How the NBA could screw up college basketball's best player.
Kevin Durant is a once-in-a-lifetime prospect. The 6-foot-10 guard-forward-center is impossibly smooth and athletic. He can score from anywhere, control the boards, and is an ever-improving ball-handler. The 18-year-old University of Texas star is averaging 25 points and 11 rebounds a game in the highly competitive Big 12, making him the frontrunner to win college basketball's Naismith Player of the Year award as a freshman.
Durant's stock with pro teams is off the charts. Before this college season, it was a given that Ohio State's imposing 7-footer Greg Oden would be the top pick in the 2007 NBA draft. Now, everyone from ESPN.com's Bill Simmons to NBA super scout David Thorpe has decreed that Durant should be the one. Some have compared him to Houston's Tracy McGrady—except Durant is taller, a better rebounder, and just as athletic. He's not even analogous to modern marvels like Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki, very tall men with some guardlike skills. Durant is more like a guard in a big man's body. There's never been anyone like him, and there very well may never be another. But that doesn't mean he's going to be a savior for whichever team is lucky enough to draft him.
The very thing that makes him great, his versatility, will make Durant a mixed blessing for some eager lottery team. Basketball is a game of positions, roles, and responsibilities. Point guards pass, shooting guards score, small forwards slash, power forwards do the dirty work, and centers control the paint. A player who can do all of these things poses lots of problems for opposing defenses. By the same token, the more a player deviates from basketball's traditional typology, the more difficult it becomes to assemble a roster around him.
With the small, quick, athletic Phoenix Suns steamrolling their NBA competition, fans and pundits have started to think that old-fashioned principles of roster construction have become passé. Yet it's worth noting that the Suns have been hailed as revolutionaries for three seasons now, and no team has been able to assemble a roster that comes close to matching Phoenix's skill and athleticism. (The Memphis Grizzlies have tried to copy the Suns' up-tempo style this season to the tune of a 12-38 record.) Meanwhile, it's been the sturdy, formulaic Spurs and Heat—with their traditional point guards, big men, and role players—who have captured the last two championships.
In order to win a title with a unique player like Durant or Kevin Garnett, you need a coach and general manager who know how to handle a versatile superstar. The Minnesota Timberwolves present an object lesson in how to screw one up. Because Garnett is tall enough to defend opposing centers in a pinch, Minnesota has never troubled itself to acquire an above-average big man. At the same time, his surprising shooting range for a man of his height has masked the fact that he's not a true go-to guy. A smarter team would have recognized that Garnett, while a great player, is only a single piece of a winning team. He can play every position, but he shouldn't have to.
That Dirk Nowitzki has come closer to winning a title than Garnett is a testament to the foresight of the Mavericks organization. While Nowitzki has become a true inside-outside menace, he's also been complemented with Josh Howard, a true small forward, and two scoring point guards, Jason Terry and Devin Harris. The Mavs' centers, Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop, aren't All Stars, but they do allow Nowitzki to venture outside on offense, and they relieve him of the burden of defending opposing centers. The Dallas roster is designed to maximize Nowitzki's versatility, not burden him with it.
Whatever team drafts Durant should follow the Mavericks' template. If the Memphis Grizzlies can figure out how to implement a Phoenix Suns-style running game, they would be perfectly suited for Durant's peculiar abilities. Chicago, which owns the rights to the Knicks' potential lottery pick, already has a deep, flexible roster, a rugged post player in Ben Wallace, and a pair of outstanding guards. If the Bulls are lucky enough to add Durant, they'll instantly become a title contender. Durant's prospects in Philadelphia and Boston, his two other likely destinations, are less rosy. The 76ers are a terrible team precisely because they could never figure out how to maximize the abilities of a unique player—Allen Iverson. The Celtics, on the other hand, are swimming in young, multidimensional talent. Unfortunately, they've shown little ability to turn this mess of young players into a coherent roster.
Rather than place his fate in the hands of management, perhaps Durant should go the Magic Johnson route: making one position his priority without losing sight of his panoramic skills. While he ventured inside occasionally, the 6-foot-9 Johnson stuck to playing point guard, working off of MVP center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and orchestrating the Lakers' signature fast break.Oscar Robertson, best known for averaging a triple-double in 1961-62, was an all-purpose force. But it was only when he was paired with Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) in Milwaukee and focused exclusively on playing point guard that he finally got his ring.
LeBron James, the most talented player in today's NBA, is at a similar crossroads. James has stagnated in a Cleveland offense that has consistently failed to define his role. He wants to run more, but the team's dearth of athletic wing players means that an open-ended system isn't really an option. Again, Cleveland's best chance to win a championship is to install LeBron as the team's permanent point guard.
Of course, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and LeBron James have an advantage over a player like Kevin Durant. All three have the ability to play the point. It doesn't take a genius GM or a master strategist to imagine any of them as a souped-up version of the status quo. Durant, though, has no natural spot on the floor, meaning there's no easy solution to the dilemma of a Durant-based team. In this sense, it's a lot less trouble to take a true center like Oden—and, based on recent history, it will give a team a much better chance of winning it all. Durant's versatility is breathtaking, but there's a good chance it will be wasted on whoever selects him.