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Success Is Not the Same Thing As Love: Kevin Durant’s Strange Golden State Predicament

Two rings, two Finals MVPs, tons of respect. But is that the same thing as adoration? On a team of cult heroes, Kevin Durant is the perfect machine. Is this what he wanted when he left Oklahoma City?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A thoughtful rendering of Rick James on a skinny man’s thigh shouting, “You all know what I’m singing ‘bout!” Linda Blair’s ex is in sunglasses and the hair is stunning and the mustache looks regal, lovely, supreme. Pac’s on a calf. He looks wistful. Below him is the Wu-Tang symbol. I don’t have a joke to make about that. Durantula was the first nickname, non-initials division, Kevin Durant had that really entered the public consciousness. He was sued over it by a guitarist named Mark Durante, who’d trademarked the moniker. Durante wound up dropping the suit. The two parties agreed on a private settlement. At one point in his career, Durante played guitar for a band called Revolting Cocks. Just tremendous. God bless America. I have a lot of respect for them that they never added a “the” to their name. Revolting Cocks is more efficient, lighter on its feet. Durante’s Wikipedia page is at that weird, medium length where you start to think, oh, maybe he’s adding all this information himself? Then you notice his birth year is listed as either 1950 or 1951 and you realize no, someone’s just out there who knows a thing or five about Mark Durante. The first paragraph of his page reads as follows:

“Durante began playing guitar in 1968 after being inspired by the fretwork of Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Merle Travis. Ten years later, Durante founded a rock combo he named ‘Public Enemy.’ Durante’s band bears no relationship to the hip-hop musicians of the same name. The band broke up when Durante expressed a desire to play punk rock.”

The photograph that accompanied Durant’s seminal Players’ Tribune piece, “My Next Chapter,” is strange. You know the picture. People have photoshopped it into oblivion. Black and white, Durant in a sleeveless, white shirt, posted up there with his arms crossed. I’ve had lots of questions about the photo since the first time I saw it a couple Fourth of Julys ago. What tree nursery is that in? What field? What is he standing between? Are those bushes? Squatty trees? Hedges? Is this just what backyards in the Hamptons look like? Did they make his arms look bigger than they usually are? They did, right? That vein on his bicep was made by a computer. What kind of watch is that? Was it even taken outside? Or was he just edited into the foreground, the picture taken in some hot and nameless room in the middle of Chelsea somewhere? Who was around? Was Rapaport there? Was he irritated? How far in advance was the picture taken? Did they have it ready it go for weeks or was it a last-minute thing? Did he know he was going to Golden State when he took it? Would it have been a different shot altogether had he decided he was staying in Oklahoma City, or would they have just rolled with the same one? What was he looking at when the picture was taken? What things were on his mind? Was he happy? Sad? Afraid? Proud? The goatee looks kind of good in it. It never looks good. The Warriors have some of the worst facial hair in league history. Their goatees make them look like struggling wizards who spend a lot of time in independent coffee shops reading Franzen’s essays on birding, whining to the baristas that the wi-fi’s too slow.

Durant has been confusing this season, somewhere between world killer and bystander. For the better part of the Rockets series, he looked, not lost, but something akin to it. Pressing, maybe. In more than a couple games, closing minutes saw him looking ghostly, doing this thing where he was sort of fading as he walked, like he was leading with his knees or something.

On the last play of Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, when Curry kicked it ahead to Draymond and Draymond subsequently fumbled the ball and the game away, Durant was on the other side of the court, standing out of bounds. You had to wonder what he was thinking. Game 6 came and he sputtered his way to a 6-17 performance. The doubters grew louder. Then he went ballistic in Game 7, poured in 34, which didn’t shut people up really, but at least had them talking softer. Then Game 1 of the Finals happened. He went 8-22 from the floor, 1-7 from 3, and LeBron detonated. Game 2 had Steph going nuts, but Durant playing well again. He had 26 while shooting [clears throat for like an hour] 71 percent from the floor. Then in Game 3 he turned in his opus and it was roses again. Scapegoat one game, GOAT the next. Up down up down up down. The good seemed to be met with indifference from Warriors fans, the bad with outrage.

These have been interesting times for Durant and his legacy. He chose to go play for the Warriors. He went to go find basketball nirvana, to be part of something beautiful. And there have been moments where even the most vocal haters have had to admit that Golden State’s play in the Durant era has reached beyond great, beyond historic, and into something nearing the sublime. Those haters don’t have to appreciate the team. Nobody has to appreciate anything, ever. Just because a thing is impressive doesn’t mean it can’t also be lame. But it’s been impossible to watch some of the possessions they’ve had these last couple seasons and not confront the fact that what they were doing both offensively and defensively was ninja stuff. I know this because I’ve tried denying that truth. I hate the Warriors. I think they’re gross. I don’t have any fun watching them play. But there are moments they’ve operated on another plane of basketball existence, up beyond the clouds, in the gold stuff, the rest of the league by comparison wallowing in the dirt and the grass and the mud. And while things this postseason maybe didn’t go near as smooth as anticipated, they wound up where pretty much everyone thought they would—rings on their fingers, too much for Cleveland.

Durant’s place in it all has been strange. He seems in the way at times, completely at odds with the ball movement the Warriors rise was predicated on. Other times he’s the only reason they’re in the game. I don’t know what, exactly, he expected when he went to Golden State. Rangzzz, I guess. A prettier brand of ball than the one he’d grown used to in Oklahoma. More opportunities to be on the cover of Fast Company. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t what transpired over the course of the Western Conference Finals and the beginning of the Finals. It wasn’t the whole of Twitter clamoring for Kerr to take the ball out of his hands and put it into Steph’s. It wasn’t Jalen Rose pointing out during the pregame telecast for Game 2 of the Finals that Durant, to that point, had 156 isolation plays this postseason compared to only 63 last postseason. It wasn’t getting a nice, Jordan-centric, “I’m not saying you’re playing selfishly but stop playing so selfishly,” anecdote from Kerr about how Phil Jackson once told Mike he needs to pass to Paxson more because he’s the one that’s open.

Durant was at a place (honestly, he’s probably still there) where a not small portion of the basketball viewing public, Golden State fans in particular, were starting to blame him whenever the Warriors offense didn’t look right. This was the Finals MVP last season. A guy roundly considered to be the second-best player in the world. Life is brutal and moves swiftly.It’s easy to forget now after all that’s happened the last couple of years, but when they were together, Thunder fans loved Durant more than they loved Westbrook. Durant was the favorite son, clearly the better of the two, more consistent, and, at least it seemed at the time, easier to understand. (Brief aside: It’s pretty crazy how that’s shifted. Westbrook, for all his faults, is nothing if not secure, completely transparent about what he’s feeling. Durant, on the other end of the spectrum, can’t seem to get comfortable with who he is.) Westbrook’s caught hell from all angles his entire professional career. At one point, people were actively clamoring for Eric Maynor to start in his place. Maynor currently plays point for Orlandina Basket of the Italian Lega Basket Serie A. He’s averaging a cool 9, 3, and 5 with 37/32/50 shooting splits. Much love to the term “floor general” though.

Durant was inducted into the state of Oklahoma’s Hall of Fame a year before Westbrook. He opened a restaurant in downtown Oklahoma City. KD’s Southern Cuisine. The food was somewhere between fine and mediocre. It was overpriced. The decorations were basically an ESPY, some game worn shoes, a couple signed basketballs, and televisions. People ate there anyway. Fans went so hard for him The Oklahoman issued an apology for a headline—shouts to Mr. Unreliable, which somehow happened only four years ago, not the million it feels like—that criticized him harshly. Then he went west and the cupcakes came out. He may well reach favorite son status again for some other city if, somehow, he leaves the Bay, but he’ll never be one in Golden State. Their own fans admit as much. This is not an original thing to type, but they’re just never going to feel about him the way they feel about Steph, or Draymond, or Klay. You might could throw Iguodala into the mix there. Maybe even Shaun Livingston. I mean, it seems like people at Oracle get more excited when JaVale dunks on no one than they do when Durant does something. And that ultimately doesn’t matter, really. Love is not a prerequisite for success.

He earned the right to leave and go play wherever he wanted and he was great for and to Oklahoma City. He’s a grown man and doesn’t owe anybody anything and would you begrudge a friend of yours for wanting to move to a nicer city for a better job and all the other very obvious, trite regurgitations people bring out when a high profile free agent switches teams? If he’s good trying to stack titles with the Warriors for the next few years and being one of the most amazing basketball players on the face of the earth without ever having that adoration most other stars of his caliber receive, cool. He’s making enough money he’s going to buy a team one day and he’s living in a beautiful city and barring injury will be playing into June way more often than not for the foreseeable future. It’s well within reason to think he’ll wind up a Top 15 player of all time. Maybe higher. He’s an alien that’s shown no signs of slowing down, adds to his game every offseason, and has the skill set to age gracefully and play quality ball well into his thirties.

He still puts up the quietest 30 pieces known to man and there hasn’t been a smoother scorer in NBA history. He’s gone on record saying he doesn’t want to be the leader, that Curry’s the face of the franchise. What’s transpired may be what he wanted.

These Finals were always going to go the Warriors’ way. Ty Lue was giving Jordan Clarkson meaningful minutes for the first two games of the series for crying out loud. The Warriors are now in this strange place out beyond success, where people, in spite of the rings, will claim they need a change. Those people won’t be entirely wrong either.

Despite those four All Stars, two MVPs, a Defensive Player of the Year, two Finals MVPs, a Top 3 coach, John Galt, Howard Roark, and a partridge in a pear tree, the team wound up losing more games and having more holes than people initially thought. And folks have been tossing blame around. Plenty’s been thrown on the team’s propensity for turning the ball over so much it looks like they think the rock is a live bomb. More still’s been placed on Bob Myers’ roster construction. Feels absurd to in any way criticize a guy who has put together the team that’s won three titles in four years, but five centers is definitely three (probably four) too many at this point. And Nick Young at the mid-level was, you know, hey, if I was Bobby I’d have probably been firing off 40-foot heat checks like that, too. Hell, I might’ve brought Andray Blatche back from the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, took a flier on Marbury, seen what Kwame Brown was up to.

It felt like Durant was going to catch some blame, too. Or, if not blame, at least apathy, which may be worse. He seemed out of step with the team at times this year, the ball not moving like it used to. There were moments in that Rockets series where the Warriors looked like they’d been hit in the head and were wandering around in a grey daze, trying to figure out how they could’ve gotten themselves into this situation. Durant’s ISOs kept catching flack, fans and media pointing fingers, calling him selfish and misguided, trying to do it all on his own, messing with heaven.

Then Game 3 of the Finals happened.

A playoff series is a marathon that people tend to discuss like it’s a sprint. Narratives shift quickly and with severity. What’s true after one game is all of the sudden not true after the next. The stakes are high and people overreact in both directions to single game performances. Two things can be true at once. Durant and the Warriors were out of sync with one another this postseason, and Durant is the second-best player in the world, so good that being out of sync didn’t really wind up mattering much.

The newness of Durant’s decision to go to the Warriors has worn off, but it bears repeating that it’s still just absolutely wild he went there. What if James Harden was a free agent this summer and, after taking them right up to the brink, signed with Golden State? People’s reactions to LeBron going to Miami were so outsized, so visceral, so angry, that when Durant made his decision, we may have overcorrected, scared to death to come off like sports talk clowns. People tried like crazy to act like it wasn’t what it was: a lame move that made the league way more predictable.Durant’s not going anywhere. He’s signing with them again this offseason. He clearly doesn’t pay attention to podcast professional C.J. McCollum’s Twitter activity. There was a faction of the internet that claimed that in 25 years, nobody will remember how he got to Golden State. They’ll only remember the titles. Context be damned.

That feels less and less true every day. People will remember. It was too huge a move to forget. He has two rings now and two Finals MVPs to go along with them. A few hours after the game of his life he had to be lightly restrained from going at a Cavs fan who heckled him. He’s winning and losing at the same time.