Kevin Durant should be celebrated. He is a fantastically gifted scorer who possesses the skills of an elite guard, but has the wingspan of a center.The University of Texas product is certainly on the way to the Hall of Fame, if not the top of the Association’s all-time scoring register. He can shoot, he can create, and as this year’s Western Conference Finals showed, he can actually play some defense.
Yet public opinion on Durant has been waning for years, long before his aptly-timed Independence Day heel turn that saw fans – and sportswriters – roll their eyes in disgust and revolt from his side en masse. The timeline of how this happened, or more accurately, how Durant let this happen, is a complicated one.
Because of his prodigious talents and the timing of his league entrance, KD will always (probably unfairly) be compared to LeBron James. Although both players are nominally small forwards, with the blurring of positions and roles in the modern NBA, the two couldn’t be any more different.
“Bron-Bron” has never been a deadly spot-up shooter like KD, just as Durant has never possessed the world-class court vision and passing ability of James. LeBron thrives on creating for others in the Magic Johnson point forward role; KD is at heart; a volume shooter (albeit a brilliant one). Their respective games are markedly different, a fact that’s always been understated in comparing the two.
But those die have been cast. James and Durant are both super-duper-megastars, they’re of a similar age, they play the same position; therefore, they have to be measured against each other. This is product of fan culture, of media culture and of the pressure former players put on current stars. Durant is not to blame for that.
He’s far from blameless, though. When LeBron signed with Miami following the infamous “The Decision” special in 2010, the public opinion of him plummeted. Never mind that the Cleveland team(s) he left had embarrassingly weak supporting casts (more on this later). He was abandoning his hometown (more or less) team to create a super team and was roundly derided for it.
In that first season in Miami, James tried to double down. Tired of being the calm, collected superstar, he attempted to play the bad guy on the Heat. It didn’t work. It was forced, and later, he admitted that he was mentally exhausted by the act. Notably, the next season, Leron returned to his normal personality en route to his first title. This is where Durant should have been better.
Writers have said for some time that Durant is impressionable and emotional, that “he sometimes makes decisions rashly” and, more alarmingly, “with the intent of choosing the course of action that will please others.” In that context, it is easy to see how a marketing team in KD’s ear could have watched James’ struggles over the first year in Miami and seen an opportunity – one that Durant was all too quick to embrace.
With LeBron as the league’s new villain, KD tried to position himself as the NBA’s new golden boy. Aided by sycophantic writers eager to buy into the idea of Durant as the humble superstar, public opinion of KD soared. He bought into his own mythos, signing a contract extension with the Thunder in a clear attempt to make himself the anti-LeBron: soft spoken, nice, loyal, and team-first.
LeBron gained some supporters back by defeating Durant soundly in the 2012 Finals, but with the Thunder positioned as the West’s team of the future, the loss didn’t seem particularly significant. A group as talented and as young as OKC would surely be back.
History played out differently. Trading James Harden was a massive mistake, yes, and injuries derailed the Thunder at various points. But as this past season showed, the team has copious talent and is still a championship contender. The excuses started to wear thin, and public perception of the team slowly pivoted from “celebrated young upstarts” to “brash loudmouths without a ring.”
This was helped in no small part by the team’s behavior, from publicly claiming things would have been different with a healthy squad, to the actions of individual players. Serge Ibaka plateaued, and fans got tired of being told he was an elite defender. OKC kept bringing in unlikable, or overrated role players (Caron Butler, Dion Waiters, Kendrick Perkins). And as the lack of ultimate success continued, the team’s constant complaining – which manifested in the form of three consecutive top-two finishes in team technical fouls – got old (a Thunder player led the league in T’s in three of the past five seasons).
There’s a word for this kind of stuff: buster. OKC saw the public gradually turn on it because a team can’t be unlikable AND unsuccessful. If you’re going to be loud and defiant and claim you deserve respect as one of the league’s best teams, you’d better back it up. Failing to do so qualifies you as posers. Durant, as the team’s leader, was deservedly the face of that failure.
From an individual perspective, KD didn’t do himself any favors. As LeBron reestablished himself as (unquestionably) the best player in the world, and Durant continued to promote himself at the expense of another player, fans became less receptive. His impressionable, eager-to-please nature likely made it easy for his handlers to convince him this was the best course. He didn’t make that decision in a vacuum.
However, he did choose to tweet “Now everybody wanna play for the Heat and the Lakers? Let’s go back to being competitive and going at these peoples!” just days after “The Decision”. He chose to sign that big extension, knowing how it would look. And in the absolute nadir of blatant nice-guy pandering, he told Bill Simmons he wanted his nickname to be “The Servant” because he made his teammates better.
It was phony, it was obvious, and it was widely rejected. People don’t want to be told how humble you are. A move that transparent, combined with the rest of the Thunder’s collective busterism, soured fans tremendously. This brings us to KD’s decision to leave OKC and sign with Golden State.
To be clear from the outset: Durant has every right to leave. OKC management drafted well and was reportedly player-friendly, but it also made several questionable personnel decisions– headlined by the Harden trade and the curiously long tenure of one Scott Brooks. Without a doubt, the media-and-fan-created stigma of retiring without a championship loomed large in his mind.
It’s the destination he chose that solidifies Durant as a first-team All-Time Buster. Had he left for San Antonio, his hometown Wizards, or some other team with a decent roster, it would be understandable. Moving on for a better chance at a ring is a respectable business decision. What isn’t respectable is leaving for the team that broke the regular-season wins record, just beat you in a thrilling seven-game conference finals and was likely the best collection of talent the NBA has ever seen (if not the greatest basketball team of all time).
It is the ultimate cop-out, the ultimate admission of defeat and disinterest in carrying a team. This isn’t LeBron leaving for Miami. Look at the roster Bron was playing with his final season in Cleveland. Look at the list of corpses he dragged to the 2007 Finals against the Spurs. No wonder he couldn’t get it done before he went to Miami.
By contrast, this year’s OKC team featured a great young center in Steven Adams, a halfway decent bench and another one of the top five players in the world in Russell Westbrook. The Thunder just made a fantastic trade for Serge Ibaka that landed them Victor Oladipo as well as a pair of bigs to add depth in Ersan Illysova and (rookie) Domantas Sabonis. With KD, that team was possibly going to be as good as the Warriors next year, and the Thunder knew they really should have knocked off the Dubs this season.
When LeBron went to Miami, the Heat’s Big Three had never played together. They had spacing issues and chemistry issues and no real center on the roster. It was a remarkable collection of stars, but there’s a reason it took time for the team to learn how to play together.
Golden State will face far less of a challenge in adding Durant. The Warriors have already won a championship and should have won a second. They were, despite the end result of these playoffs, probably the best team of all time. All they’re doing is replacing a good player in Harrison Barnes with an elite one in Durant. It’s a significantly smaller obstacle that will in turn make winning a title significantly less meaningful for KD.
This move isn’t close to LeBron going to Miami. It’s the equivalent of an alt-history in which Lebron signs with Boston after being eliminated by the Celtics in 2010 (upgrading the position manned by Paul Pierce) and riding the coattails of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to a ring. It’s the equivalent of Michael Jordan throwing up his hands after being eliminated by the Pistons three straight seasons and signing with Detroit in 1990. It’s disappointing, it’s weakness personified and it’s the ultimate endgame of the busterism KD signed on for way back when he agreed to be the foil to LeBron no one needed.
LeBron, on the other hand…
Where did last year’s Finals leave us with Lebron? To start with, it re-solidifies his place among the very best the game has ever seen, and his status as the current top player in the world. It makes the MVP’s of Derrick Rose (2010), Durant (2014) and Steph Curry (2015) look even more ridiculous in retrospect (Curry’s 2016 nod is acceptable). Most importantly, and thankfully, it finally closes the absurd argument that somehow Bron hasn’t done enough in his career to be included in “Greatest Ever” talks.
I get it. It’s natural to be threatened by change. People dislike when something new challenges their preconceived notions of what is and what should be. It’s why aged stars like Oscar Robertson claim players like Steph Curry would get crushed “back in their day.” It fuels the insecurity in Scottie Pippen when he claimed his Bulls would sweep this season’s Warriors. Ex-players don’t want to be forgotten or have younger players rewrite their accomplishments. Fans are no more rational than the players they support. But there seems to be a particular bent on diminishing James’ accomplishments.
That’s undoubtedly because James is the best player we’ve seen since Michael Jordan. He might end up being considered greater than MJ, or he might not, but it’s the mere notion that he COULD be that strikes so much unnecessary fear in the hearts of some fans. Why is this such a big deal? It comes back to insecurity.
If LeBron COULD one day be better than Mike, then what have all these fans been wasting their time with, stanning for a guy who isn’t the best player ever? It’s a particular fetishism of “The Best And Only The Best” that permeates so much of American culture, and when intertwined with personal identity it creates some truly inexplicable results.
You’d think that LeBron dragging a garbage fire to the Finals against San Antonio in 2007 would be a feat worth celebrating, but no, it makes him a choker. Ditto for the crippled six-man team he willed to a 2-1 lead last year against Golden State – one of the best teams of all time in their own right. What matters is that LeBron lost, and MIKE NEVER LOST IN THE FINALS SO Lebron is a fraud!! Apparently he’d have been better off losing in the first round like Jordan.
Never mind that LeBron was just 22 years old, and in his fourth season, when he took a bad team to the Finals. Never mind that it took four seasons for Michael Jordan to get out of the first round of the playoffs (and he promptly lost 1-4 in the second round). The sheen of a six-for-six Finals record is rightfully celebrated, but it tends to distract from MJ’s playoff struggles before he got to that point. Do you know how many playoff GAMES Jordan won without Scottie Pippen?
The answer is one. MJ went 1-9 in the first round in his first three seasons, making the playoffs each year despite a losing record. The latter, of course, was a result of a smaller league, featuring talent consolidation on fewer teams and a near-total lack of quality international players (but that’s a discussion for another time). It’s an ugly mark, but Jordan’s later achievements overshadow those early years, as they should.
If it’s down to rings and rings alone, as some fans attempt to use as a trump card, then neither Michael Jordan nor LeBron James is the best player of all time. Bill Russell’s 11 rings are more than MJ and Bron combined. Yet even the most ardent old-guard supporters would likely concede that Russell is not the greatest player ever. Different eras are difficult to compare, even back-to-back ones like Jordan and James’.
All this of course, misses the point. There is not, nor will there ever be, a consensus greatest player ever. The subject is too subjective and emotion-based to have an “answer.” The most a player can do is put himself in the conversation. If a reasonable argument can be made for a player’s inclusion on that short list, he’s in the conversation. Jordan is there. LeBron is too (and by the way, his career is not over).
That’s what makes Durant leaving for Golden State so disappointing. Michael Jordan broke through in 1991 after struggling for years to get out of the east and rewrote the end of his story. LeBron James went to Miami, learned how to be truly great, then came home and did the same.
No matter how many championships KD wins as a Warrior, he’ll never be the leader of his team the way MJ and Bron were. The Warriors belong to Steph Curry. Durant going along for the ride will only diminish respect for what he accomplishes.
Devon Singrey is a Portlander and creator of the college football blog, Making Sense of Saturday. His interests include basketball, football, history, mythology, funky music, and all things Prince.