By Mike Monroe
OKLAHOMA CITY — You would need a hypodermic needle filled with truth serum to get Thunder general manager Sam Presti to reveal which player was No. 1 on his draft board on June 28, 2007.
On the job for just three weeks as general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics on that franchise-turning draft night, Presti had the No. 2 pick in a class with two potential Hall of Famers: Texas forward Kevin Durant and Ohio State center Greg Oden.
Oden was a 7-foot, 250-pound mix of power and size some believed capable of dominating the NBA paint for years.
Durant was the best pure player in the draft, the college player of the year with an All-American personality to match his game.
Ask Presti which player he would have taken had he been in the shoes of then-Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard, whose team had first choice, and he dances around the answer as if he were Fred Astaire.
“I don’t answer hypotheticals,” Presti said. “But there were two players in that draft, and we were happy to have one of the two.”
When it comes to choosing between players whose talents and potential are deemed equal, size typically rules. After all, a pair of 7-footers, Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie, were selected ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft. Jordan’s six championships with the Bulls argue strongly that size alone shouldn’t trump transcendent skill.
Presti’s very first draft-night decision as a GM was made for him when the Trail Blazers chose Oden. But read between the lines of his elaboration on the hypothetical and there is inference, however slight, he would have chosen Durant if he held the No. 1 pick.
“Having been in San Antonio, in such close proximity to Austin and having relationships with the coaches at Texas, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to add Kevin to our organization because he personifies so many of the values we want our franchise to be identified with: humility, hard work, character, team focus and great citizenship,” Presti said. “We’re very fortunate to have him as a player. We’re more fortunate to have him as a person.”
The person who seemed too good to be true in 2007 hasn’t changed. Durant remains the humble, team-oriented superstar who insisted a national basketball magazine include the entire Longhorns starting lineup on its cover before he would agree to pose for the photograph.
When he trotted to the sidelines to give his mom a kiss during a stoppage of play in the final minute of the Thunder’s closeout victory over the Lakers last week, Durant endeared himself to anyone able to see the televised sincerity of his affection.
“The biggest compliment I can pay Kevin is that his development as a player has changed, almost by the month, since I’ve known him,” Presti said. “But the person I met in 2007 is the same.”
Durant averaged 28.03 points per game this season, becoming the first player since Jordan to lead the league in scoring for three consecutive seasons.
At age 23, it also made him the youngest to do so, and there is little reason to believe he won’t have a chance to match the league record of seven consecutive titles shared by Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
But Durant values a championship more than scoring titles and there is evidence of this in his performance in this season’s first two playoff rounds: He doesn’t even care if he leads his team in scoring so long as it wins. In his team’s first-round sweep of the Mavericks, Durant averaged 27.0 points but led the team in scoring just once. In the second-round elimination of the Lakers, he averaged 26.8 points but led the team only twice.
Guard Russell Westbrook has been the Thunder’s top scorer five times in nine playoff games so far — James Harden in one — and the Thunder have proven more difficult to defend when this happens. A year ago, he was his team’s high scorer in three of five games in the Western finals against Dallas and the Mavericks won four of those.
Does that Western finals failure mean a breakthrough against the Spurs is imperative?
“I can’t worry about myself or my legacy,” Durant said. “I’ve always been intrigued on how we do as a team and how we press forward as a team. At the end of the day, when I’m done playing, what’s going to be looked at is what the Oklahoma City Thunder team did that year.
“I know it’s going to be a tough matchup. I really respect the Spurs. We looked up to those guys when we were in the lottery my first two years. We wanted to kind of mold ourselves after them. But it’s time for us to go ahead and try to compete with these guys and make it a series. That’s what it’s about: Come out there and try to win every game.”
After spending seven years with the Spurs, Presti knows Durant shares traits with Tim Duncan, the Spurs’ captain, two-time NBA Most Valuable Player and three-time Finals MVP.
“It’s hard to compare people, obviously,” Presti said. “But Kevin has helped to establish the standard by which we live on a day-to-day basis here. He has a genuine appreciation for the work and craft itself. He has a humility and respect for the profession. And he is someone that is also a great representative of the community, not only the organization.”
Duncan has done that for the Spurs for 15 seasons. Durant is flattered at the suggestion his career might follow the same arc in Oklahoma.
“If I could pattern my career after Tim Duncan’s, every step?” he said. “Four rings? Labeled as the best power forward ever? Play for one of the best coaches to ever coach? Play in a great city? Of course I would.
“Hopefully, my story is planned out like that. Of course, I want to aim a little higher, but I will just take it a day at a time. You never know what will happen. But I love to be here and would love to fight for a championship every single year.”
Five years ago, Kevin Durant decided that playing basketball for one year at the University of Texas would be enough. He was ready to take his talents to the NBA.
Five years later, no one doubts that decision. Three years ago, he became the youngest (21) to win a scoring title in what would have been his junior year at UT.
This season, he won that scoring crown for the third straight time.
A look some of Durant’s numbers:
1 – 2007-08 NBA Rookie of the Year
1 – 2012 NBA All-Star Game MVP
3 – All-Star Game appearances
25 – 30-plus point games this season, including four 40-plus point nights and a 51-point outing against Denver
26.0 – Career scoring average against the Spurs in 17 games (Spurs are 12-5 in those meetings)
26.3 – Career scoring average, which includes NBA-best 30.1, 27.7 and 28.0 the past three seasons
27.4 – Career playoff scoring average in 32 games, including 26.7 this postseason
49.6 – Career-best shooting percentage this season
9,978 – Career points total, just 136 shy of what the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili has in 10 seasons
– Douglas Pils