The Two Sides of KD

By Josh Eberley #41

Let’s talk about Kevin Durant.

This might surprise you but Durant is the NBA’s most polarizing player. Not LeBron James. Not teammate Steph Curry. Not former teammate Russell Westbrook. The player that elicits the most takes from opposite sides of the spectrum is none other than Kevin Wayne “don’t call me ‘Slim Reaper’” Durant.

In a recent ESPN article penned by Darren Rovell, Kevin Durant gave us some insight into how he views the world, saying: “Fake is what runs the world right now. Narratives are what matter. Perception is what matters. So, when you’ve got the majority of the world worrying about perception and what they look like, then the people who don’t care about that stuff seem fake to them.”

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Take a minute to digest the continued lack of self-awareness and irony, it’s warranted. It’s just the latest moment in a chain of hotel meltdowns, fake Twitter accounts, blog boy rants, and bold proclamations from the notoriously befuddling PR machine that is Durant.

All the abstruse and wild behavior aside, Durant is an MVP, he’s a champion bound for more and he’s one of, if not the best scorer to ever play the game. Durant’s 27.12 PPG career average places him fifth all-time. He’s 36th all time in points (20,913), and at only 29 years of age, is a sure bet to finish in the top 10 barring missed time. Of the 55 players to play 500 or more games and average 20 or more PPG, he’s fourth in TS% (.611).

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His skillset and physique are incredible, his jumper is bloody pristine. As a scorer he splits the distance between the indomitable Kobe Bryant and the steadfast Dirk Nowitzki. Durant is a marvel to watch, equally adept at hitting on the run, taking a guard off the dribble or pulling up over a big who foolishly thought he could help.

Objectively, without the narrative, just as 35 would like, Durant is going to go down as one of the best to ever do it.

As a player, he hasn’t changed. It wasn’t all that long ago Durant was doted on by the masses. The next guy in line to storm the King’s throne, his Oklahoma City Thunder were a contender every year. Hell, a better turn with the damn injury bug and the Thunder might’ve had their own banner hanging from the rafters.

Before we get any further into Durant`s complicated perception, we must briefly look at his contemporary and all-time rival, LeBron James. James is who he is. Despite all the hot takes, recency bias, and over simplifications proclaimed with vigor following each and every game, we know where James fits in the all-time picture. His story has been written, his likeness forcibly carved into the NBA’s Mount Rushmore.

For 90 percent of people reading this, James is the best or second-best player ever and short of divine intervention, people aren’t changing their view on the played-out GOAT debate at this juncture. However, with Durant, there’s room to wiggle. You won’t find the masses more currently conflicted on any player than Durant. This taut tension and targeted discord is owed in part to Durant himself, but his talent is undeniable and some of the critiques of his play this postseason have become downright unfair.

The following will attempt to sate a number of constant discussion topics circling around the head of Durant and the Golden State Warriors.

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Did Kevin Durant ruin the NBA?

No. Conversation over. Are you still watching? Have the ratings dipped? Did the League cease to exist? No, we can’t even dive into this question because it’s the wrong question and those arguing it are playing into the hands of the peers they seek to convince.

Did Kevin Durant’s decision to join the 73-win Warriors lessen the current NBA product?

This is the $1 billion question and the answer is split based on what you as a fan subscribe to.

Did you sharpie the Warriors into the next three-to-five Finals instantly? The second Durant announced his decision did you feel championship windows for many teams slam shut? Did that bother you?

If you love beautifully executed basketball in which sets are run to a tee and the total performance is near a choreographed product occurring in real time, Durant’s decision probably doesn’t bother you and these Warriors are your cup of tea.

If you prioritize competition, seek parity across the League and are elated at the prospect of the rise and fall of stars beating the odds, Durant’s decision was likely upsetting and you probably think the League is worse off for it.

You can’t be wrong, and at the moment, there is no point in time where we can confidently declare one side or the other a victor. This might take some time before proper perspective sheds light to a conclusion.

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Should fans just shut up and enjoy greatness?

On the May 18 edition of the Open Floor NBA Show, hosts Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver exemplified the divide, nay the limitless chasm that exists between even the most educated and nuanced of viewers. The conversation was instigated by Golliver’s Durant column, published a few days earlier following game one of the Golden State and Houston series. In short, Golliver’s point was Durant’s antics aside, he’s been the second-best player in the playoffs and even if people can’t forgive him, they should enjoy this superstar balling out in his prime.

Golliver is not alone, The Undefeated’s Jemele Hill went for the jugular on the issue of Durant and the Warriors greatness relative to their entertainment factor.

Personally, harboring no secret agenda, I detest the take from Hill.

First things first, sports viewing is objectively subjective. There are winners and there are losers. You can’t have one without the other. But what joy you derive or don’t derive along the way is yours to determine and yours alone.

If you fall into the first camp of people who love beautiful basketball above competition, drama, and entertainment, you’re at least partly ignoring what the NBA is and what it represents to most viewers.

For those of you claiming the NBA has never had parity, that’s short-sighted and frankly debatable. But rather than argue the merit of that talking point, let me present an alternative. What if the NBA did have universally accepted parity at the top? What if every year there were five or six teams legitimately capable of winning a title? Wouldn’t that bet better? Wouldn’t the ability to be surprised just add another delicious layer to the NBA viewing experience?

When you talk to friends who love the NFL, isn’t their No. 1 critique usually the predictable nature of the NBA product?

The NBA is on the rise, growing into a more immersive and popular enterprise every year. Maybe this is simply the next step up.

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Does Kevin Durant’s accomplishments weigh less than those of other all-time greats?  

Disagreement with Hill’s above point aside, she makes note of one very key detail. For better or worse, Durant is often being viewed within the scope of the Golden State Warriors and not as a standing pillar like that other guy out in the Land.

This is where things get interesting. Durant’s individual legacy has been welded tight to the wheels of a Warriors machine he didn’t help build nor design.

In Steve Kerr’s own words: “Kevin is the ultimate luxury.”

Durant is the heated seats, the extra cup holder, the sunroof, the plush leather seats and all the extraneous, but enjoyable accoutrements, but he’s not viewed as essential to the wheels turning. Credit the currently surging Houston Rockets for adding weight to the other side of this, but it has been two years and as a basketball community we’re still deadlocked on Durant’s decision to join a 73-win team that defeated his own franchise after an unthinkable 3-1 collapse, irreparably altering the immediate NBA timeline.

Not all rings are equal. That’s the truth and I don’t think it can be disputed.

Nowitzki leading the Dallas Mavericks to the 2011 NBA Championship was special, well-earned and possibly overdue. The decade of 50-plus win seasons culminated in the ultimate reward and Nowitzki’s legacy was, for all intents and purposes, secured.

Think LeBron in 2016: The ultimate redemption story of the prodigal son making good on a promise to bring a championship to the city.

Think Paul Pierce in 2008: The lifetime Celtic star who toiled in obscurity in Boston before finally joining the other legends in green with a ring.

Think Chauncey Billups in 2004: The reclamation point guard who turned himself into a Finals MVP.

Think Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995: The star center who singlehandedly carried his team to a title.

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For a bevy of reasons, those seasons were special and hit home with audiences in a way the 2017 Warriors title did not.

Notice, I didn’t say some rings are hollow. Winning is winning. No one is taking away Durant’s ring. No one is snatching his Finals MVP out of the chart at basketball-reference.com. He’s getting his name in the ledger. But objectively, Durant did not have to overcome the same obstacles many other Hall of Famers did to get to the pinnacle.

No hyperbole is needed, what the Warriors have built is special. Kevin Durant is special. But together, they provoke questions of disproportionate contention. It’s tough to celebrate accomplishments that appear to be within arms reach.

Like the aforementioned GOAT debate, the conversations around Durant will continue, between two distinctly and fundamentally conflicting types of fans trying to convince the other to budge off a hill they’ve already thrown down roots on.