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The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.
The next year will feature a great deal of speculation about Kevin Durant's future. The pending unrestricted free agent is that rarest of things — a generation-defining superstar who will become available in (or on the cusp of) his prime. Like LeBron James before him, Durant commands enough attention to make all the rumors and speculation to come seem at least somewhat sensible. Transformational talents demand such attention, and the entire league will feel the reverberations of Durant's eventual decision to stay with or leave the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Before we look too far ahead, though, it's worth remembering what 2015-16 could hold for one of the two best players of the last five years. Last season saw KD struggle through three foot surgeries over the span of six months, limiting him to just 27 games as the Thunder failed to make the playoffs for the first time since his second NBA season. OKC played like a team that missed him, depending on Russell Westbrook's impressive one-man wrecking crew to maintain any semblance of contender status. Even then, they couldn't manage better than 45 wins.
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Yet the impact of Durant's absence extended far beyond the Thunder. Although not up to his usual standards, KD's numbers were still excellent — 25.4 ppg on 50/40/85 shooting percentages, 6.6 rpg, and 4.1 apg with the lowest minutes average of his entire career. He was excellent even while hobbled, scoring with brute efficiency and contributing in various other parts of the game. An understandable lack of MVP consideration did not change the fact that he was very much the same kind of player who won the award the 2014. It's fair to assume that anything approaching a healthy season for Durant would have kept the Thunder in the ranks of the West's elite and made things substantially tougher for the Golden State Warriors and other rivals. Without taking anything away from teams that outpaced the Thunder in 2014-15, the NBA lacked something with Durant out for so many games. Yes, injuries occur every year, but they rarely turn the reigning MVP into an irrelevant figure.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Durant's return makes the NBA whole again, because the league proved it is strong enough to be just fine without him. But his pending free agency has perhaps taken too much away from the excitement that should surround all he might accomplish this year. Here's a quick refresher on what Durant offers — the most varied and best scoring abilities of his generation, the possibility of a 50-point game at any time, the near-certainty of 30 points a night, a disarming casualness that could morph into a vicious streak at any moment, the still-jarring sight of a seven-footer playing like a guard, etc. He is a transformational figure.
The free-agent story is going to dominate any discussion of Durant this season — anyone who suggests differently is naive. But the genius of KD is that, if he manages to stay on the floor, there will be 20 or 40 or maybe even 60 nights this season where he renders all that talk totally relevant. He will perform at such a high level that the basketball world won't be able to focus on anything but his incandescent talent. At least it'll be clear why everyone's so concerned with his next move.
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