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Kevin Durant and the Mirage of Basketball Heaven

Durant has done nothing but win titles since signing with Golden State in 2016. With his Warriors tenure potentially coming to an end, why does one of the game’s most accomplished and undeniable talents suddenly seem so inessential?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a classic Twilight Zone episode called “A Nice Place to Visit,” about a man who dies after robbing a pawn shop and suddenly finds himself in a place where he can’t lose. In this reality, the man is given any amount of money that he desires. He goes to a casino, and everything breaks his way: The ball lands on any number he picks at the roulette wheel; he hits the jackpot every time he pulls the lever of a slot machine; every poker hand he’s dealt is a royal flush. Before long, the man comes to hate his seemingly perfect existence. “If I have to stay here another day, I’m gonna go nuts!” he says. “Look, look, I don’t belong in heaven, see. I want to go to the other place.”

I keep thinking about this episode while following the latest developments involving Kevin Durant. He found basketball heaven by leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to sign with the Golden State Warriors in July 2016, going on to win back-to-back NBA championships and Finals MVPs. Over the past three years he’s established himself as the ultimate player in the sport. Yet months of reports suggest that he’s now unable to kick the urge to play for the New York Knicks (basketball’s other place).

All signs suggest that Durant will leave Golden State in free agency this summer. If that happens, the wildly successful KD-on-the-Warriors era will come to an awkward end. Durant is out with a calf injury, and a report this week said the Warriors are only “hopeful” that Durant will be able to play in the latter stages of the upcoming NBA Finals. It’s entirely possible that he has already played his last game in a Golden State uniform.

And yet the Warriors keep on winning. The team is 5-0 during these playoffs in the games that Durant has missed. It swept the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals and downed the Rockets in the contest in which KD got hurt in the third quarter. Steph Curry has reassumed his role as Golden State’s focal point, with his scoring average jumping from 23.5 points per game in the 11 playoff games before Durant’s injury to 35.8 since.

The consensus seems to be that the Warriors are more fun with Durant sidelined. When KD has the ball, a Golden State basket can seem inevitable. Nobody should be that tall, that fast, and that skilled. When Curry has the ball, a basket can seem impossible. He can be closely guarded 30-plus feet from the hoop, but he makes the impossible happen anyway. Part of the premise of the Warriors’ being more fun without Durant is based on the idea that the Warriors go from great to completely unbeatable when KD steps in the game, although some have begun to wonder whether the Warriors are better off without Durant. It seems ridiculous, but they are 31-1 in the past 32 games in which KD sat and Curry played.

An injury to a player of Durant’s caliber at this point in the postseason should be the biggest story in the league. Instead, the public discourse surrounding the news has widely been dismissive. There is less discussion of when Durant will be healthy again than of whether the team is better, cooler, and all-around more enjoyable in his absence. And it appears to have gotten to KD. In the past week alone, he has gotten heated at a fan in the comments of a blog’s Instagram post (honestly, the fan’s comment wasn’t particularly anti-Durant) and called Fox reporter Chris Broussard a liar for claiming the pair routinely text each other. (Broussard vehemently insists that Durant is being unnecessarily technical in differentiating between direct messages and texts.)

If this is indeed the end for Durant in Golden State, it will be strange yet fitting. Winning has never been a problem for Golden State since Durant came to town, but happiness seemingly has been. What better way for this era to conclude than with a dissatisfied Durant defending himself from randos on his phone while the confetti once again falls on the Warriors?

Once upon a time, Kevin Durant was beloved. His relationships with his Thunder teammates seemed close and sweet. His social media presence was defined by extremely earnest tweets about his strange experiences at the club. He was talked up as The Right Kind Of Superstar, “unassuming” and “genuine” and “just a good human being.” The characterization of Durant as a mild-mannered phenom was so established that an early Nike ad campaign played off it, proclaiming “Kevin Durant Is Not Nice.”

But as much as people praised KD’s personality, they came to criticize his inability to get over the top and win a title, especially after the Thunder lost to Golden State in the 2016 conference finals. And so, Durant turned down a max contract so that he could join the Warriors, sacrificing a payday for a better opportunity to win rings.

In Durant’s case, though, it quickly became clear that winning was not directly correlated with popularity. It was just five years ago that Golden State was celebrated for ushering in a breathtaking basketball revolution, with a team that had skills and strategies unlike any in the sport’s history. Public sentiment started turning against the Warriors when they followed a title run in 2014-15 with a 73-win regular season in 2015-16, and it vanished for good when Durant came aboard. He capped the team’s transformation from endearing upstart to unlovable juggernaut.

And although Durant proved to be the most important player in the Warriors’ championship triumphs in 2017 and 2018, he never emerged as the fan base’s favorite son. Golden State’s golden boy is and always will be Curry, the 3-point-shooting sensation who was selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft. And his relationships with his teammates no longer seem close and sweet. It should be noted that Draymond Green was suspended this season for calling Durant a bitch during a heated postgame argument. (I don’t think we spend enough time talking about the “greatest dynasty in recent memory suspending a player for calling a star teammate a bitch” story. That happened, in the Year of Our Association 72.) That Durant joined a team that was already winning without him kept the basketball world at large from giving KD the respect players like him normally get; that Durant joined a team that already had a sentimental favorite kept his new fan base from giving him the love players like him normally get. He got the rings—but not the trappings that typically come with them.

The Warriors are not the first hated sports dynasty—after all, most sports dynasties are hated outside their fan base. Durant is not the first superstar to turn heel with a free-agency decision, nor the first to join a team and then be relegated to second fiddle among its fans. KD isn’t even the first superstar whose absence has led some to wonder whether a team might be better off without him; I know a guy who concocted an exhaustive theory about that.

But what’s happening with Durant seems unique. He may be the first player to check all four boxes simultaneously. I can’t remember anybody this good achieving this much and being this unpopular, even among his team’s own fans, to a certain degree. The comments about the Warriors being better or more fun without KD are not respect disguised as hate; they are insults.

Durant has accomplished everything he could have possibly accomplished in his three seasons in Golden State, and yet the legacy of his remarkably successful time on the Warriors still seems oddly unsatisfying. He’s been a prominent part of one of the greatest teams in basketball history. But being prominent isn’t the same as being essential, and there’s never been a player this good whose greatness has felt so inessential to his team’s success. The Warriors will be favored to win this season’s Finals regardless of whether Durant comes back. The series will just likely be perceived as less exciting with KD in the lineup.

That Twilight Zone episode ends with a twist: The dead man wasn’t in heaven. He was already in the other place, condemned to an existence where the greatest joys felt routine. I suspect that’s how we’ll remember the KD-in–Golden State era. He won everything, and it still felt like hell.