Nathaniel Friedman on KD's continued dominance and apparent heel turn.
For someone who has so much going for him, Kevin Durant sure seems miserable. The perennial All-Star and former MVP should be on top of the world. He's on his way to a second straight title with Golden State; he is, by general consensus, the best non-LeBron basketball player on the planet; his multiple rings will, in theory, secure his place in history. Instead, everything from his body language to his comments in the media seems to exude insecurity and resentment. He should be basking in the moment; instead, he's reached the end of his rope.
But there's nothing mysterious or contentious going on here. The public perception of Durant has, to say the least, suffered gravely since he joined the Warriors. There's pretty much zero precedent for a player of his caliber joining up with a team like that. It's the logic of the super-team pushed to a nearly unthinkable extreme. Once upon a time, superstars—motivated by pride and competitive instinct—repelled each other. In the crassest possible terms, Durant put on display their newfound tendency to attract one another and eliminate any room for error. The perception was that both Durant and the Warriors made it too easy for themselves, thus demolishing the competitive balance of the sport.
Of course, this was the point all along. Kevin Durant was signed as insurance. The Warriors didn't blow a 3-1 lead because the Cavs practiced witchcraft or called in demonic favors. They lost because, over the course of seven games, the Cavs proved to be the stronger team. Golden State decided they couldn't run that risk again; a rivalry with LeBron James in tow simply posed too much of a challenge. They brought in Durant so that taking them on would never be a fair fight, and KD, whose Thunder blew a 3-1 lead of their own against the Warriors in that year's conference finals, saw in his new teammates a surefire way to get a ring. No one hates the Warriors because they went above and beyond to try win. It's their refusal to run the risk of losing—to truly put themselves to the test—that people find so galling.
When LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, the damage to his image, and reputation at first seemed irrevocable. He was seen as having turned his back on his hometown franchise, not to mention consolidating talent in a way that, despite the 2008-09 Celtics having already pioneered the super-team concept, was viewed by everyone except for Heat fans as dastardly and unfair. The world rejoiced in the Heat's unevenness and consistency and when the Mavericks upset them in the 2011 Finals, it seemed like James had gotten his karmic comeuppance. But over the next few seasons, James quietly rebuilt his brand through sheer dominance. No amount of All-Star teammates could detract from what LeBron was doing and by the time he made his dramatic return to Cleveland, he was once again respected, admired, and perfectly safe to enjoy.
For Durant, there's no such redemption in sight and he seems to know it. Where James proved indispensable, Durant is a luxury for Golden State. For all the hype surrounding the Heat's consolidation of talent, the team was first and foremost a new place for LeBron to set up shop. The Warriors would likely be the favorites for a title even without Durant, and arguably make more sense on the floor as a KD-less, Steph Curry-centric juggernaut. Landing James was a coup for the Heat; Durant to Golden State was overkill. Like LeBron, Durant was accused of being disloyal and lazy. Unlike LeBron, though, his current situation will never afford him the opportunity to reframe his narrative and dispel this criticism. The more inevitable a Golden State dynasty becomes, the harder it is to imagine Durant ever salvaging his good name, as his ability to put the Warriors over the top is exactly what people find objectionable.
When LeBron first arrived in Miami, he responded to the backlash by attempting to turn heel. The role didn't suit him and he soon abandoned it. Durant, too, has been transformed by his new circumstances, though his metamorphosis has been far less linear, far murkier. There have been hints of "hate me now," but also desperation, frustration, sadness, and confusion. While Durant had, with varying results, been attempting for several years to ditch the nice guy persona, it at least provided him with a baseline identity—one that's now simply off the table. Going to Golden State didn't necessarily make him a bad person. But it spoke to a (supposed) lack of the kind of good-natured decorum we'd come, however unfairly, to expect of Durant. There was also something assertive, even dissonant, about his choice that seemed wholly out of character. It was a bold move from an athlete who, up to that point, had excelled at making everyone else happy.
Durant made what, at least from a basketball standpoint, he thought to be the right decision for himself. Increasingly, though, it seems like he didn't anticipate the full extent of what he was getting himself into—and just how difficult it would be to extricate himself from the initial controversy and come out on the other side retooled. He likely overestimated the amount of goodwill toward him in the first place, or assumed that it would go dormant rather than evaporate for good. DragonflyJonez observed this week that Durant doesn't have any passionate defenders, in part because he's never needed defending. But he's also never really inspired the kind of worship that James did. Maybe Durant was destined to always be liked and enjoyed but never elevated to that extent. Maybe he knew this all along and chose the Warriors because he realized this was a lost cause, and decided to take his career in a different direction. Maybe Kevin Durant is exactly where he wants to be.
From all we've seen, though, it doesn't seem like he's enjoying it much. I've even jokingly suggested that KD could ditch the Warriors this summer, go to another team as a free agent, and try to reboot as a standalone (relatively speaking) franchise player. Ultimately, Durant decided that racking up rings was the most important thing in his professional life. He might be vindicated someday. But given how miserable he seems, you have to wonder if it was really worth it.