It wasn’t too long ago that Kevin Durant was perhaps my favorite (non-Celtics) basketball player and arguably the most universally liked superstar in the NBA. You can’t watch the guy play and fail to fall in love with his silky smooth jumper and mind-numbing handles for a man of his size, but Durant’s league-wide admiration was for reasons beyond just his talent. He was humble in interviews and in ceding some control over his team to his friend and fellow superstar Russell Westbrook, praised for his incredible work ethic by all who knew him and unaffected by any scandals even dating back to his college days.
Raised by a single mother and his grandmother after his father abandoned the family, Durant was proof that dedication, humility, and a great attitude could lead anyone to a great station in life. Just six months ago, I would have challenged anybody to name a single concrete thing over which they could justify disliking Durant. Of course, everything has changed since then.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past summer, let me fill you in on what went down in the NBA’s offseason. Kevin Durant, by most accounts the second or third best player in the entire league, signed a two year contract with the Golden State Warriors, the two-time defending Western Conference champions (and 2015 NBA champions) who just last year set the all-time record for most wins in a season, going 73-9.
The Warriors had just two months before beaten Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals in historic fashion, overcoming a 3-1 series deficit. They had been called, rightly so, the most talented team ever even before they added KD, boasting arguably the league’s best player, Stephen Curry, two other legitimate superstars in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and perhaps the deepest bench in the history of the NBA. When they inked Durant’s two-year $54.3 million deal, they didn’t even have to give up one of their other stars, instead acquiring him to fill in for by far their most expendable starter, small forward Harrison Barnes. Just like that, KD went from a lovable figure to the sports world’s premier villain.
Many parallels have been drawn between Durant’s signing with the Warriors and LeBron James’s famous “Decision” that brought him to the Miami Heat, where he won his first two titles. Both stars left the teams that they had spent their entire careers with up to that point for what they thought was a better chance at a championship, and what that better chance entailed was joining forces with their rivals instead of vanquishing them. But I don’t think the two situations are exactly the same, nor will history remember them as such. When LeBron joined with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat, they were forming a new team, a collection of players with no experience together that, although supremely talented, was far from a sure thing. All three stars had found themselves in situations where they felt that their current front offices were not doing enough to help them win, and acted accordingly.
Durant, on the other hand, is joining forces with an already established superteam, one that he has sparred with and lost to frequently. There was nothing wrong with his own situation in Oklahoma City beyond the very existence of the Warriors, and rather than continuing to try to prove himself by beating them, he essentially gave up. Now, far be it from me to presume to tell a grown man where he can and cannot play, and I understand that if Durant wants to ball with the Splash Brothers, it is his prerogative to do so. But I am free to judge him however I want, and all I can see from this situation is weakness. Sure, he’ll probably win a title now, but people will see this as him tagging along, not earning it for himself. Fair assessment or not, I think that perception will ultimately haunt him.
In the end, though, I think the bigger problem created by Durant’s decision is how it will affect the rest of the league. His signing with the Warriors represents what is by far the most significant paradigm-shift in league history. He has created a juggernaut that looks so invincible, it has raised concerns to some observers as to whether it will damage competitive balance enough to actually drive people away from the NBA. More than any other major American sport, basketball has always had to deal with issues of parity. Baseball and hockey are inherently fluky games with near impossible to predict outcomes. Football has enough injuries and other roster continuity issues, as well as the benefit of having a short season and single game elimination in the playoffs, to ensure that no team is ever truly unbeatable or sustainably great over a span of more than just a single season. But basketball? Superstars run the sport, and when a transcendent talent is surrounded by a team that knows how to play together, they can dominate for an extended period of time. It’s how Bill Russell’s Celtics won 11 NBA championships over his 13-year career in the 1950s and ‘60s, how Michael Jordan owned the league in the ‘90s, how LeBron James has steamrolled the Eastern Conference and advanced to six consecutive NBA finals with little effort dating back to 2011. Fans for the most part enjoy watching superstars win, but that excitement can only extend so far if there is no drama. If an outcome is readily accepted as inevitable, what is the point of even watching? Such is the dilemma that basketball fans will be faced with this upcoming season.
Make no mistake, Durant and the Warriors are the overwhelming favorites to win the title. Sure they lost to LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers last season, but it took seven games and monumental efforts from James and fellow star Kyrie Irving, as well as uncharacteristically bad shooting performances from the entire Warriors team that likely wouldn’t ever be repeated if you replayed the series a thousand times over in a simulator. Replace the brick-laying Barnes with the sharpshooting Durant, one of LeBron’s only true foils, and the series probably ends with a different victor. If things go as expected, Durant will be a part of his first championship team and perhaps the winningest one ever as well, and maybe that’s all he ever wanted. It’s just too bad that he had to sacrifice his own legacy and likeability to get there.