- The more people try to pretend Kevin Durant’s Warriors are a real basketball team, the more insulting they become. While it appears KD will stay in the Bay this summer, the NBA would be a lot more interesting if he moved on.
These have been an eventful two years for Kevin Durant. In May 2016, he suffered the most crushing loss of his career when the Thunder squandered a 3–1 lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. Six weeks later, he shocked the sports world when he signed with that same Warriors team. From there he moved to the Bay, blended seamlessly with Steph Curry and the rest of the Golden State nucleus, dominated Russell Westbrook every time they played, got hurt thanks to an awkward fall on Zaza Pachulia's leg, came back healthy, stormed through the Western Conference playoffs, and won Finals MVP. Last summer there were triumphant commercials about silencing a career's worth of haters, cupcake-themed shoes, and burner accounts. This season we've seen podcasts lecturing blog boys, slightly less chemistry with Warriors teammates, more struggles through the playoffs, and on Wednesday night, the whole world watched him put together another MVP performance in the Finals.
Over the course of the past 24 months, I've spent way too much time talking/thinking/yelling about Durant and his career. That's partly because I've always loved KD, and partly because his story is more interesting than actual Warriors games. In any case, as we all inch closer to another Golden State title, here are 13 thoughts on KD—where we've been, where we are, and where this could go next.
1. Game 3 was spectacular, but it was bittersweet for two reasons. First, it's frustrating to remember that Durant has the ability to render entire teams helpless and take over games by himself, but he's almost never asked to do that anymore. Golden State has too many other weapons. From a practical standpoint, it doesn't make sense for Durant to empty the chamber more than once or twice each postseason. Likewise, and even more frustrating, that was the most dominant Finals performance since LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in 2016, but it was only half as thrilling. While those Cavs games felt like minor miracles that were only because of Hall of Fame moments, Wednesday's win felt close to inevitable for most of the second half. Cleveland made a game of it, which was nice. But the Cavs were hanging on for dear life. It was only a matter of time before the Warriors broke them, and while Durant did it in style, there were no stakes to elevate the moment. Even if Golden State had lost, would it have really mattered?
2. When KD first made his free agency decision, there was an assumption that skepticism would fade. Durant was given the benefit of the doubt, and while there was certainly backlash, most of the mainstream media—particularly NBA media—tried to strike a neutral tone. The whole world had lost its mind in the wake of LeBron's decision, and most of those opinions look terrible in hindsight. So when Durant made a move that was several measures more extreme than what LeBron did—more like Shaq joining the '96 Bulls than LeBron joining Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade—the assumption was that, eventually, the people dismissing his critics and embracing Durant's decision would find themselves on the right side of history. The question is when that actually happens, because on the verge of a second consecutive title, Durant's popularity is more lukewarm now than it was two years ago.
3. There is plenty of criticism of Durant that has been childish and unfair. The jersey-burning, you-turned-your-back-on-Oklahoma, snake-emoji critics are the bottom of the barrel. They've definitely earned any and all dismissals. But I think one of the biggest red herrings in the Durant discussion is the idea that those critics comprise a majority of the people who questioned Durant's move. There are certainly some fans who thought KD owed it to OKC to stay under Sam Presti's wing forever, and they will tweet angry emojis at him until the end of time. That's obviously ridiculous. But the reality is that a far larger segment of people recognized that the fit with Russell Westbrook was always rough, and he had every right to go somewhere else. They just think it's a bummer that "somewhere else" became a team that was already legendary without him.
4. The media softened in the wake of LeBron's mistakes, and perversely, that might make life harder on Durant. In a way, the drumbeat of LeBron criticism eventually worked in his favor. There were so many old white guys calling LeBron a disgrace that once he succeeded on the court, it became cool to go the other direction. LeBron did nothing wrong, and in fact, the more everyone thought about it, the more people appreciated the audacity to go try to build a dynasty with his friends. The difference with Durant has been the maddening neutrality that colors all discussions of his decision. No one announces Golden State games, watches them go up 20 on a playoff team, and says, "Yeah, well, that's what happens when an MVP joins a 73-win team because of an unprecedented loophole in the salary cap. This is all ridiculous. What are we even doing here?" Instead, it's far more common to pretend this Warriors team is perfectly normal, facing real adversity like any other team. We write articles pretending that Durant is conquering the pressures that past superstars faced when they were playing these games without three superstars next to them. The whole approach is well-intentioned, but counter-productive. The more people try to pretend the Warriors are a normal basketball team, the more insulting they become. Instead of providing an opportunity for catharsis, reading most of today's Golden State coverage just calcifies the resentment toward the player who made it all possible.
5. There are also those who demand that you enjoy the Warriors, because everyone should appreciate greatness. To these people, rolling your eyes at Golden State betrays immaturity or an inferior hoops IQ. "You are just a bad basketball fan," etc. I don't know. It's perfectly fair to love basketball so much that you appreciate the intricacies of Warriors dribble hand-offs and the rarity of the excellence we're watching in Golden State. But it's equally valid to conclude that the current arrangement deprives us of both Steph Curry and Kevin Durant operating at the height of their powers. Instead, they occasionally take turns dominating (Games 2 and 3 of the Finals), and more often, the Warriors are talented enough to win with each star playing somewhere around a B+ level. Are we 100% sure that "greatness" is what we are appreciating in those moments?
6. The Warriors have taken two of the three most talented scorers in a generation and made them both less interesting. That's really where the criticism begins and ends. This isn't about KD taking the easy way or out or the Warriors somehow ruining the NBA. But Steph on his own team was a force of nature, and watching him try to conquer the sport would've been fascinating. Durant could have been the same story had he chosen a team like the Celtics in 2016. And if you care about either player hitting his ceiling, it's hard to love what we have instead. Legends are cultivated when greatness is challenged, and there's just no interesting test for this team. We're watching Kobe and Shaq for the new millennium, plus two other Hall of Famers. It's absurd. The Warriors played hard and focused for roughly 40% of that Rockets series, and they still won fairly easily in Games 6 and 7.
7. Technically speaking, Durant could go to the Lakers this summer. He's a free agent as of next month. So imagine if Durant came out and said, "I went to Golden State to win titles, play with great teammates, and learn. These past two years have been the most rewarding basketball experience of my life, and I loved it. Now it's time for a new challenge. The Warriors were great before I got here, and they will be great after I leave. I want to build something new." Then he signed in L.A. to play with Paul George or LeBron. How quickly would the entire world get behind that movement? Lakers fans would adore him, and the rest of the country would be able to watch him go ballistic trying to beat his old teammates. He becomes the biggest star on the planet outside of LeBron, he'd be a natural heir to Kobe, a wonderful mentor to Brandon Ingram, Nike could force Magic Johnson to trade Lonzo for a real point guard, and ... Look, it makes a lot of sense.
8. Durant won't go to the Lakers this summer. There were stretches over the past month where chemistry looked shaky and there were whispers that his return wasn't 100% guaranteed. Durant, himself, was cryptic in the wake of Game 7 in Houston. But winning heals everything, and particularly winning while dominating. After the past week, it's virtually a lock that Durant will be back. Durant, himself, has indicated as much. So the Lakers scenario is useful more as a thought experiment. Remove Durant from Golden State and add him to a contender in L.A. (assuming the Lakers also land another star), and suddenly you have Steph's Warriors, KD's Lakers, Harden's Rockets, Kyrie's Celtics, and potentially the Sixers or Cavs as title contenders, with LeBron on one of those teams (or the Lakers). It would create one of the most exciting title races in years. It's also a reminder that nearly all of the existential angst surrounding NBA competitive balance began with KD in Golden State, and it could end as soon as he leaves.
9. But assuming KD stays for the next few years, where does that leave us? Steph and Draymond and Klay will be gods to Golden State fans forever. Regardless of how boring their games become, none of them will see their legends dimmed by any of this. Steph will be celebrated as the catalyst of the NBA's newest dynasty just as soon as these Finals end. Durant's role will be trickier. He's getting credentials that will stand out when people evaluate his career 50 years from now, but in the moment, I'm not sure many people care. Warriors fans prefer Steph/Dray/Klay, while mainstream fans are (at best) indifferent to KD. This is, again, a total bummer. Durant is unbelievable on the court, and he was arguably the most enjoyable star in the sport four or five years ago. Somewhere along the way that's gotten lost. With the Warriors now, he's sort of like the Kareem to Steph's Magic. His game is respected by everyone, but he's not revered by anyone.
10. It feels incredibly immature to care this much about any of this. And while maturity doesn't necessarily have to take priority in these arguments—caring about sports at all is itself a forfeiture of any/all maturity high ground—humanity should still be a baseline at the end of these conversations. And KD can do whatever he wants. If Durant is happy and content with the Warriors, that's great. If he's not, I hope he gets there soon. And while all of this is genuinely interesting if you're willing to suspend disbelief and pretend that legacies and reputations and competitive balance matters, any intelligent person should also recognize how idiotic it is to waste this much time thinking about the choices of another adult. Because even if the discussions are confined to basketball, it's not like any of this is a crisis. The NBA is fine.
11. If anything, life with the Warriors is breeding a generation of fans who appreciate the NBA in a more holistic way. This is cliche and annoying, but the best way I can explain the current landscape is with Game of Thrones. (Sorry.) If you're watching that show for the Dragons vs. the Wights, ostensibly the central conflict of the story, it's really not that interesting. There are lots of battle scenes with expensive special effects and predictable outcomes, and none of it is particularly remarkable. That's what the past two Golden State playoff runs have felt like. But Game of Thrones works because beyond dragons and zombies, there are dozens of humans struggling for power. Everyone is good-looking and clever, and the characters are all screwed up and enjoyable in their own ways. All of this takes place in an intricately-crafted world with logic that's similar to real life but not quite the same, and the drama is incredibly addictive. And that's the NBA. As the Warriors have taken over the past few years, the focus has begun to shift from the top of the league to a litany of more interesting characters struggling beneath them. Save for the two weeks of the NBA Finals, obsessively following basketball has never been more entertaining. (And even during the Finals, we've had burner accounts and normal collars to discuss).
12. It's Durant's specific character arc that's frustrating, and a little bit baffling. He's a top–20 player all time, and as he conquers the NBA, he's being met with mostly indifference. This a strange NBA era to live through. Durant's experience speaks to how difficult it can be to calibrate the way others perceive you, how complicated the role of today's media has become, and ultimately, how dominant the Warriors really are. LeBron was trying to build something similar when he jumped from Miami to a Cleveland team with a burgeoning superstar in Kyrie Irving, and a then-top 10 player in Kevin Love. It just didn't work as well for the Cavs—nobody planned on the rise of Steph and Draymond. And then, of course, everything that made Cleveland vulnerable next to Golden State eventually made the 2016 Finals one of the most incredible sporting events of our lifetimes.
There's been none of that struggle with the KD Warriors, and none of the triumph. Where LeBron went to Cleveland and built an entirely new roster with mixed results, KD has been grafted onto a dynasty that was already fully formed. That's part of why this has looked so seamless, and why the success feels a little empty. Durant did nothing wrong, but that's not really the point. What happened is that KD was playing a game of free agency chess that LeBron invented, and in making a move that couldn't possibly fail, it looks like he misread the board.
13. When Golden State loses with a nucleus that was worshiped before he got there, Durant is blamed. When Golden State wins, it's so predictable that it's hard to care. I wonder how long the story will stay this way.