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Bill Simmons On Durant, Westbrook, and the MVP Race

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Bill Simmons posted a lengthy piece on his take on this season's MVP race. Sitting near the top of the discussion is the Thunder's Kevin Durant, but much to our pleasure, it is also an extended discussion on the Durant and Russell Westbrook dynamic.

Who Should Raise the MVP Award? | Grantland

I think Simmons really gets to the heart of something in this piece that a lot of people seem to miss. We spend so much time dissecting the Thunder's team chemistry and development in the context of this question - "can the Thunder win with Russell Westbrook as point guard?" We need to consider whether we are even asking the right question.

You can't underrate [Durant's] Duncan-like effect on the Zombie Sonics. When your best player cares the most, plays the hardest, works the hardest, pulls for everyone else and doesn't care about his own numbers, you're always going to be in good shape. Durant could jack up 25 shots per game, easily win another scoring title and maybe even try for something like "I want to be one of the four guys in the last half century who averaged more than 36 points a game." He doesn't care. Does it make sense that Durant's point guard is averaging as many shots per game (19.4) as the modern-day cross between George Gervin, Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and Spider-Man (19.5)? Of course not. Durant doesn't care. He knows that Westbrook needs those shots to get going; hence, he gives them to Westbrook.

Simmons did not resort to one of his favorite NBA adages, but I will offer it up on his behalf. In his Book of Basketball, he tells a story about an interaction with Isiah Thomas. Thomas dropped this bit of wisdom:

"The secret of basketball is that it's not about basketball."

I think that this idea is closer to the question that we need to ask. Instead of asking the question of whether Westbrook is good enough, we're in fact looking at the wrong player. The real question is, the ONLY question is, "Is Durant good enough to lead a team to a championship?" The reason why this is the only question that matters can be summed up with these names:

  • Larry Bird
  • Magic Johnson
  • Michael Jordan
  • Hakeem Olajuwon
  • Shaq
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Tim Duncan
  • Isiah Thomas
Since 1980, these eight men have cumulatively accounted for 27 of 31 possible championships. They are the elite prototypes of what we think about when we think about the NBA, the lenses through which all other future potentially great players are examined. If a team wants to win a championship, you are going to need a player that fits into this category. Westbrook, as amazing is he is, does not quite fit into that category (at least in 2012).

What defines this group of men though is that there is something unusual about them, be it physical or psychological. For Jordan and Kobe, it is their relentless, take-no-prisoners approach to the game. For Bird and Magic, it was their preternatural ability to have their synapses fire within the currents of the game (tm-Ralph Wiley). They were, in a word, unusual. Kevin Durant, a 6'10" small forward who loves his teammates, loves to work hard, who handles the ball like a shooting guard, wants to pass like Bird and rebound like Malone while possessing an ability to score the ball that may surpass all others, is unusual.

It's hard for me to believe that any basketball team would be better off with someone else taking more shots than a once-in-a-generation scorer who was built to score points the same way sharks are built to eat. Come playoff time, when it truly matters? I have a feeling Durant will be taking back a few of them. But the philosophy behind that sacrifice is really interesting. At least for now, the more shots Westbrook gets, the more aggressive he becomes ... and when Westbrook is flying around and doing his thing, that's when Oklahoma City becomes abjectly frightening. I love that Durant sees and appreciates this.

Perhaps it is a combination of Durant's demeanor, his appreciation for the game, and his understanding of history, but it is clear that Durant sees the big picture better than most. He seems to know two things innately - 1) he's the team's best option to win when the game is about to be decided; and 2) he knows that he has a wrecking ball of a teammate who can dominate the game for stretches when he is called upon to do so. Because sometimes, the team's star just doesn't have it; he gets in foul trouble, or the refs are being unkind to him, or his shot just isn't falling. At that point, what are the team's options? A normal 'good' team like Orlando probably cedes the victory and plans for the next game. However, a team that looks like it plans on having a date with history immediately moves to 'Option B.' James Worthy. Kevin McHale. Scottie Pippen. Kobe. Pau Gasol.

Durant knows this. It is also apparent now that he knows that if Option B hasn't been primed to take the reins, then Option B is really not an option at all.

It could have combusted on the wrong team with the wrong superstar, especially after Westbrook's ghastly 0-for-13 fiasco against Memphis right after Christmas. Durant simply wouldn't allow it. The amount of time Durant and his teammates spent supporting Westbrook, building him up, rubbing his shoulders, slapping him on the back, inspiring him and everything else was almost comical. As Phil Jackson would say, they wouldn't allow him to drift off the reservation.

Even better, he's playing with that breathtaking swagger again, to the point that it's impossible to think about the Zombie Sonics without him - over everything else, it's their relentless athleticism that makes them (potentially) special. They didn't just beat the Lakers on Thursday night. They made them look like old farts.

There's the key word - "special." OKC is not there yet, but that is the place where they want to get to. To not just be 'championship-caliber,' because there are plenty of teams every season who have the necessary components but never make it. Heck, you could argue the Trail Blazers were that way earlier in the season, and then everything fell apart in the span of a month. To win it all, a team has to be special. Maybe the special-ness is only captured for a single season, like the Mavericks last year, the 2008 Celtics, or the 2004 Pistons, but it has to be an identifiable characteristic that raises the team above all others.

Westbrook's relentlessness, James Harden's game management, Serge Ibaka's burgeoning athleticism, Kendrick Perkins' nastiness...all of those things make the Thunder a good team with a strong personality. That is wonderful, and it would make them a team worth cheering for. It would also make them the Pacers or the 76ers. Durant is what makes them potentially special. It doesn't matter whether Westbrook shoots too much, or anything else. If Durant can't join that group listed above, then the Thunder won't win.

That's exactly where we want [Durant] to be: basically, the Duncan Zone - where relationships matter more than numbers, where winning is the only way to be measured.

The secret to basketball is that it's not about basketball.