For a guy with his own line of signature shoes, Kevin Durant sure spends a lot of time wearing retro Air Jordans. The sneakerhead side of Durant came out Thursday, because he didn’t just drop the proverbial other shoe following Paul George's horrific injury. By withdrawing from the U.S. men's national team, Durant dropped a pair of still-in-the-box kicks, addressing both the impact of George's injury and the notion of championship windows.
Both were fair game when George broke his leg in a USA Basketball exhibition game last week. We wondered if it would shock the red, white and blue out of other players, and we also wondered whether this was the end of the Indiana Pacers' championship pursuit. The Pacers have already lost Lance Stephenson, their toughest competitor in the 2014 playoffs. George could miss next season, and who knows how much stronger the other Eastern Conference teams will be in 2015-16. The only Pacers currently under contract for 2016-17 are George and George Hill. It's quite possible that Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals represented the pinnacle of these Pacers as we've known them.
Maybe Durant is stirred by the fear that the same could be said of his Oklahoma City Thunder team that won Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals. He didn't know that would be James Harden's final series in a Thunder uniform. He couldn’t have guessed that Russell Westbrook would be lost after two games in the 2013 playoffs or that Serge Ibaka would miss the first two games of the 2014 Western Conference finals.
Here's what Durant does know for sure: He has two more years on his contract, Westbrook and Ibaka have three more, and next summer Reggie Jackson will command far more than the $2.3 million he'll make this season. There are tangible limits to the Thunder future that once seemed to stretch out like the Oklahoma plains. This season could very well be Durant's best opportunity to win a championship with this group. Or ever.
The Thunder split the four playoff games in which Ibaka played against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. The players who accounted for 89 percent of Oklahoma City's points in that series are returning. Durant is the reigning Most Valuable Player. There's no promise that the circumstances will ever be better.
So, for the first time on the national stage, Durant put himself first. In the USA Basketball news release, he said, "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."
Although he didn’t cite George's injury, the timing of this move is telling. It’s not as if he just looked at the schedule and saw there'd be up to five more weeks of work. He knew the level of commitment going in. And this is from a guy who seems indefatigable in the summers, showing up to play anywhere there's a rim and a net.
Durant has already logged two runs with the national team, competing in the 2010 world championships and the 2012 Olympics. He won a gold medal both times. His account is paid up. And all of that time in the casino during Team USA training camps in Las Vegas has taught him the wisdom of leaving the table when the chips are stacked in your favor. He has missed a total of only five games the past five seasons; no need to add unnecessary risk to that run of durability.
Durant doesn't want what happened to Paul George -- or even worse, what could happen to Paul George -- to happen to him.