By JON KRAWCZYNSKI
Kevin Durant’s sturdy shoulders seem to go on forever. Two of the longest arms you’ll ever find drape from each end, and those shoulders remain straight.
It’s a good thing, too. The weight of an entire franchise rests across his back.
At the start of Durant’s seventh NBA season, it could be argued the Thunder have never needed him more than they do right now. And Durant has shouldered a heavy burden since he came into the league as an 18-year-old rookie in 2007, through his franchise’s move from Seattle to Oklahoma City, a small market made so much bigger by his presence.
Russell Westbrook is just getting back after a knee injury. Serge Ibaka is in a horrible shooting funk to start the season and James Harden and Kevin Martin have left for bigger roles and bigger paychecks.
Now Durant has developed into much more than just a three-time scoring champion and the most unstoppable offensive force in the NBA. He’s a capable help defender, sliding over late in the shot clock to foil a drive to the basket. He’s the source of confidence for a young supporting cast, passing up shots early in the game to try to get them going. And he’s the leader in the locker room, as grizzled a veteran as a 25-year-old can be.
“I still look at myself as a young guy, just trying to find my way and learn as much as I can in such a quick time in this league,” Durant said before a recent game in Minnesota. “But I’ve got to kind of reel myself in and say these guys are watching me. I’ve got to set a great example for them.
“I’ve got to let them play sometimes and let them make mistakes and learn from them, but also talk up when I have to. I’m just trying to find a balance between the two.”
It’s the next stage of development for one of the league’s brightest stars. Led by Durant, the Thunder were set up to be the next dominant team in the West for years to come after reaching the NBA Finals two years ago.
But GM Sam Presti had to make some difficult decisions, having already allocated most of the salary cap on hefty extensions for Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. So Presti traded Harden to the Houston Rockets before last season, then had to let Martin go after Minnesota offered the 30-year-old shooting guard a four-year, $28 million deal.
The departures have thinned the OKC bench, leaving coach Scott Brooks with unproven youngsters like Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III to fill the pivotal roles.
So Durant has been working on getting those young guys involved and helping them gain confidence while also making sure the Thunder win as often as possible in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. He scored 42 points in the opener to help them edge the Utah Jazz, but then was limited to 13 points in a blowout loss to the Timberwolves. He only took three shots in the first quarter against the Wolves, and the Thunder trailed by 15 going into the second.
“I keep trusting my teammates first and foremost,” Durant said. “But sometimes when the shot’s not falling and they’re not hitting them, maybe I need to be a little more aggressive against the double teams.
“I’ve just got to figure it out, whether I just keep trusting in them and it’s going start to fall as the game goes on, or when I have to shoot over some of those double teams. I just have to figure it out.”
Westbrook made a surprise return on Sunday to give Durant some more star power, and the Thunder have won two of their first three games heading into Wednesday night’s game against Dallas.
If anyone can figure it out, it’s Durant. Responsibility is nothing new to him, on or off the court. Widely considered the second-best player in the league behind LeBron James, Durant has been dealing with being pulled in multiple directions for years now.
Martin said he’s “never played with a player who got that much press and had that much popularity.”
“He’s a guy that knows he’s the alpha dog, but he can also sit back and enjoy the ride,” Martin said. “The small-market thing is kind of funny because there’s nothing small market about him once he leaves OKC and gets all the recognition from everybody in the world.”
For the first time in a long time, Durant and the Thunder may be flying under the radar. The Rockets, Heat, Lakers and Clippers have dominated the early season headlines, allowing Durant to establish a culture of focus with the younger players in Oklahoma City.
“I put my focus on one thing and try to solely focus on that,” he said. “Then when I switch over to the next thing, just keep my focus there as well. I know that all the stuff comes with it. I just try to turn that switch on when I have to as far as obligations off the court. Once I’m on the court, that’s the easy part.”