The Oklahoman deemed Kevin Durant to be "Mr. Unreliable" in a headline. (@stevelackmeyer)
The Oklahoman has apologized after running a headline that labeled Thunder All-Star forward Kevin Durant "Mr. Unreliable."
Sports editor Mike Sherman admitted that that newspaper "failed" with its headline, which appeared in large letters above a photo of Durant surrounded by three members of the Grizzlies. The headline, Sherman said, was "overstated and unduly harsh," and "left the impression that we were commenting on Durant’s season, career or even character. We were not. We were referring only to the Memphis series."
The headline ran alongside a column by Berry Tramel that chronicled Durant's struggles against Tony Allen and an excellent Grizzlies defense in the first round of the playoffs.
Durant is so out of sorts, he’s not making hay even when Allen is on the bench charming teammates with his mercurial ways. The last two games, Durant has made just eight of 20 shots with Allen not in the game. Durant is so out of sorts, his foul shooting is mediocre — 28 of 39, a .718 percentage that is below NBA journeyman standards, much less Durant’s own .882 career percentage.
Durant went to the foul line three times – and made just one of two on all three trips, including a miss after Crawford’s interruption, when the Thunder trailed 100-99 with 27.5 seconds left in overtime, a score that held up at the end. For six years, Durant has shot foul shots on a string. Mister Automatic. Now he’s unreliable.
All because the mighty Memphis defense, led by Allen, has knocked Durant from his moorings.
The Thunder trail the Grizzlies 3-2, with Game 6 on Thursday in Memphis. A loss would bring an unexpectedly quick end to Oklahoma City's season, as the Thunder entered the playoffs as the West's No. 2 seed and were widely seen as a top title contender. Durant is averaging 28 points, 9.8 rebounds and four assists in the playoffs, but he's shooting just 40 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from three-point range, way below his season averages.
The "Mr. Unreliable" headline triggered negative reaction among Thunder fans, Oklahoma City media members and basketball observers across the country. One writer for DailyThunder.com, a website that covers the team, called the headline "the dumbest thing I've ever seen."
Wanda Pratt, Durant's mother, defended her son.
"Typical Oklahoman on Kevin," she tweeted. "UNBELIEVABLE!! KEVIN is RELIABLE!!!"
Durant, meanwhile, chose not to fan the flames.
"Coming from my paper back at home, that’s what they’re supposed to write," Durant told reporters on Thursday, according to The Oklahoman. "I didn’t come through for the team. So they got to write that type of stuff. As a player and as a competitor, it’s going to be good and bad days. People are going to build you up. They’re going to break you down. They don’t allow you to stay even keel, and I think that’s what I am."
Thunder general manager Sam Presti vouched for Durant, who donated $1 million to tornado disaster relief efforts last year.
"What I witnessed from Kevin Durant on the streets of Moore, Oklahoma, a year ago is the absolute definition of reliability," Presti said.
A misguided newspaper headline doesn't need to be a big deal, but now that the NBA world's attention has been drawn to the subject, there are two good takeaways here.
First, Sherman's apology was warranted, because calling the remarkably consistent Durant "Mr. Unreliable" is like calling Michael Jordan a choker or dubbing a giant like Dwight Howard something like "Spud." By any reasonable measure, Durant is about as reliable as an NBA player can get, and the machine-like quality of his game is what makes him so great.
Over the last five seasons, he's missed six games. He's scored the most points for five straight years, taking home four scoring titles and pushing standards of efficiency (like the 50/40/90 shooting club) to new heights. He's a career 88.2 percent free-throw shooter, which is an outstanding rate in general but even more amazing considering his high volume of attempts. In fact, he's the only player since Jordan in 1986-87 to hit better than 85 percent of his foul shots in a season with at least 800 attempts, and he's done it twice.
The timing of the "unreliable" headline is even more humorous considering Durant's headline-making streak earlier this season, in which he scored at least 25 points in 41 straight games, eclipsing Jordan for the longest such streak of consistency during the Jordan era. Durant's MVP candidacy this season was staked, in large part, on his ability to carry the Thunder through a series of absences for Westbrook. Regardless of who took the court with him, Durant was going to deliver, and he did so in a historic manner.
Perhaps the best measure of a player's reliability is his team's success. The Thunder have won at least 60 percent of their games in each of the last five years and they have won at least 70 percent of their games in each of the last three seasons. The only team that can match both of those claims? The Spurs, who have been the most reliable organization of all throughout Tim Duncan's tenure.
Second, the headline flap serves as a reminder of just how big expectations can get -- and how persistently demanding that than can be -- for a player of Durant's standing. The Point Forward noted in March that he would enter the playoffs as a member of the "All-Bullseye Team," with all eyes turned toward him after an early exit from the 2013 postseason.
The better you perform, the higher the bar gets raised. These days, the bar suggests that Durant’s season will be a failure if the Thunder fall short of the conference finals. Consider: [LeBron] James reached his first Finals appearance at age 22 and has never gone two straight seasons without making the conference finals since. Jordan advanced to his first conference finals at age 25 and went on to appear in the conference finals or Finals in eight of the next 10 years, and the only two exceptions came during his minor league baseball career. Magic Johnson made the Finals as a 20-year-old rookie and he never went two consecutive years without making the conference finals during his career. Starting with his first title at age 21, [Kobe] Bryant made the Finals in seven of the next 10 years. You get the picture.
If Durant is serious about taking a place among the all-time greats -- and we have every reason to believe that he is -- we shouldn't be surprised by his lack of outrage to the headline. Carrying the burden of greatness requires dealing with Allen's All-Defensive efforts, absorbing misguided media pot shots, making free throws in the clutch and being there for a devastated community when it counts.
Durant has embraced those challenges, rather than run away from them, and he's raised the bar for himself, including his now famous "I'm tired of being second" declaration last year. By refocusing the outrage over the headline to his own shortcomings in the series, by accepting the responsibility for Oklahoma City's success or failure, Durant ironically proved his reliability once again.