How Kevin Durant lived long enough to see himself become a villain
The have added one of the NBA’s best and most popular players in Kevin Durant and are now the odds-on favorite to win the 2017 NBA finals. They are even bigger favorites to be universally despised.
Six years after created a “super team” by joining a 47-35 Miami Heat club that had lost in the first round of the playoffs the previous year, Durant has added his name to the roster of a Warriors team that set an NBA record by going 73-9 and then held a three-games-to-one lead in the NBA finals. If LeBron’s old Heat squad was a super team, the 2016-17 Warriors are something well beyond that. It’s adding a recent NBA MVP to a roster that has its own reigning and unanimous NBA MVP, two All-Stars and an NBA Finals MVP. It’s putting a 27 year-old All-NBA player on a team with three other All-NBA stars in their mid-20s. Call it the basketball version of the Avengers plugging Superman into the lineup.
Except everyone likes superheroes. They’re powerful, confident and almost always win in the end. What’s not to like? But change “heroes” to “teams”, and you have a creation that is widely loathed for being powerful, confident and almost always winning in the end. It’s everything a sports fan hates.
Even before Durant , where he works an undoubtedly demanding second job as “Deputy Publisher”, the general fan perception of the Warriors had turned since the franchise’s unexpected ascension to dominance during the 2015 playoffs. No longer seen as the fresh, free-wheeling team that rained down threes upon an awestruck populace, they became the heavy favorites. The heavy favorites that talked trash, threw mouthpieces, kicked crotches and had their surrogates imply after losses that the NBA is rigged. In one year they went from beloved LeBron slayers to a team that made LeBron a lovable underdog.
Golden State was placed atop the NBA pedestal and compared to the greatest teams ever ... and then we all immediately set about trying to knock them off. Seeing the Warriors lose a three-games-to-one lead in the finals was what the public wanted. But now they’ve added the player everyone wanted. The Golden State Warriors are a super-team and the NBA’s new super-villains. Even Kevin Durant himself knows it.
What the Durant of 2016 would tell the 2010 KD is that his decision to join the Warriors makes perfect sense. NBA fans understand this, too. At least rational ones do.
Durant is joining one of the best organizations in basketball, a team that is better than his old team, and getting paid more than $54m over two years to do so. In any other industry, turning down a sound and logical and profitable career move would be seen as lunacy. But in sports it gets your jersey burned.
Durant clearly wants to win a championship and, after eight years in Oklahoma City (and one in Seattle) and just a single trip to the NBA Finals five seasons ago, sees the better opportunity on a team that has gone to back-to-back finals – and did so with the hugely inferior Harrison Barnes playing where Durant now will. Fans and pundits can question the move in regards to Durant’s “legacy” and his “loyalty”. But LeBron’s career arc shows legacy questions are answered by championships. And Derrick Rose’s proves organizations are only loyal to players as long as they stay healthy and productive. OKC fans aren’t allowed to rip a single player for moving on after eight years when they took an entire team from a city in which it had played for 41 years. If Thunder backers were such staunch loyalty fans, they would have refused to allow the Supersonics to set up shop in their fair town back in 2008, no?
NBA fans angry about Durant’s decision aren’t actually upset with his career choice. They’re pissed that his (very understandable) decision takes away much of the entertainment and intrigue from the sport they love. If the rest of life seems rigged for the powerful and futile for the rest, at least we have sports to escape to where anything can happen and anyone can succeed. But that feels gone in the NBA, at least for the near future. The Eastern Conference has been run by whichever team employs LeBron James for the past forever years and there is zero indication that will end anytime soon, no matter how many Al Horfords are shuffled around. But at least the Western Conference provided some mystery each year about who might meet LeBron in June, with the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder all poised to be legitimate contenders again in 2016-17 if everything stayed the same. Only now Durant is on the Warriors, Tim Duncan is reportedly retiring, and an 82-game season and three rounds of playoffs – stretching from late October to the end of May – is essentially pointless for 28 teams beyond player development. The NBA now had two D-leagues because we’re all sure what’s coming in June: Warriors vs. Cavs. Kevin Durant’s decision – his reasoned and wise decision – ruins seven months of basketball for tens of millions of fans.
That’s why so many fans are upset. And that’s why super teams are despised. The 2007 New England Patriots added Randy Moss and played entertaining and dominant football all season long, but impartial fans grew tired of their coronation on the way to 18-0 and by the time Super Bowl XLII ended, you couldn’t find a person outside of New England who wasn’t ecstatic to see them lose. In 2004, the Yankees added Alex Rodriguez to a team that had back-to-back 100-plus win seasons and nine consecutive postseason appearances. More trophy space was cleared in the Yankee offices – and so fans spent the next five seasons delighting in every Yankees defeat and postseason A-Rod pop-up and strikeout. It was only in 2009, after repeated misery, that a humbled Rodriguez became a more sympathetic figure on the way to his only World Series title. He had played himself into the underdog role and that’s who we’re happy to root for. Iceland and Leicester City and the city of Cleveland. Not a basketball team with 40% of the 10 best players in the league.
Neutral fans will be able to appreciate and be amazed by how these Warriors will hack the sport of basketball next season, spreading the floor in a way no one ever conceived was possible. And then they’ll want to see them fall on their face when it matters most. It’s not so much hating as simply wanting sports to not be predictable.
Kevin Durant is the bad guy now, just like LeBron was in 2010. In a few years, a new super-team will come along and KD and the Warriors could be the underdogs. In the NBA, you retire a hero if you play long enough to no longer be the villain.