In the two weeks since King James partnered with the Miami Heat, his image has taken an unprecedented pounding for an athlete or celebrity, without a criminal record, drug addiction, declining skills or mistress.   It’s not hard to solve The Mystery of the Shrinking Reputation.  Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley have each railed against Lebron James’s apparent lack of an insatiable competitive spirit.

The problem is that James joined Bosh, Wade and Riley in Miami-Wade County.  Had Bosh and Wade joined James in Cleveland, James would be hailed as a king.  Like his favorite coach, John Calipari, James would also be recognized as the best recruiter in the NBA.  Jordan didn’t import superstars to Chicago, but he was supplied with balance and jigsaw pieces that fit.  Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen, 6’6 point guard Ron Harper, and Dennis Rodman, the best rebounder of the post-Chamberlain/Russell era.

In any case, since signing his five year, $85 million contract, Kevin Durant “The Player” has become the antithesis to Lebron James “The Brand”.  For one, Kevin Durant took the option, Lebron opted not to four years ago.  By signing on the dotted line for five years instead of the three year contracts Miami’s Big Three coordinated in 2006, Kevin Durant reassured Thunder fans and gave management a larger window to construct a championship supporting cast around him.

The differences between Lebron and Durant don’t end there.  Lebron has been built like an NFL tightend, as Durant’s silhouette resembles Amy Winehouse.  Lebron is a slasher with point guard vision.  Durantula is a 6’10 sharpshooter with the reach of a center and handle of a guard. Durant seems content outside the spotlight in Oklahoma.  Lebron seemingly can’t live without it.  If Durant is Lupe Fiasco, Lebron is Kanye West and “The Decision” was his Taylor Swift moment.

While Lebron has been busy walking red carpets, hosting parties in Miami or gallavanting in New York, Kevin Durant has shown up for Oklahoma City summer league games.  In 2008, the reigning Rookie of the Year dropped 62 points in a Goodman League tourney game at D.C.’s Barry Farms.  That same summer he suited up for the then unnamed Oklahoma City summer league team for a 22 point performance in a single 27 minute cameo. Two weeks ago, Durant, the NBA’s reigning scoring champion showed up to the Orlando Summer League as a defacto fan-coach.

It’s the second consecutive summer, Lebron’s image has suffered a left hook.  Lebron basked in the attention during free agency, however, he ordered Nike henchmen to confiscate home video of Jordan Crawford dunking on him at his own Skills Academy.

However, Oklahoma City and general manager Sam Presti can’t get too complacent with Durant.  Two summers ago, Chris Paul signed a similar four year extension fresh off a campaign which saw the Hornets earn a division title and the second overall seed in the West.  In the two seasons since, New Orleans has remained stagnant, as teams like Oklahoma City or Portland have surpassed them and Chris Paul has been passive aggressively hinting at a trade request.

Hypothetically, in a three team trade, I’ve envisioned, Durant’s Thunder could acquire Chris Paul while simultaneously solving Washington’s $111 million dilemma with Gilbert Arenas.

Here’s how: The Hornets would receive the final four years of Gilbert Arenas’ contract from Washington as well as Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook.  Washington would receive a pair of expiring contracts in New Orleans’ Peja Stojakavic, Oklahoma City’s Mo Peterson and dump $17 million annually from their payroll.

In the aftermath, Washington would have approximately $34 million in their cap room reservoir for 2011.  That’s $4 million more than New York and the Wizards own all their 2011 draft picks.  Next summer, they’ll have a leg up on New York in the race for Carmelo Anthony.  Anthony may have been born in Brooklyn, but he grew up near D.C where his allegiance is stronger.  The Knicks can offer the possibility of trading for Chris Paul but the Wizards can already deliver John Wall.  Meanwhile, New Orleans is replenished with the potent duo of Russell Westbrook and combo guard Gilbert Arenas. 

Oklahoma City would be a return of sorts for Chris Paul, who played nearly all of his home games in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina.  The support from Oklahoma City was a major factor in the NBA awarding them Seattle’s franchise.

For seven years, we assumed Lebron would be the savior for a struggling sports city.  Instead he’s settled for being a shooting star amidst a galaxy of celebrity constellations on South Beach.  Once the Dolphins take the field, Lebron will get a tan on the back burner.  With Tim Duncan creeping towards retirement in San Antonio and Lebron baking under Miami’s year round tropical sun, the burden of small market NBA success now falls upon Kevin Durant’s slender shoulders.  Don’t take it for granted Oklahoma.  At least Cleveland still has the Browns.
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