginning to get a taste of the inhospitable conditions they’ll encounter on this European excursion. Basketball crowds in Europe are much more boisterous than those in the U.S., to put it mildly. This will be high-pressure basketball in real life several timezones away, no matter how lightly it’s taken on our shores while football season is getting cranked up.
But how to view the World Championship from the perspective of the Thunder fan hoping Durant, and of course to slightly lesser extent Russell Westbrook (if he makes the final roster), performs well as the offensive focal point of a team playing do-or-die basketball? If he plays well and Team USA wins, it’s easy to chalk it up as another milestone passed on the way to greater things. If he doesn’t and Team USA loses, you can say it doesn’t really matter, and no one will care in a few years if the Thunder are chasing titles in the Ford Center.
The last time Durant played competitive basketball, he was the star offensive player on a young team without home court playing against veterans. He’ll hit the ground running in Europe with a bunch of teammates who also aren’t old enough to rent a car without paying an extra fee, and he’ll be playing under rules that let players mug him worse than Ron Artest did in the playoffs.
It’s as easy to put too much importance on the next month of basketball as it is to put too little. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Durant’s performance in Turkey means nothing. Even though it’s a different style of basketball, in the fourth quarter of NBA games this season, it won’t hurt for him to be able to draw mentally on the strength gained with clutch performances in an American uniform. But it would also be wrong to fear his ceiling may not be as unlimited as it appears to be if he stumbles along with the team.
But, for anyone who cares either way if Durant vaults into the highest echelon of NBA stars, the most compelling reason to put importance on the World Championship is the knowledge that Durant himself cares deeply. Anyone who has ever read a feature story about Durant or seen an extended interview with him on television knows how earnest and humble he is. He wants to win, he wants to improve, he wants to lead and he wants to be and beat the best.
One has to think a strong performance and clutch plays would have Durant’s confidence soaring headed into the Thunder’s season, but that leaves the possibility for doubt to creep in if he doesn’t play well. The first time a regular season game goes to the fourth quarter, it would be bad for him to be thinking about Artest and the Lakers and whichever European dude is sure to make a name for himself with a couple of good shifts mauling him.
It’s not to say Durant couldn’t learn something from a poor performance by himself or the Americans. Lessons learned in failure have sparked many good seasons. But for someone who appears to be as thoughtful and conscientious as KD, ending the summer on a good note seems to be even more important.