Bill Simmons, Kevin Durant, And Us

Bill Simmons is in love with Kevin Durant. Deeply, madly, in love. And frankly, I feel a little violated. To put it in Simmons' parlance, I feel a little bit like Bill Simmons is Tucker Max, Kevin Durant is my smokin' hot little sister in high school, and the two just met. Meanwhile, as I'm sitting on the sidelines fretting with protective anxiety, Bill's pumping out word to his army of readers:

"Dude, she's -amazingly- hot. One of a kind hot. So hot, in fact, that I'm actively rooting for my current girlfriend to dump me so that I'm free when this young firecracker is officially available."

That's more or less where we are, with Simmons looking forward to the Durant era, while we - as Texas fans - are actively dreading its end. While Bill's lusting in the "getting to know you" phase of KD fandom, we Texas fans are mucking through the paralyzing fear that Kevin's time has come, is passing so quickly, and will soon be gone. . .

Before I get into Simmons' most recent observations on Durant, I feel compelled to provide some background.

First things first: Bill Simmons catches a shit ton of grief in the college football blogosphere - mostly because he's so willfully ignorant about the sport that so many of us live and die with. And that's fine; I think it's mostly deserved. Simmons doesn't know college football, doesn't care about college football, and more or less openly dismisses the sport of college football (though there are signs he's coming around).

But if you're one of those folks who openly disdains Simmons because of his lack of enthusiasm for college football, you simply must set that aside when it comes to something like this.

I've been thinking long and hard about whether I'm being hyperbolic or not, but have decided that I'm not: Bill Simmons is the best NBA basketball wirter of our time. To be perfectly honest, I don't think it's close. Personally, despite being as big a sports junkie as I am, I find it terribly difficult to stay tuned in to the NBA regular season, except in one regard: Bill Simmons' columns on the league. He is, I'm confident in saying, without peer - so capable a writer and analyst that I find myself gripped to every word he writes about professional basketball.

He knows the players, he knows the league, and - most importantly - he knows the game. As a fellow hoops junkie, I cherish Bill's insights, and the way he shares them with us, to the point where the highlight of my NBA season is not so much the action on the court, but Simmons' analysis of that action. That's a damn high compliment, and something I usually shy away from, but it's warranted, in this case. Simmons is that good an NBA writer.

In the interest of full disclosure: when Simmons first mentioned our lovechild Kevin Durant in one of his columns, he said something along the lines of, "This Durant guy is perhaps the most amazing basketball player to ever grace a collegiate court and yet nobody is talking about him." I wound up emailing Simmons, and wish I'd saved that correspondence. Basically, I told Bill, "I've been trying my damndest to get the word out on Kevin Durant, but there's only so much I can do from my little Texas-centric pulpit. You've got to be the guy who lets the sports world know just how special a player we've got playing collegiate hoops right now."

Whether Bill actually read my email or not is something I don't know. Whether it influenced his steady increase in Kevin Durant hyping is something I do not know. All I know is that it's early February and Bill Simmons is positively obsessed with Kevin Durant. So much so that Bill is devoting almost an entire column to singing Kevin's praise.

In that regard, I'm damn pleased. The more people appreciate Kevin's unparalleled skills, the better it is for Rick Barnes, Texas hoops, and us. On the other hand, as I mentioned in opening this essay, I can't help but feel a little disturbed that all these outsiders are gathering at the window to start talking obsessively about Kevin's LAT (Life After Texas).

Simmons offered a brief setup, recap, and set of random thoughts on the Texas-Texas A&M clash from Monday evening. There's a lot of interesting commentary and timely insights that are worth talking about. Which we'll do now.  Writes Simmons:

The Aggies jump to a 14-point lead (Texas looks tight), KD drags them back into the game (they always wait to start feeding him until the game is about to slip away)...

That complaint should sound familiar to 'Horns fans. In the last Texas Basketball Report, I bemoaned the 'Horns slow starts in general, and inability to start uber-feeding Kevin the rock until the second half in particular. In well over half of Texas games this year, Texas has limped through an up and down first half, only to explode out of the gates in the second half with a Dexter Pittman sized dose of getting KD the ball in a position to score. And score, score, score he does.

Why aren't we doing this from the opening tip? (More on this soon.)

Come to think of it, the Gillispie-Barnes battle was a complete mismatch -- Barnes is coaching the best freshman scorer since Maravich and has no clue how to get him the ball. Why wouldn't they spread the floor and have him attack off the dribble? What's the point of posting him up when he's always double-teamed? Why do they settle for so many bad shots? Durant should be scoring 35-40 a night. Easy.

That would be two games in a row where Barnes got outcoached (see: Wildcats, Kansas State). Getting back to the point about feeding Kevin the ball early and often, it's befuddling that Texas still has halfcourt offense problems. Simmons' complaint is a good one, though he gets his numbers wrong. Durant is scoring 35-40 a game - at least in Big 12 play. The correct statement would be, "Durant should be scoring 45-50 a night. Easy."

Andrew and I have been whining about Rick Barnes' half court offense for years. He can't teach a collegiate player to throw an entry pass to the post, and the offense has, for years (with a brief TJ Ford respite), involved way too much standing around and dribbling. The funny thing is, though, this year that's actually a viable half court offensive philosophy. Clear out the lane, give Kevin the ball on the perimeter, and let him go to work. If teams run two guys at him on the outside - fine. As Simmons notes, KD's more than a good passer. He's a great one.

Texas' frosh point guard, D.J. Augustin, had a good statistical game (23 pts, 9 assists, 12-13 FT) but leads the Big-12 in "No-No-Yes!" drives and plays out of control most of the time -- I think he's a five-time attendee of Nate Robinson Summer Camp. He's going to kill Texas in March because he doesn't take care of the ball. (Too bad Durant can't play with an experienced point guard like Law; his life would be much easier and he'd get to know what it's like to be thrown an entry pass.)

The spirit of this argument is in the right place, but Simmons isn't being fair to Augustin. In Big 12 play, Augustin has a delicious 69-25 assit to turnover ratio - positively outstanding. Texas' trouble in the halfcourt offense isn't Augustin, who's doing quite well, it's guys like AJ Abrams, who can't feed Durant the ball to save his life.

While I disagree (strongly) with Simmons' assessment of Augustin as some kind of Nate Robinson clone, he's right that DJ has a lot of room to grow as the leader of the offense, and that's where the statistics can be a misleading. Augustin and Durant should be able to work a vicious two man game together that's virtually unstoppable in the half court. Simmons is used to watching NBA action, in which a talented point guard and a guy like Durant work together seamlessly on every possession to get a clean scoring chance. That's not going to happen this year at Texas, but there's no question that the sky's the limit for this team if those two can take their relationship to the next level.

Err... basketball level.

Anyway, when Chad Ford wrote that Oden had more upside than Durant last week, we had a lively e-mail exchange about it, with my basic point being, "Look, Oden has a chance to be one of the best five centers ever ... Durant has a chance to be one of the best FIVE PLAYERS ever" and Chad qualifying his point by discussing overall impact on a team (if you draft Oden, you're more likely to win a title because franchise centers invariably win titles ... well, unless they're Patrick Ewing). We could go round and round on this, and over the next few months, we probably will. All I know is that MJ was the last guy since Wilt to crack 37 a game in the pros ... and Kevin Durant will be joining him in 5-6 years if he stays healthy. That's not even hyperbole. I don't see anyone stopping him. But will his rebounding/shotblocking catch up to the rest of his game? And will his teams ultimately win? Those are the looming questions.

Gosh, those looming questions sound awfully familiar, don't they? For us Texas fans, we're left wondering if his defense will catch up to the rest of the things he's doing so well, and whether he can get this team together for a deep March run. A lot of folks told me to put away the annointing oil when I wrote that Durant was already the best ever to play at Texas. That was in January, and though Durant is playing at an even higher level now than he was then, the 'Horns are sifting through the same set of team problems now that they were at that time.

The big question is not whether Durant is the most amazing talent in college basketball (Simmons is right: he is). It's whether Durant, in his one year window in Austin, can figure out how to win six games in March with the supporting cast that he's got. I think Bill's hit on two of the three big things that will determine how this team finishes its season - maximizing the most lethal collegiate weapon the game has seen in a long time, and getting more valuable possessions from Augustin and Durant working together.  The third thing is the defense, which has been positively abysmal. Despite all the blocks the 'Horns have racked up, the number of uncontested shots that teams enjoy - especially on the perimeter - is simply crippling. It's there, more than anywhere else, where Durant needs to be a leader and elevate his play. Inspiring the 'Horns to improve defensively will be every bit - if not more - valuable to this team's tournament chances.

To wrap this up, I think I'm mostly pleased that Simmons has decided to latch on to Kevin Durant in the way that he has. When KD committed to the Longhorns, we noted that there were two great things about his pending arrival: first, whatever wins came our way because of his presence, and second, whatever national attention came our way because of his presence. And let's face it, Bill Simmons is the most popular and widely read popular sports columnist of our time. If he's gawking over a guy in the way that he is with Durant, a heck of a lot of sports fans around the country are going to start tuning in to Texas games each time we're on TV. Our NCAA tournament games are likely to wind up being the ones CBS producers decide are 'featured' matchups. If we get on a run in March... who knows how wild the KD craze can get?

However this turns out, bringing Kevin Durant to Texas has to be ranked at the top of Rick Barnes' accomplishments on the 40 Acres. As for Simmons? Like I said at the beginning of this piece - he is (at least in my view) the best basketball writer of our time. Now he wants to write about a player on the Texas Longhorns? That's undeniably great. . .

--PB--

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