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Will We Celebrate Kevin Durant?

After months of criticism for his decision to join the Warriors, Kevin Durant is an NBA champion and the best player on a historic team. Will he be appreciated or vilified?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

"Kevin, thanks for comin’!"

Those were the words of public appreciation shared by Golden State Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob when he was interviewed by Doris Burke moments after his team won the 2016–17 NBA championship. Lacob, a figure of audacious proclamations and shameless self-regard, was referring of course to Kevin Durant, the man who just minutes later would be named the NBA Finals MVP by commissioner Adam Silver. That Lacob was so casual, so cheerily distant — like a man bidding farewell to a new neighbor after an awkward BBQ — said a great deal about the Kevin Durant Experience.

Durant’s decision 343 days earlier to join the most powerful team in the sport has been met consistently with a specific sort of incivility, ranging from angry and wounded Oklahoma City faithful to frustrated fans of competitive basketball right down to internet-native ghouls who know a ripe victim when one comes along. Lacob’s informal, rich-guy shout-out felt like a chilling affirmation of the mercenary quality of this union. Kevin Durant was used. And the Warriors were also used. Both parties got what they wanted. This is the perceived nature of virtually every business relationship. It was transactional — for the price of $54,274,505 across two years and a lifetime’s worth of behind-the-back snickering, Lacob bought the opportunity for his second NBA title with the Warriors, while Durant signed on for the chance at his first. All they had to do was win. They did. Often. And finally. It should have been the greatest moment of Durant’s life, and probably was. So why does his decision still feel like a cheat to so many?

We’d never seen this before, the best player available — a future NBA Finals MVP and all-time scoring artist — absconding from his small-market franchise to elevate the fortunes of an already historic team. But when Durant joined the Warriors, he became the living embodiment of unending philosophical debate: big city over small town, joining ’em instead of beating ’em, the glory rather than the struggle. In Oklahoma City, Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to form one of the most potent duos in the league. Duos are meaningless in the modern NBA. Trios ain’t much either. The coin of the realm is in the Super, so when Draymond Green texted Durant after the 2016 Finals, Durant made a pointed decision to lean into history and away from loyalty. He took, according to some, the easy way out. Interpreted differently, he made the best possible decision for his happiness. Both can be true.

As we approach its seventh anniversary, LeBron James’s The Decision has become an interesting artifact of NBA stratagem. It was roundly criticized as an act of self-satisfied eventizing and hometown abandonment when it happened. I remember a specific taste of revulsion at LeBron’s tentative, fumbled decree: "In this fall, I’m gonna take my talents to South Beach and, um, join the Miami Heat." It also marked the beginning of the race to offseason grandeur. If the 2007–08 Boston Celtics signaled a new era of superteam construction, The Decision was the bolder, more expensive sequel — better effects, stronger marketing, a more fantastical premise. It was no longer about joining the best team and giving yourself a better chance to win; you had to do it with a nationally televised special masquerading as a charity event positioned as an act of tactical financial genius. Pat Riley! D-Wade! No income tax! The Decision was a fiasco — a highly rated, influential fiasco — whose hubris was karmically sealed when the Heat lost the 2011 NBA championship to the Dallas Mavericks. LeBron was humiliated. After the loss he gave a world historically petty interview.

That feels far older than six years. Since that exact moment, LeBron has won three titles, two MVPs, a role in a Judd Apatow comedy, and basketball-intellectual consensus as the second-greatest player of all time. LeBron, after one of the most foolhardy public acts in sports-marketing history, has thrived. Even in his two most recent defeats in the NBA Finals, he made a credible case for MVP. LeBron — who betrayed a small market, shunned its fans, teamed up with some indisputable villains, and failed in his scurrilous initial attempt at selfish personal glory — is inarguably the most beloved and appreciated player in the NBA. What an underdog story. Time heals.

There is a justified group of people in pain right now, suffering from the frustration and the delirium that sets in when a team loses at the highest level: Cavs fans. Everyone else lamenting, moaning, and delegitimizing the Golden State Warriors’ championship and Kevin Durant’s decision are emotional zealots with too much free time. I know this because this Warriors team was a majesty. The thing about basketball is that it is hard. To assume that what the Warriors accomplished was a cheat code, or an easy stroll with an unfair advantage, or an act of privilege is to underestimate the physical act of playing basketball. Picture LeBron James holding the ball, jab-stepping at you at the top of the key, repeatedly, licking his chops as he sizes up his dinner. That is what Kevin Durant faced for the past five games. A win over Golden State would have made LeBron James a legitimate challenger to the myth of Jordan. The second-best player ever on the reigning NBA championship team with more to prove than ever. The Warriors housed them, those guys, that legend.

"He’s the only person that I was looking at since 2012. He’s the only one I looked at." That was Durant in a postgame interview Monday night, reflecting on LeBron. The only one.

In his championship column, Danny Chau wrote: "In that noble pursuit, the Warriors became basketball’s monolith of excellence, creating a dulled experience out of taking the game to new heights." This much is true. The Warriors made basketball less intriguing this year. Not less fun, or less beautiful, or less unmissable. But they were an unconquerable force — as tall as they were long, as skilled as they were heartless. I’ve been wheedling to the Ringer staff for months about how excellence can never be boring. It’s both a signal of inspiration and a troll job. But the air of inevitability made this pageant seem like a fix from the get-go. Not for me.

I have longed to see Durant in an environment that prized his skill, supported his grace. He is, truly, the most gifted scorer of his generation, born to play. His physical gifts aren’t "unfair." They’re exceptional, beautiful to watch, a joy. That he went to this Warriors team — where scoring outbursts occur with the frequency of the sunrise — wasn’t cheap or easy. It was right. The struggle is a bunk concept. Sports are about winning. The teams I root for do not win, ever. They do not build character. They are a pox on my life. If the rise, the come-up, is defined by some modicum of struggle, all the better for Jon Hamm to mythologize. If not, as in the case of the unbeatable 2016–17 Golden State Warriors, who cares?

Durant’s statistics in the NBA Finals, his first since 2012, tell the story of a ruthlessly efficient alien, a player who scores better than anyone does anything. They don’t tell the story of the overeager guy clapping for the ball up 11 with a minute to go. They don’t tell the story of the crying-28-year-old who thought he’d missed his chance. They certainly don’t tell the story of the "pleaser" who’d "put everyone else ahead of me." But he led the Warriors in shot attempts in four of five games and was their leading scorer in all five. This was Durant’s series before anyone’s — before LeBron, before Steph Curry (magnificent), Steve Kerr, Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving (who made me a believer), and before Joe Lacob. Durant got his championship, and the Warriors got theirs. But it means more for Durant.

After receiving the Finals MVP trophy, Durant was interviewed on the floor of Oracle Arena. "We did it," he said, looking right at his mother. She was genuflecting in the way that only mothers can when proud of their children. "I told you when I was 8 years old," he said to her. He was gobsmacked, humbled, overjoyed, at peace. What are you mad about?