Every Kevin Durant rant, complaint, and mini-controversy can be traced to five paragraphs that appeared in The Players’ Tribune on July 4, 2016. That was the day that Kevin Durant left a contender in Oklahoma City for a 73-win Warriors team, and we haven’t let him forget it.
This must drive him crazy. Durant wants us to see him as one of the best players of all-time, not the guy who jumped on history’s most luxurious bandwagon. (Many of us see him as both.) This may explain why he went off at the media this week for speculating that he will go to the Knicks. It’s not because he is so determined to stay with Golden State. Any conversation that veers back to his offseason movement rankles him. He wants to be judged by what he does on the floor.
“Y'all come in here every day, ask me about free agency, ask my teammates, my coaches,” he said. “You rile up the fans about it. Let us play basketball.”
Let us play basketball. That’s not really how the NBA works these days—the league is a soap opera with games serving as commercial breaks—and it really isn’t how it works with Durant. Every star is a movie character. LeBron James is Superman. Steph Curry is the adorable kid who solves every riddle. Durant is the guy who joined a superteam.
Look what has happened since he joined the Warriors. His two running mates in Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, each won an MVP award, and Harden is about to win another. Last year, Durant finished seventh in the voting—behind Damian Lillard. The year before, he was tied for ninth, behind John Wall.
No intelligent basketball fan thinks Lillard or Wall was ever a better player than Kevin Durant. But he can’t be the most valuable player in the league playing for a team that didn’t need him.
Yes, of course: Durant won two championships. But he hasn’t gotten the credit for those that he surely thinks he should get, because it feels like he rigged the game.
So let’s view everything through that lens. When he fought with Draymond Green earlier this season, it started on the floor, when Durant wanted the ball in the final seconds and Green kept it instead. Durant was right—Green should have given him the ball—but it blew up because of the circumstances that led them there. Green is pure Warrior: he was drafted by Golden State. Durant joined after they won a title, and he may leave again.
In December, Durant created a media stir when he told Bleacher Report the environment around LeBron James was “toxic.” That word distracted us and annoyed James, but it wasn’t the heart of what Durant said. This was:
“He has so many fanboys in the media. Even the beat writers just fawn over him. I’m like, we’re playing basketball here, and it’s not even about basketball at certain points … It’s not LeBron’s fault at all—it’s just the fact you have so many groupies in the media that love to hang on every word. Just get out of the way and let us play basketball.”
There it is again: Let us play basketball. You don’t need to be fluent in Durant to translate the rest: LeBron left for Miami, left again for Cleveland, and all you do is treat him like a God. Meanwhile, I switch teams and you can’t let it go.
Of course, when James went to Miami, he got more grief than Durant ever has. But almost everybody came around on LeBron. We haven’t done it with Durant.
Remember Durant’s burner-account controversy? Somebody (@ColeCashwell) tweeted at him “I respect the hell outta you but give me one legitimate reason for leaving OKC other than getting a championship” and Durant replied from @KDTrey5: “he didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan. His roster wasn’t that good, it was just him and russ”
He denied that he thought he was using a separate account. (He never gave a clear explanation of what did happen, though he did apologize for it.) But what matters here is that the criticism bothered him. It did, it does, and it will. This is why you see and hear these inane stories about how he really left for Golden State because he loves their style of play, or because he wants to be some sort of Silicon Valley kingpin—as though he couldn’t own businesses if he played somewhere else. He can’t stand the implication that he took a shortcut to win titles. Anything else sounds better.
Even the nickname of the Warriors’ best five-man unit—Durant-Curry-Green-Klay Thompson-Andre Iguodala—brings us back to that summer of 2016. Those are the Hamptons Five, the group that met in the Hamptons when Durant decided to join the Warriors.
Put Durant on the floor, let him play basketball, and you will be in awe. There has still never been anybody quite like him. But we don’t see him quite that way anymore, and we won’t until he goes to another franchise. That is why there is so much speculation about his potential free agency this summer.
The Warriors may still think they can keep him. But their problem is that the usual sells don’t apply. They can offer him more money, but when you factor in California income tax and endorsement income, it’s hard to imagine that Durant will stay in the Bay Area for money.
The Warriors can’t promise him he will be the face of the franchise, because that’s Curry and always will be.
They can’t promise him individual fame, because he can get more of that elsewhere.
They can promise him the best chance to win championships, but Durant knows what Warrior championships feel like. Those do not seem to be enough for him.
Maybe he will decide he doesn’t care about MVP awards or fan criticism or being the second-most popular player in his own market. But if that hasn’t happened yet, why would it happen now?
It seems far more likely that he will leave, because he cannot get what he craves by staying. He can only really get it by winning a championship with the Knicks, in the nation’s biggest media market, or the Clippers, in the town LeBron is supposed to own, or with some other team that knocks on his door this summer. Whoever signs Kevin Durant will get an all-time great player. He wants us to remember that.