He’s the cheat code. The best two-way player in the league, the most unstoppable scorer the NBA has ever seen — a cross between Tracy McGrady and Plastic Man, a seven-footer that can shoot like Ray Allen. Three’s, step-backs, post-ups, transition dunks, lay-ups, fade-aways, curling off of screens, pin-downs, runners, floaters, hook shots, tap-ins, put-backs, isolations, off-ball – it doesn’t matter what the defense does, or who guards him, or the time on the clock, each possession ends the same: The ball tickling the net for yet another basket, the slumped, defeated shoulders of the poor soul stuck with the impossible task of defending him, and Kevin Durant loping easily down the court, just another basket in another game.
The dubs became the empire
It’s closing in on two years since Durant fled Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook for the sunny, green pastures of San Francisco, and one year since he was the Finals MVP on one of the five greatest teams of all time, and yet no one celebrates him like they should. A top 20 player of all time, in his prime, is just drifting along in the flow of NBA history.
This, it should be said, is partially his fault. By leaving OKC and joining the best team in the league, Durant alienated his staunchest supporters in Thunders fans and angered every other fan in the league by elevating the Warriors from “bad for basketball” to “ruining the sport and league”. Without Durant, Golden State may not have been loved, but they were tolerated, showing how luck, player development, and a willingness to embrace novel ideas could lead to sustainable success. With Durant, the Warriors are the Empire – so overwhelmingly talented and superior to every opponent that fighting them is a contest to not get embarrassed instead of trying to win.
Durant’s decision also put him in a strange, irreversible standing among his peers – he is without a contemporary, a rival that throws his faults and advantages in sharp relief. LeBron James is chasing the ghost in Chicago – his pursuit of Michael Jordan means every playoffs, every Finals, every win or defeat has a heaviness, a significance that echoes beyond the immediate season or game. Russell Westbrook and James Harden, with every ferocious dunk and euro step, are similarly linked – Westrbook’s energy and competitiveness, backed by the old NBA players and legions of devoted followers, would feel less powerful if Harden, he of the analytics and three pointers and free throws, wasn’t matching him step for step.
The best parts of the NBA stem from these major and minor rivalries; Simmons versus Mitchell this season; Kobe versus Shaq in the early 2000’s; Magic versus Bird saving the league in the 80’s; the originals Goliaths Wilt and Russel in the 60’s. Durant? All he has is legions of haters and no supporters, just admirers observing him swish shot after shot.
Respected, but far from loved
Even the Golden State fans are cool on him. When he joined the Warriors, it didn’t feel like they were adding a talented guitarist or drummer to an existing band – it felt like adding Beyonce to the Migos. The talent collected would undoubtedly produce stunning, wonderful results, but the new addition wouldn’t be as beloved as the original members. They love Draymond Green, knowing his flaws and strength; and adore Klay Thompson, the other Splash brother with his little quirks and surreal ability to seamlessly fit into the system.
It’s even starker when compared Durant is compared to Curry, the beloved son of the owners and the fans, the last remnant of the Don Nelson area, before the Warriors were THE WARRIORS and just another franchise struggling to gain relevancy. Curry, in all of his revolutionary splendor and fragile ankles, was a spontaneous thunderbolt that sparked the Warriors into the juggernaut they are today, and is treated – no, worshiped – accordingly. Every three-pointer, every mini-run is a bump of cocaine to the fans, and they reveal in the wildly unexpected frenzy of the wispy point guard. Durant has every tool in the bag, but he doesn’t have that nostalgia and power; whenever he makes a clutch basket or a key defensive play, the Warriors fans do the basketball equivalent of a golf clap.
And then there is how he actually plays within the Warriors system. On most NBA teams, the system is built around the best player. Look at LeBron on the Cavaliers, or Harden on the Rockets, or Westbrook on the Thunder, where they are the sun in the solar system and the other players revolve around them. Durant is the most important player on the Warriors, a chameleon-like cog in the machine that can shift from an isolation hero ball scorer to a defensive anchor to an off ball spacer depending on the opposition, some times in the same game. But it’s hard to see how the Warriors play would differ if Durant wasn’t on the team; they would still jack up threes and play a switch heavy style of defense and blow teams off the floor with relative ease.
The original unicorn
Durant coined the phrase “unicorn” to describe Kristpas Prozingus, and subsequently every uber-talented, unique player that had never been seen before in the NBA, ranging from Giannis Antetokumpo to Ben Simmons. It makes sense, since Durant was the original unicorn back in 2007. He tore up the NCAA, averaging 25.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg, and 1.9 bpg on 47-40-82 splits and won basically every single college player of the year award – despite playing only one season at Texas, Durant had his jersey retired. His biggest weakness heading into the draft was perceived to be his strength, but forgive the scouts for overthinking things. They had just never seen a player like Durant before, a seven-footer who had the shooting percentages of prime Ray Allen and the footwork of Kobe Bryant. Portland overthought things as well, taking Greg Oden, and the Supersonics happily grabbed Durant at #2.
The stats speak for themselves; if you eliminate his rookie season, Durant has averaged 28 ppg (fifth all time), 7.4 rpg, and 4.1 apg on 49-39-88 splits, he is tenth all time in WS/48 with .2186, while being 34th all time in total win shares (with presumably 5-6 more good seasons to go). He has been a 9x all star (should’ve been 11), 7x All-NBA, 4x scoring champ, and has one MVP to his name. His performance in last years playoffs was a spectacular showing of efficiency, averaging 28-8-4 on 55-44-89 splits, and those totals would’ve been higher if the Warriors hadn’t been blowing teams out on their way to a 16-1 playoffs.
His unique path has led to a peculiar status
The crux of the issue is Durant circumvented the star-athlete archetype and all its pressure, choosing, willingly, to ignore the traditional superstar route of leading a team to glory to instead boost a championship team to all-time great heights. When LeBron left Cleveland in 2010 for Miami, he teamed up with fellow stars in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, but he also joined a team that was an eight seed the previous year; it wasn’t until the 2012 playoffs, when LeBron wrested the controls out of Wade hands and made the Heat his, that the team won the championship.
Durant doesn’t want or need that glory. He only ever cares about basketball, and playing the game at the highest possible level – that’s the reason he left the Thunder for the Warriors, because Golden State offered something that he would’ve never gotten playing with Westbrook. The NBA wasn’t ready for a team to build around a player like Durant and take full advantage of his two-way abilities. And so Durant adapted and waited until the rest of the NBA caught up.
Now, firmly in the era of position-less basketball and shooting, Durant is the second-best player in the league (only because LeBron is, well, LeBron) while also being the least talked about and least visible superstar; he’s not even the face of his own team. Maybe he prefers it that way. Running down the court after another basket, crestfallen opponents praying for divine intervention, another game on another day for most underappreciated star in the league.
The Golden State Warriors will face the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2 of the NBA Finals this Sunday. Durant and Golden State are 12.5 point favourites.