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Durant rapidly emerging as best player in the game

by Sam Smith

LeBron James could once again be the big free agent story of the NBA this summer if he elects to exercise his opt out clause and leave the Miami Heat.

If he doesn’t, perhaps it would be Carmelo Anthony, who could leave the New York Knicks.

But the biggest potential free agent all the big guys, like the Knicks and Heat and Los Angeles Lakers, are looking at won’t be available until the summer of 2016.

Let the clearing of cap space begin.

That summer is when Kevin Durant can become a free agent after nine seasons in the NBA and all with the Oklahoma City Thunder/Seattle SuperSonics franchise.

It’s why the clock is ticking madly in Oklahoma City, and why so many teams are quietly making their plans.

You build a champion in the NBA with a star.

Durant is fast becoming the star of stars.

Not that he hasn’t been a great player. He’s about to be a five-time All-Star and first team all-NBA this season for the fifth consecutive time.

But he’s been no LeBron, which no one will deny. James has the MVPs for four of the last five seasons (Derrick Rose got the other) and the last two championships going for a third straight this season.

But Durant is beginning to edge ahead this season for the first time in the Most Valuable Player race. If a championship isn’t soon to follow, and maybe even if it is, Durant could become the object of a bidding war and dominate an NBA season like James did in 2009-10.

Though we’re sure if Durant takes his talents elsewhere it won’t be on TV and will be done more subtlety and respectfully.

Not that James is a bad guy, and he’s apologized many times for the TV show announcing his departure from Cleveland that launched so much invective his way. But Durant is one of the classiest, model citizens of the NBA. When he did his extension with the Thunder, Durant announced it on his Twitter with the comment: “God Is Great, me and my family came a long way.”

Actually, Durant is one of the friendlier players in the NBA with James.

They work out together in the summer and spend time together. And James acknowledged last week when Durant set an NBA season high with 54 points that he’s always well aware of what Durant is doing.

“After every game, I always go and see what guys did,” James told reporters in Charlotte. “I didn’t have to look too far to see what K.D. did last night. As soon as I looked at my phone, a family member of mine said, ‘K.D. had 54, you only had 21. You stink.’

“I love when I see K.D. do something like that,” James added. “It gives me an incentive. I don’t get that many shots around here. But I might be able to do a little something. I might be able to get a couple of dunks.”

It’s something of a friendly rivalry but with a competitors’ tone. James, in recent weeks as Durant has put up historic scoring numbers, has offered little asides about Durant, saying how he would like to be on a team sometime where he could shoot so much. That left everyone scratching their heads as James was the entire Cavs team for seven years.

Plus, James, especially with Dwyane Wade taking off at least a game a week to rest his knees, can shoot anytime he wants on his Miami team.

Some have viewed this as a friendly shot at Durant, who earlier this season upset Wade by saying Wade no longer was an elite player because of his physical decline.

So was LeBron having his buddy’s back?

Or just growing a little jealous of how quickly Durant is coming up in his rearview mirror?

Durant has been coming fast with that 54-point game. He has the three highest-scoring games in the NBA this season and is way out in front on his way to a fourth scoring title in the last five years. This latest burst has been to keep the Thunder competitive with Russell Westbrook out with knee surgery.

In the 12 games since Westbrook went down, Durant has averaged 36.3 points.

In the 54-point game, he went 19-for-28 from the field, becoming the first player since Michael Jordan in 1988 to have at least 54 points and five assists while also shooting that high a percentage from the field.

Many regard Durant as the most unguardable player in the NBA given his size at 206 cm and shooting range. As rare as James is with his size about 203 cm and 122 kg to play like a guard, Durant is perhaps even more unusual as a big man who plays like a guard.

Durant scores so easily many coaches around the NBA say they are thankful he is so unselfish because they feel he could average 40 easily. Many see him like the kid who comes to the park to play but doesn’t win all the time just so the others won’t go home and will continue to play with him.

But without Westbrook and with the team having allowed first James Harden and then Kevin Martin to get away for financial reasons the last two years, Durant has had to take on more offensive responsibility. So he has.

He’s regarded as such a good guy and team player and so professional and unassuming that one never hears criticism.

But Durant also has begun to talk about tiring of being No. 2, coming in second all the time.

Westbrook will return around the All-Star break. The Thunder have hung in there near the top of the Western Conference. If Westbrook can return at a high level with health, the Thunder should be one of the favorites to get to the Finals. But they have been for three years now.

Durant wants to get that title. But he’s also expanded his range in other ways.

Durant starred in a children’s movie, “Thunderstruck,” which was popular coming out in 2012. He liked his time in Hollywood.

And there’s an old line in a song that, “Once they’ve seen Paree (or Hollywood or Times Square or South Beach) how are you going to keep them down on the farm.”

It’s the big concern of the Thunder and will be the growing biggest question in the NBA.

Because Kevin Durant is the future.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”