On May 30th, Kevin Durant was sent home without an NBA championship for the ninth time in his nine-year career. His Oklahoma City Thunder had blown a three games-to-one series lead over the Golden State Warriors that, a few days earlier, had seemed insurmountable. But as Golden State had spent the year proving, there was little for them that was insurmountable. The Warriors were not just good, they were historically great. They had just set the all-time record for wins in a single season. They had the sixth highest per-game point differential ever. And over the course of an 82-game schedule, they had lost back-to-back games zero times, something no other team had ever done.
A few weeks later, the season ended and Durant became a free agent. After taking a few meetings, he eventually announced his decision: He was signing with the Warriors.
The second or third best player in the league was joining one of history’s greatest teams. He’d be playing with Steph Curry—the other second or third best player in the game—Klay Thompson—one of the sickest shooters in basketball—and Draymond Green, a center who is really good at pretty much everything. Together, they represented four of the top 15 guys in the game, who would play in front of a bench and coach that were pretty good themselves.
In came the tidal wave of backlash for Durant. ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith gave the most Stephen A. Smithian reaction possible when he called this decision “the weakest move I’ve ever seen from a superstar.”
Former players and current ones piled on as did the journalists and the bloggers. Even 2010 Durant seemed to be insulting the 2016 version of himself when images of an old tweet resurfaced that he wrote shortly after LeBron James joined the Miami Heat to team up with two of the best players in the game.
But from others came the equally vociferous argument that criticizing a player for not winning and criticizing that same player for going to the place that gave him the best shot to win was an absurd contradiction, and that the only people to win a bunch of rings all had the good fortune of being surrounded by great teammates. And who were we to say someone should not take the chance to play in the best situation possible for himself?
A week later, it’s still hard to untangle which argument has more merit. Because it’s clear that everyone criticizing Kevin Durant is being wildly unfair.
But they also happen to be right.
For the last few decades, we’ve gotten angry whenever someone turned down the organization that gave him the best chance to win and instead signed the contract that would pay him more money. Last Monday, Durant turned down the contract that would pay him more money and instead signed with the organization that gave him the best chance to win. And he was vilified for it.
Last summer, LaMarcus Aldridge, the offseason’s most sought-after free agent, signed with the San Antonio Spurs, an elite squad that already looked plenty unstoppable without him. He was universally praised for sacrificing his stats to play for a perpetual contender. Last Monday, Durant did the same thing. And he was vilified for it.
Every day, people leave one job to take a better one, and we congratulate them for it. Last Monday, Durant chose to play on what appears to be a wildly fun team in a situation that is perfect for him, plus he exchanged living in Oklahoma freakin’ City for San Francisco. And he was vilified for it.
Michael Jordan won his titles playing alongside Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen. Larry Bird won his with Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. Magic Johnson with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Jordan, Bird and Magic remain revered as all-time greats, a reputation that has never been diminished by the caliber of teammate they played with. Last Monday, Durant teamed up with several other superstars. And he was vilified for it.
Over the last week, the criticism of Durant has been hypocritical, the standard he’s been held to impossible.
But that’s the thing about being great. Being great means you get measured by a different ruler from everyone else. Kevin Durant isn’t LaMarcus Aldridge. Durant is light years better. God reached down and gave him one of the most gorgeous three point shots the world has ever seen, then also made him seven feet tall just for the hell of it. Players that tall shouldn’t have jump shots that perfect. Durant is long enough to destroy you in the low post, to make dunking look easy, and to defend any position on the court. And then he’s good enough to have a man in his face 27 feet from the basket, make a jabstep, then reach up and drop a shot right through the hoop, nothing but net.
There’s a tradeoff for being that transcendent. You will make a bazillion dollars in shoe sales, you will win gold medals, kids in cities you don’t even play for will have your poster over their beds, and every conversation about the greatest athletes of this era will include your name. But in return, you will be judged if you take the easy route to a title.
And that’s what it feels like Durant is doing. It feels like a guy who couldn’t win on what was already a top-tier team just decided to go where it would be easier. It feels like he got tired of having two defenders draped all over him every time he took a shot, so he teamed up with a group of guys so lethal that opponents couldn’t cover him because they’d be too busy chasing everyone else.
In 2013, Kevin Durant appeared in a Sports Illustrated cover story and gave a quote that has come to define him: “I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it.” It is the kind of quote you crave from an athlete. It speaks of relentless drive and the kind of insatiable desire for greatness that made it so fun to root for Jordan when he was playing.
Part of the fun of watching the greats is that their level of athletic brilliance feels superhuman. But part of it is also that their need to dominate is so massive you can almost see it radiating from their bodies. It was the way those two things melded that made us gush over Muhammad Ali when he passed away a month ago.
And you have to admit, it feels just a little bit harder to believe that Durant is wired like Ali and Jordan when, after being defeated by a great opponent, he joined them.
There’s a scene in “A League of Their Own,” where the star catcher (played by Geena Davis) explains to her manager (Tom Hanks) why she decided to leave the team, saying, “It just got too hard.”
Hanks looks her dead in the eye and says, “It's supposed to be hard… The hard is what makes it great.” Greatness isn’t just about doing what is hard. It is about embracing the hard. It is about being confronted with adversity and responding, “Bring it on.”
And that’s the difference between Durant’s situation and that of Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. The latter two didn’t choose to go somewhere with better surrounding talent. And yeah, Bird and Magic had the good fortune of playing for franchises that drafted and traded well, but let’s be clear, so did Durant in Oklahoma City. Teammate Russell Westbrook will be in the Hall of Fame some day and Stephen Adams alongside Victor Oladipo make for a strong supporting cast.
Admittedly, those Celtics were better than Durant’s Thunder, so perhaps it’s unfair that, when talking about Durant’s decision, Bird said, “I know back in the day, I couldn't imagine going to the Lakers and playing with Magic Johnson. I'd rather try to beat him.” But it’s also inescapably true.
Bird wasn’t just great because he was great. He was great because Magic pushed him to another level and vice versa. It was not simply their ability that defined the NBA of the 1980s, it was the competition between them. Watching them on the same team would have been fun, but watching them go toe-to-toe was what made them historic.
Of course, the biggest reason it’s absurd to criticize Durant for going where a title seems automatic is that his victory next year is hardly guaranteed. We have a habit of crowning champions in the offseason, then watching in disbelief as someone else wins the title when the games finally start. Even when the presumed champ wins, things rarely go as easily as we expect. Sports is too full of surprises, egos, nut-punch suspensions and injuries. Stars underperform, other teams overachieve, and the pieces don’t fit like we were so certain they would. No matter what you do in free agency, winning titles is hard.
Of course, that’s what makes them so special.
And that’s the problem with Durant signing with Golden State. It seems like he wants it to be easy.