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Kevin Durant Keeps Reinventing Himself and Ending Up in the Same Place

By acquiring James Harden, have the Brooklyn Nets created a less successful version of the superstar dynamic Durant left Golden State to escape?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

So, OK. Walk me through this. About 12 seconds ago, Kevin Durant left the Golden State Warriors in a swirl of bad feelings. He did this, reportedly, at least in part because he’d been criticized online for joining a superteam. He wanted to prove he could win a title with a team that, unlike the Warriors, didn’t surround him with multiple superstars and another league MVP. So he left. Now, nine games into his career as the undisputed leader of the Brooklyn Nets, his team has traded for James Harden, meaning that Durant now plays for … a superteam, alongside multiple superstars and another former league MVP.

Sooner or later, the past catches up to all of us, but nine games! It’s pretty brisk. Admittedly, Durant has been fantastic during his two-week campaign as a lone NBA alpha. He’s averaged more than 29 points; he seems diminished neither by losing his costar-swaddled luxury berth in California nor by the injury that forced him to miss all of last season. He remains one of the least stoppable players in basketball, a frictionless scoring machine who makes routine jump shots look as clinical, casual, and inevitable as swings of a wrecking ball. You look at him, all gangly limbs and gently splashed 3-pointers, and go, “Yes, of course, the apocalypse will be brought about by a stork.” When you can awaken that image in people, I don’t know, maybe nine games are enough to prove your point.

Still. The post-MJ, post-Kobe mythos of the lone-wolf superstar dominating his peers through sheer individual willpower is built on seasons, not on fortnights, and it’s hard to see how the Harden Trade II squares up with what we thought we knew about Durant’s plans for his legacy. It’s hard to see how Durant’s plans for his legacy square up at all right now, frankly—though, again, as I am neither one of the greatest scorers in NBA history nor a sort of human embodiment of a tactical missile strike, and as Durant is both those things, there’s an outside chance that he knows what he’s doing better than I do.

Think it through with me, though. At the end of the last season in which he actually played basketball, Durant was the best player on one of the best-run and best-coached franchises in the NBA. The KD–Steph Curry–Klay Thompson Warriors seemed like the basketball version of a self-driving car; as long as the wheels stayed on, they’d reach the Finals every year. (And, OK, as long as every future Hall of Fame player within 70 miles of the Apple campus did not suffer catastrophic injuries within a span of about six weeks, but that could never happen and therefore has no bearing on this argument.) The Warriors were a little higher drama than they’d been before Durant came to town—KD does not leave home without feelings—but they were built on a solid platform of functionality. They were mature software. They were a big package to download, but they worked.

Now envision the Durant-Harden-Kyrie Nets. Is this … progress, if you’re KD? Is it better? It feels like moving forward by moving backward. What I mean by that is that in 2012, Durant played on a three-superstar Oklahoma City Thunder team with Russell Westbrook and James Harden. In 2021, Durant will play on a three-superstar Brooklyn Nets team with Kyrie Irving and James Harden. The Nets are like a Brady Bunch reunion special with a different actor playing Marcia. Maybe KD’s true aim for his legacy is not to prove that he’s a LeBron-like leader. Maybe it’s to prove that he loves playing basketball with James Harden and an eccentric, slightly aloof superstar.

I may be blinded by my own anti-Harden’s-stepback bias here—that is, by reason and good taste—but I’m struggling to see how this looks like an upgrade from Durant’s perspective. Forget what happened with the Warriors’ injuries; the point is, why would he want this if he didn’t want that? If the point was to build something on his own? Kyrie is a star, but he’s clearly not on Durant’s level; he knows he’s in Brooklyn as a sidekick. That’s not at all clear with Harden, who, in the years since he came off the bench for the Thunder, has emerged as Durant’s near equal. For good or ill, Harden is starring in the James Harden Show. He’s nobody’s Scottie Pippen.

Even if peak-era Golden State generated a lot of little tizzies of the Draymond-said-what variety, the energy around the team was still pretty straightforward. It was like, “Hey! Let’s hit big shots and win games!” The new-look Nets seem, in contrast, like 65 melodramas waiting to happen in every direction. Kyrie, Durant, and Harden are three players who could each go for 50 on a given night (this was also true of the Big Three at Golden State, of course). They are also three egos with a marked propensity to spin off into dark places if you breathe on them the wrong way. They are, really without exception, the three players in the league with the loudest existential operas around them at all times.

Look at Durant: he’s nine games removed from blowing up a championship roster over Instagram comments, and he’s arguably the least difficult of these three stars. Harden spent the start of this season in a furious spat with the Houston Rockets over his trade demand—not that I’d want to play for Tilman Fertitta either—while managing to make basketball look like a form of sulking. (Of course, Harden made basketball look like a form of sulking long before his relationship with Houston turned poisonous.) And Kyrie? He’s currently not playing at all, sitting out for as-yet-unexplained reasons, much to the disappointment of his team. The Nets do look like a very good team on paper. Unfortunately, someone has Sharpied emo poetry all over that paper and also lit it on fire.

And my God, I don’t mean to sound like some kind of sports-radio crank here. I don’t have a clue what will happen! Emotional synergy is a complicated thing—ask me, a Pisces—and the Nets could easily catalyze into some sort of ’70s Fleetwood Mac doom-brilliance in which everyone furiously hates everyone else and feels betrayed by the world and yet the result is very pleasant AM rock. They could win three championships while falling apart spectacularly; if anyone can make basketball feel like a breakup ballad, it’s obviously James Harden. Or—I don’t know—maybe Durant just likes Irving and Harden more than he liked the crew at Golden State. Maybe what looks from the outside like a sort of flightiness in each of these stars is actually the sign of a shared wavelength that will lead to strange wonders on the court, assuming Kyrie ever returns to it. I hope so! Live your life!!

But—and take this for what it’s worth—it doesn’t feel like that’s what’s about to happen. Does it? It feels like what’s about to happen is two years of escalating mistrust and underwhelming late-round playoff losses and Steve Nash shaking his head in press conferences and going, “Well, listen, the media loves to play up drama, but the bottom line is we have to defend better.”

So call this a marker of pessimism, laid at the beginning of what could well be a new era of NBA history. When the Nets stand at the top of the parade bus spraying champagne on the throngs of joyous fans, look back and say, “the incredible thing is that some of us did not think it could happen.” For now, though, I’m left wondering how Kevin Durant managed, in no time at all, to recreate a worse version of the good thing he just spent most of a season plotting to escape. I’m stuck wondering why the remnants of the 2012 Thunder keep going around and around on this broken karmic wheel—first Harden and Westbrook in Houston, now Harden and Durant in Brooklyn—like a soul that almost attained nirvana and now keeps getting reincarnated as a toaster. I love a toaster, don’t get me wrong. I just doubt whether a toaster can win an NBA championship.