After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
We kick things off with Warriors Week, an in-depth look at one of the most interesting assemblages of basketball talent ever. We’ll have a different theme each week, as well as the usual league coverage. So check back often. Basketball never sleeps, and neither do we.
Early in Dead Poets Society, there’s a scene where Robin Williams’s character, John Keating, introduces his class to poetry. To do so, he has one of his students read a section of the introduction of a fictional book called Understanding Poetry. The introduction describes a chart that works as a literal blueprint for measuring the greatness of a poem. As the boy reads, Keating draws what’s being said. Here’s what he ends up with:
It’s a very simple thing, the chart. A poem’s score for Perfection is plotted on the X-axis. Its score for its Importance is plotted on the Y-axis. You connect those two sections, shade in the total area the poem yields, and there you go. The greater the area covered, the greater the poem. In this particular case, the “B” represents a sonnet by George Gordon Byron and the “S” represents a Shakespearean sonnet. The Shakespearean sonnet scores higher “both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area,” so it’s deemed the better poem.
I mention this scene for two reasons. First, because the movie was on TV this past weekend and I really like Robin Williams movies so I try to talk about them as often as I can. And second, because a very similar principle applies to the assessment of basketball villainy — a conversation that Kevin Durant finds himself a part of now for the first time in his career, which is fascinating. So much so, in fact, that The Ringer is going to intermittently keep track of it as the season moves forward.
There are at least four traits that a basketball villain must display:
- He must be intimidating. It can be any kind of intimidation, really. It can be Overt Intimidation, like the way Kevin Garnett was intimidating or the way Russell Westbrook is intimidating. It can be Physical Manhandling Intimidation (David West). It can be Genital Intimidation (Draymond Green). It can be Situational Intimidation (like Matthew Dellavedova, who at any point during a game can come careening into your knees or ankles). And on and on and on.
- He must be evil (or appear to be evil). This is the most nebulous villain category because it can bleed out into so many different versions of real-life evil, and that’s a conversation that can get very sticky very quickly. For the purposes of this article though, let’s keep it to mean Basketball True Evil and Basketball Victory Evil. Basketball True Evil includes situations like Bruce Bowen sliding himself under jump shooters when they got hot. It’s about very dastardly acts. Basketball Victory Evil includes situations where someone openly delights in gutting opposing players and fans. The most enchanting instances of Basketball Victory Evil are celebration-based: Mario Elie’s Kiss of Death, Reggie’s Choke Sign, Sam Cassell’s Big Balls dance, Jason Terry’s Jet Leaving the Runway, things like that. If a guy hits a big shot then does a thing and your immediate response is, “Man, fuck that guy,” then he’s good here.
- He must do something that can be perceived as betrayal. Was he instrumental in getting a teammate traded or a coach fired? Did he leave his team for a rival? Did he refuse to shoot the ball in the second half of a playoff Game 7? Etc.
- He must be someone’s nemesis. This one is tricky. It isn’t enough for a player to have a nemesis — the player must be a nemesis. Think of it like this: Michael Jordan was absolutely Bryon Russell’s nemesis, and so Michael Jordan could reasonably be considered a villain. But Bryon Russell could never reasonably be considered a villain (at least not as far as Michael Jordan was concerned) because he wasn’t Jordan’s nemesis.
Before this summer, Durant’s score was very low in the first of these four traits and virtually negligible in the other three. That means prior to this season, Durant could not have reasonably been considered a basketball villain. Now, though?
The Scale of Basketball Villainy
To measure the greatness of a basketball villain, plot his Level of Villainy on the X-axis. Plot his Appearance of Evil on the Y-axis. You connect those two sections, shade in the total area, and there you go. The greater the area covered, the greater the villain.
Here’s what the chart looks like without any villains plotted:
Here’s Kevin Durant plotted as of Monday, Sept. 26, 2016:
This is a very low basketball villain score. It’s maybe the lowest villain score of any of known basketball villains right now. But it’s the highest Durant has ever rated in his career, as this will be his first season playing as a proper basketball villain.
For context, here’s Zach Randolph:
Randolph is an intimidating person, and intimidation can manifest by appearing evil, which is why he scores so high on that section. But there are only a handful of instances of Zach actually being villainous, which is why he scores so low on that section.
In total, Randolph’s score is higher than Durant’s because appearing evil but forgoing actual villainy is always a more effective villain strategy than not appearing villainous but doing some actually evil stuff. Probably the best evidence of that is the time Zach Randolph punched Lou Amundson in the face in 2009 and the announcer said Randolph “did Louis a favor” by not punching him harder than he did. Imagine that. Imagine punching someone and another person responds to that saying, “Thank you for not hitting him harder.” That’s the kind of shit that happens when you appear evil.
Here’s what it looks like when we plot, alongside Zach and KD, the greatest basketball villain of all-time:
Bill Laimbeer played basketball like someone told him when he was a kid that rebounding and getting into a prison fight were the same thing. I respect him very much.
(For current players, it’s easy for their scores to fluctuate. For example, if Durant bodyslams Andre Roberson in the first OKC-GSW game, his total measure of villainy would for sure go up. Likewise, if Durant holds a teary-eyed press conference prior to the first OKC-GSW game apologizing to Oklahoma City, that would pretty much be the end of Villain Durant. As the season goes on, that’s how and why we’ll be updating his villain rating.)
It’s hard to think of Kevin Durant as a villain and it’s hard to call Kevin Durant a villain, too, even though that’s exactly what he is now.
I don’t know what it is about him. Maybe it’s that his frame is so slight — how could he ever (hypothetically) destroy me and my whole family, you know what I’m saying? Rajon Rondo could (hypothetically) destroy me and my whole family. I have no doubts about that. So could Russell Westbrook. Kirk Hinrich could, too, I’m sure. But not KD. He would (hypothetically) orchestrate a large-scale takedown of everyone I’ve ever loved and then show up at my house, “Oh, hey, KD. What’s up?” He’d make his voice growly like, “I’ve destroyed you and your whole family.” And then my family and I would be like, “LOL, KD. What a goof. Do you wanna go watch Storks with us? And why are you talking all grumbly-weird like that?” Then we’d go see Storks, and he would insist on paying even though we invited him. And then we’d get home, and he’d be like, “Bye, everyone,” but he’d do it in that growly destruction voice from earlier and we’d look at him and then he’d laugh and we’d laugh. It’d be a nice afternoon.
Maybe it’s that he made Thunderstruck?
Maybe it’s the aftereffects of the Nice Guy label he picked up those first years in OKC, which prompted the KD Is Not Nice ad campaign, which somehow only made him seem nicer?
Maybe it’s the warm, warm glow of his tearful, beautiful “You the real MVP” moment from his MVP speech?
Maybe it’s that even when he’s at most imposing — like when he shot 100 percent from the field in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference semifinals and outscored the entire Spurs roster by himself — he always seemed more like poetry than a destructive force, his long ultra-arms unfurling and flinging perfect and beautiful jumpers from all over the court in the most polite, most delicate way possible.
Before this summer, Durant’s score was very low in the first of these four traits and virtually negligible in the other three, which means prior to this season, Durant could not have reasonably been considered a basketball villain. Now, though?
Now, he registers in all of the categories.
- He must be intimidating. He still scores low here. He’s maybe 10 percent intimidating, which puts him in the same intimidation category as Jeremy Lin, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and so on.
- He must be evil (or appear to be evil). He had at a zero in this category before this season. But now he’s got a Tupac tattoo and a Rick James tattoo. To be clear, those tattoos aren’t evil things, but they’re tattoos a person who wasn’t completely comfortable with being evil would do if he or she decided he or she was courting the idea of appearing evil. It’s like how in ’90s sitcoms, writers would have a male teacher character for a scene and they’d give him a sport coat and jeans and have him eat an apple while he had his feet up on his desk. That’s not some shit actual male teachers were doing, but it’s what people who weren’t familiar with the situation thought should happen so that’s what we got. Give KD a 20 percent rating here for being willing to appear evil.
- He must do something that can be perceived as betrayal. Bang. Big jump here. He went from zero percent all the way up to somewhere around 90 to 95 percent. You know what I find most interesting about this situation? KD’s going to show up in Oakland and his actions will definitely have made him the most villainous, but he won’t even be the biggest villain on the Warriors. That’s Draymond. More than that, he won’t even show up as the team’s runaway best player, what with Steph’s two MVP trophies and Finals trophy still alive and all. So KD gets to float around in the background. It’s a wholly unique sports situation. Do you remember in You Got Served when Sonny left David and Elgin’s dance crew and joined up with Wade and Max’s? That’s what we have here with KD. Sonny left and went to the better team and also he didn’t even have to be the main bad guy (that was Wade) or even the team’s most talented dancer (that was Max). You Got Served has taught me so much about life.
- He must be someone’s nemesis. There’s a natural inclination to say that Durant has been LeBron’s nemesis for a while now because they’ve both been in the “Who’s the Best Player in the League?” conversation for so many years, but that’s inaccurate. There’s just never been enough pushback from Durant. They have played 16 times in the regular season and LeBron’s team has won 13 of those games. They’ve played five games in the playoffs (the 2012 Finals), and LeBron’s team won four of those. You can say that LeBron is Durant’s nemesis, but you can’t say that Durant is LeBron’s. So up to this point, Durant’s not been anyone’s nemesis. But now? Yes. Of course. 100 percent. He is a nemesis now. He’s Russy Westbrook’s nemesis.
Kevin Durant is truly a villain now. I am so excited for Villain Durant.