“I mean, we just lost like 30 minutes ago, so I haven’t even thought about it.” This was Kevin Durant, immediately following the Thunder’s Game 7 Western Conference finals loss to the Warriors, answering the inevitable question about his impending free agency.
It’s OK, Kevin. We’ve been thinking about it for you.
Other than LeBron James (both times), no NBA free agent has ever been the subject of more scrutiny than Kevin Durant. And it’s only just begun. The hand-wringing, sleuthing, prognosticating, and creative Zillowing will only intensify over the next few weeks. There will be granular analysis of his body language, his public declarations (or lack thereof) of loyalty to Oklahoma City, and his agents’ maneuvers. Did OKC’s valiant showing in the playoffs make him want to stay? Or did coming up short make him want to leave? Is Oklahoma City too small of a market for his commercial potential, or is it part of his commercial appeal? Does he like Billy Donovan? Does he love Russ like a brother? Does he want to launch him into the sun? Both? Does the thought of returning to D.C. attract or repel him? Where does Dion fit into all of this? What does Wanda think?
We want the answers to all these questions for a reason: Whatever team lands Kevin Durant (even OKC), is immediately a Finals contender. But the fascination with Durant’s situation has more to do with Durant the person than Durant the asset.
This is the way Durant once described his place in the league to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins: “I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.”
The following season, he won the MVP Award. The year after that, he only played 27 games, his career derailed by a series of injuries. In his absence, it felt like the league passed him by. LeBron still loomed, but the Warriors became the new Bulls, Steph became a new kind of Jordan, and upstarts like Kawhi Leonard came on strong. Hell, after Russell Westbrook’s heroics during the 2014–15 season, some people (cough) would tell you that Durant wasn’t even the best player on his own team.
Durant is no longer second-best. He’s third. That’s still pretty damn good, but because that slippage is tied up in some terrible injury luck and the unforeseen Steph explosion, it puts KD’s standing in the game in flux.
This is LeBron’s seventh Finals. When he moves teams, he’s just changing scenery. His departure from Miami felt like a corporate merger, and his return to Cleveland — while … sweet? — felt like a storybook ending dreamt up in a boardroom. Durant is rising and falling, and that’s just more interesting than outright dominance.
There’s also less moral certainty with Durant. It’s hard to say what he should do, and that’s exactly what makes him more relatable, to the extent that you can relate to someone who is certainly one of the best players of his generation and only two seasons removed from an MVP season when he averaged 32 points per game. If he leaves OKC, will any jerseys burn? If he doesn’t go home — whether to D.C. or Texas, where he frankly seems to have more of an affinity — will anyone from either place really feel betrayed? If he stays in Oklahoma, that’s swell. If he goes to a contender — San Antonio, Golden State, Miami — all power to him. He’s 27 years old, and he’s decided to live and work somewhere else.