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Big Season Ahead for Kevin Durant, Thunder

The NBA season doesn’t get started for another few months, but with Team USA’s showcase game on Thursday, a group of 34 players showed up to the USA Basketball minicamp in Las Vegas. One of those players was Kevin Durant. Although he won’t be playing in the exhibition, it was an encouraging sign to see him on the court after playing just 27 games last season.

As we all know, history isn’t the kindest to tall players with recurring foot injuries, so the trepidation surrounding Durant is warranted. After experiencing incremental postseason success from 2010-2012, Durant captured his first MVP award in 2014, after which the “you’re the real MVP” phrase gained popularity. But since then, he’s been met with failed expectations and three foot surgeries.

This upcoming season will be ever so important for the Oklahoma City Thunder as they look to rebound from missing the playoffs, despite Russell Westbrook erupting with numerous triple-doubles. Not only will it be important to be competitive in an unforgiving Western Conference, but the front office’s sights will be set on delivering a powerful message to their superstar sniper: we want you here for the long run.

The task will be to convince Durant the city is indeed big enough for him and his running mate in Westbrook. But the big picture will be whether or not OKC can hang in a race for years to come with the likes of San Antonio, Los Angeles (Clippers), Golden State and Cleveland.

While all the pressure points to GM Scott Presti and new head coach Billy Donovan, Durant isn’t absolved of any responsibility. I often say the biggest and worst variable in sports is that of injury. But if he’s fully healthy, the expectation will be for him to deliver in the way he’s done in the past. Although Durant might say he’s looking to transcend past production, and surely his team would welcome that with open arms.

In the 27 games he played in last year, Durant averaged 25.4 points on 51 percent shooting and 40 percent from downtown, along with 6.6 rebounds (his lowest since his second year in the league) and 4.1 assists (his lowest since the 2011-12 season). As outrageous as it sounds, those numbers did pale in comparison to the level of production we saw in his MVP year, but given the fact that he was returning from foot surgery, he was better than expected.

The question going forward will be if there’s a tentativeness about Durant on the floor. Recurring injuries can certainly have a negative effect on a player’s psyche, and it may cause said player to overcompensate, which could result in further injuries. Ideally, OKC would like to see its superstar player channel his voluntary amnesia that’ll allow him to dominate the game devoid of any negative thoughts.

It came as no surprise when Durant said he wouldn’t be watching the NBA Finals. Why would he? To remind himself his team, though plagued by injuries, wasn’t good enough to compete for a title?

Durant then told ESPN.com during the NBA Finals that he understood why he wasn’t being mentioned in the same conversation as current MVP Stephen Curry and four-time league MVP LeBron James:

“It used to piss me off, but I love it now,” Durant said “Just gotta show and prove. I don’t deserve to be up there with them this year. Next year is a different story.”

Curry and James have a combined three titles under their belt, while Durant is still on a path in pursuit of his first one, so he understands the reality of the situation. But fans of the Thunder have to be pleased with the level of confidence emanating from that very statement. He’s ready to remind the world why he’s a force to be reckoned with.

Fans of any sport salivate at the thought of everyone remaining healthy over the course of an entire season, but the harsh reality is that it’s highly unlikely. Kevin Durant is trying to do something that doesn’t see the odds stack up in his favor. A healthy Durant-Westbrook-Serge Ibaka trio is scary for the league. But when’s the last time we saw that?

With many crowning the Spurs in the West and dismissing all other teams not named the Cavaliers in the East, Durant is lurking in that small market in Oklahoma City looking to return to elite status. Him remaining healthy won’t guarantee a marriage to this organization for the rest of his career, but the combination of that and his other two partners in crime would make for an even more entertaining Western Conference.

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