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Kevin Durant stands apart among all-time greats

As Kevin Durant and his father, Wayne Pratt, parted Saturday morning in Cleveland after an all-night celebration, Durant drew Pratt close and cited a statistic he had seen pairing Durant and Michael Jordan as two of the only players with four scoring titles and two Finals MVP awards.

"Who would have imagined I'd be in the same sentence as MJ?" Durant asked. Pratt thought of their recruiting visit to the University of North Carolina, when Roy Williams told Durant he was the team's No. 1 target. Durant was shocked. "Kevin," Pratt recalls telling his son, "you good."

But busting into Jordan-level historical debates hasn't unleashed within Durant any hunger to win them -- at least not yet. "He's not chasing a ghost," Pratt says. "He's not trying to be MJ, or pass MJ." Durant is a cold-blooded hoops killer, but he has never fixated on Jordan's ring count the way Kobe Bryant and even LeBron James have.

"I mean, I'm crazy about winning, don't get me wrong," Durant tells ESPN.com. "I'm just not obsessed with winning championships. It's not the only reason I play. I play for my individual growth."

Durant was 19 when the Thunder uprooted from a big city to a small one, and anointed him their Tim Duncan at an age when almost no player could understand what it means to be Tim Duncan. If the shift to Golden State wasn't all about championships, at least some of it was about a late-20s adult seeking change -- an unpredictable offense that would stretch his skills, a roster where he didn't stand out.

Durant told Steve Nash, a Warriors consultant, as much when he called Nash from the Hamptons while still deciding whether to join Golden State in the summer of 2016. "'It's not about championships,'" Nash remembers Durant saying. "'This is about challenging myself and learning new things.' That answer, for me, is beyond reproach."

What makes Durant tick, beyond love of his craft, remains a bit of a mystery even to those who have been around him for years. Pratt says he's "chasing validation" -- not from Twitter critics, but from superstar peers. There is something unknowable about Durant, and perhaps conflicting impulses within him.

In choosing Golden State, Durant (temporarily) forfeited a chance to craft a team in his image. Right now, Durant may be on pace to be the greatest player to never work full-time as the No. 1 option in terms of controlling the ball. (Some Golden State officials and players, including Shaun Livingston, nominated Larry Bird as another tweener forward who fits this description. Others pitched centers -- Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon -- but even if those guys didn't dribble much, they were indisputably the fulcrums of almost every possession.)

Durant knew he would generate backlash joining a 73-win team instead of sticking in Oklahoma City, or striking out on his own. "I don't understand why people refer to this as the easy way," says Rich Kleiman, Durant's business partner. "Isn't being beloved easier? Every story about his business interests, 80 percent of the comments are about him being a snake or a cupcake. How is that easier?"

Fans who think Durant and the Warriors ruined the NBA hope the vitriol ignites an itch to be the undisputed guy. Durant has done it before: the Slim Reaper MVP season of 2013-14, when Russell Westbrook missed 36 games and Durant tallied historic streaks of 30- and 25-point games while running a near-LeBronian volume of pick-and-rolls. He thrived amid a bricky lineup of Reggie Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins. He rarely got to play with even an average big man passer.

Durant is more well-rounded today. Imagine what he could do as his version of LeBron in a shooting-infused lineup with one do-it-all star big man?

"Obviously it would be cool to have the ball in my hands the whole game and rack up numbers," Durant told ESPN.com during the Finals. "I can do that. But for me to utilize the full body of my talents, I can't do that. I don't have the energy physically to do that and still defend on the perimeter, block shots, rebound."

Coaches around the league are a little more optimistic about Durant lifting a lesser team toward title contention, provided the right co-star.

"You could absolutely build that kind of offense around him," Steve Kerr tells ESPN.com. Ron Adams, a Warriors assistant who also coached Durant in Oklahoma City, thinks Durant could average at least eight assists per game if he wanted.

"He can be that," says Nash, who works with Durant in the summer and knows him as well as anyone inside the Warriors, "but he's quite happy not being the alpha dog."

Critics will frame that as weakness of body and mind. Durant is still skinny, lacking the physicality of LeBron or even James Harden; Thunder coaches doubted he could sustain Slim Reaper workload over a full season. He is a good passer, not a great one.

He still sometimes pings almost self-consciously between scoring and passing extremes, including during his trough in the conference finals against Houston.

"He's a thoughtful passer," Adams says. "But he's expected to score. And that is a tougher balance for players to find than the observer might think."

Seven-footers rarely have elite handles; could Durant's high dribble withstand game-long pressure? Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn't seem concerned with this.

But Antetokounmpo's team is miles from contention. He needs the ball; finding proper superstar partners for him will be tricky. Durant's disinterest in dominating the ball -- or, rather, his ability to dominate games without dominating the ball -- can, and probably should, be framed as a talent: He is the rare top-5 player (aside from point guards) who doesn't diminish the talent of superstars around him. In Cleveland, alongside LeBron James, Kevin Love is pretty much Ryan Anderson, even with Kyrie Irving gone. Chris Bosh had to reinvent himself in Miami as a spot-up shooter. The Rockets made the Chris Paul-James Harden pairing work by rigidly staggering their minutes, and adopting an anomalous isolation system that allowed both plenty of chances to go one-on-one. And now they ask: Can that work with a third star?

Because he can score efficiently and suddenly from everywhere, out of any action, Durant's presence does not bring any diminishing returns even if you pile two and three superstars around him. On consecutive possessions, he is Anthony Davis posting up, LeBron running the show, Blake Griffin screening-and-diving, Ray Allen coming off a pindown. He is a completely unprecedented player.

"He is probably the most talented player in the world," says Bruce Fraser, a Golden State assistant and Durant confidante.

With Durant, Curry can still lead the team (by far) in pick-and-roll usage. Draymond Green can function as point forward. Klay Thompson can be any Klay he wants. "I was always taught that leaders are servers," Pratt says. "That's what Kevin is."

There is nothing historically abnormal about Curry and Durant as a 1-2 punch. They are Shaq-and-Kobe for the 3-point era -- co-stars who amplify each other. What really separates the Warriors -- what makes them infuriating for some, what the regrettable cap spike enabled -- is Green and Thompson serving as any team's third- and fourth-best players.

Durant can be a team's best player and, in bald terms, a floating second option -- a rare duality. That was the vision toward the end in Oklahoma City. Westbrook spread pick-and-rolls became the engine, with Durant starting more possessions off to the side and taking over during crunch time. In Golden State, he found a more active version of the same role -- a way to be a moving decoy on trips he didn't touch the ball, instead of a stationary one.

Golden State's system would push him to sharpen the edges of his game -- screening, cutting, defense, passing on the move. "I like to inject myself into the game in lots of different ways," Durant says.

There have been hiccups, as the Houston series laid bare. There will always be tension between Durant's one-on-one brilliance and Curry's beautiful game -- a tension not spoken or felt so much as it is simply lived. "There is stylistic tension, not personal tension," Steve Kerr tells ESPN.com.

"Neither one has ever felt, or said, 'You are taking from me,'" says Bob Myers, Golden State's general manager.

Curry has never fretted. "We complement each other," he told ESPN.com after Game 3. "We occupy different spots on the floor. The only thing we've had to work on, chemistry-wise, is reading situations -- what plays to call, deciding the balance of who gets to initiate the offense."

They see progress. Curry and the coaches were delighted with this play in crunch time of Game 3:

The Warriors hammered Durant about cutting harder when slipping picks instead of jogging. "We've talked about that a lot," Curry tells ESPN.com. "He played a certain way for nine years, and there are habits you have to break to play our style. It took him a while to adjust."

Curry was even more pleased with this bit of role reversal -- Curry screening for Durant -- about five minutes later:

"This series has been really indicative of our growth together," Curry says.

Durant's immersion into Golden State's high-IQ offense is in some ways a fitting culmination. Durant entered the league a pure scorer, and immediately worked to shed that label. The Thunder started simple. Durant didn't know basic pick-and-roll reads. They used 3-on-3 drills to teach him, because 5-on-5 action cluttered the floor with so many bodies that Durant became confused, Thunder coaches recall. So it was just Durant, his screener, and one shooter on the weak side -- and their three defenders.

When defenders trapped, could Durant thread a simple pass to his screener rolling to the rim?

"He was 19, and basketball to that point is really about just trying to score," says Nick Collison, Durant's teammate for nine years. "It takes time before you see the other parts of the game."

Durant experimented with moves point guards master before high school. As he struggled mastering a crossover, Durant once punted the ball into the stands and declared he would never use the move in a game, says Justin Zormelo, who began training Durant in 2011 and remains close with him.

But he loved the work. He always has. After the SuperSonics drafted Durant in 2007, he joined the group that scrimmages against Team USA in Las Vegas before international competitions. Midway through the camp, the coaches gave everyone a day off. Durant didn't want one. He dragged a staffer with him to the high school gym Team USA used, and pushed the door open at around 10 a.m. Only one player was there: Kobe Bryant, also declining the off day, several sources, including Bryant, recalled.

In those 3-on-3 drills in Oklahoma City, Durant advanced to throwing skip passes to the corner. In games, he would sometimes throw those passes a beat late -- when defenders were already rotating back toward his target. When Durant broke his foot in the fall of 2014, Durant practiced those passes from a stationary position in a walking boot, says Adam Harrington, then a Thunder player development coach.

"Every season," says Rex Kalamian, a Thunder assistant for six seasons, "he became less of a scorer, and more of a player."

When he struggled in practice, Durant often became furious, hurling the ball off the walls of Oklahoma City's facility. Scott Brooks, the former Thunder coach, eventually instituted a $500 fine for that, with proceeds going to the team's video staff.

Durant asked younger guards to stay late and defend him on post-ups, training so that no smaller player would ever bother him again the way Derek Fisher and Jason Kidd had in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs, Kalamian says. The Thunder wanted him to run after rebounds, so Durant after practice had coaches set sudden "drag" screens near half-court as he sprinted the ball up. When his footwork felt awkward, he would cut off the play and motion for everyone to start over.

"He became best 'drag' player in history," Collison says.

Diversifying his skillset in Oklahoma City prepared him for the more egalitarian offense in Golden State. The fit hasn't always been seamless. It veered off course at points this season. Curry's injuries prevented the two superstars from deepening their chemistry. Durant assumed more pick-and-roll duty, and ran isolations at the same rate as in his last season with the Thunder, per Second Spectrum tracking data. Many more of his baskets were unassisted. The Warriors saw too many possessions like this, from their dispiriting late-season loss in Indiana, after which Kerr famously ripped the team's effort:

Without Curry, the Warriors lost some ineffable rhythm. In December, when Curry missed almost a month with an ankle injury, Thompson, lowest of low-maintenance stars, grew concerned enough to request a private meeting with Kerr about the state of the offense, team sources say. (The meeting happened; Thompson left satisfied.)

Durant's commitment to the little things sometimes waned, as when he failed to box out J.R. Smith on a free throw in the final seconds of Game 1 against Cleveland. Kerr would point out these errors during film sessions, and over the long NBA winter, he went hard at Durant (and other players), sources say.

Durant withdrew. No one knew exactly why. "He internalizes things," Fraser says. "Sometimes he doesn't say much. It makes you wonder: 'Are you pissed at me?'"

Silent ambiguity was new. Golden State's three homegrown stars are easy to read. Curry really is the new-age Duncan -- selfless, even-keeled. Thompson is both oblivious and ultra-competitive. Green will let you know he is upset, and then it will pass.

Kerr eventually summoned Durant to a lunch in Portland on Feb. 14 to clear the air. "'I don't want to lose you,'" Durant remembers Kerr telling him. "He had been drifting a bit," Kerr says. "He's vulnerable. He's not a machine. I felt the need to reconnect."

Both Kerr and Nash saw the drifting start over the summer, after Durant realized his first championship would not complete his life -- or silence every critic. He didn't work as often with Nash, or as productively, as planned.

"He didn't have a great summer," Nash says. "He was searching for what it all meant. He thought a championship would change everything, and found out it doesn't. He was not fulfilled. He didn't work out as much as he normally does."

But Golden State has built the sort of culture that repairs fissures before they open wide. They didn't fray when Houston took a 3-2 lead behind a switch-everything defense that jostled them out of character, and into more Durant isolations. Durant slumped. The noise returned: Did he fit?

The team wasn't worried. There were no shouting matches, or players-only meetings. After losing in Houston in Game 5, Durant, Kleiman, and a Nike representative retired to the team's hotel, ordered room service, and relaxed. Kerr privately predicted they would win their next six games.

No one was upset about Durant's shot selection. He had gone one-on-one more in the previous series against New Orleans, per tracking data. The Warriors signed him precisely to counter switching defenses. They wanted the thing that made him different from them.

"He was never supposed to come here and fit in," Draymond Green told ESPN.com after Game 3. "I told him that from the beginning: 'You came here to stand out.' He came here because of the way Cleveland played us and how Houston plays us now. We knew he would start making shots. We are never gonna flip on each other."

Instead of sniping, the Warriors credited Houston for dictating terms. They had watched the Rockets do the same to Minnesota and Utah.

"All of a sudden, Jeff Teague was isolating a lot" in Minnesota's first-round series against Houston, Durant says, laughing. "Everyone was yelling about how he needed to pass the ball. Well, they're switching everything. He had to be aggressive."

Durant's teammates understood they bore some responsibility for the Durant-centric stagnancy. They stood around him instead of cutting and screening with vigor. Even Curry, the deadliest and shiftiest off-ball star in history, strolled without purpose:

"It's easy to stand and watch him," Green says. "But we have to keep moving." Adjustment flows in both directions. They had to adjust to him.

"That's one of the areas where we can get lazy," Kerr says. The Warriors tweaked their screening actions in Games 6 and 7, and settled during a timeout in the middle of Game 7 when it appeared they were coming apart -- with Green shouting at Durant.On the flight home, Myers plopped himself next to Durant. "I have never felt more a part of the team," Durant told him.

Durant also knows he can improve at making instant decisions, instead of holding the ball and giving the defense time to set itself. Just one quick dribble inside draws help, and unlocks easy chances for teammates:

That's what Nash and Durant work on in the offseason: attacking fast, keeping his dribble low, and getting two feet in the paint. (Nash wraps a special harness around Durant's waist to force Durant to crouch while dribbling.) Nash hopes to make more progress this time around.

Of course, all those off-the-dribble skills would come in handy if Durant ever becomes the every-possession alpha dog some fans want to see -- if he decides someday to make a team his own in a way Curry's Warriors can never be.

Durant may never want that, or find such a situation that allows him to win big. He has said repeatedly he enjoys Golden State in part because he is just one of the guys. Still: He knows he can take over games, and seasons, if required.

"I can play any style, with any player, anywhere in the world," Durant says. "I can pick up my game and move anywhere I want."

He has no plans to pick up and move from the Bay. Maybe one day, he will. Maybe one day, we'll have a better idea of what makes him tick.

"Maybe you're not supposed to figure out what makes him tick," his father says. "Just watch him play."

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