Kevin Durant is an NBA champion.
There is no asterisk behind that.
LeBron James is still one of the best five players ever, and the most valuable player in the league.
This NBA season, postseason and finals were great, too.
And the league is arguably better than it has ever been.
(I swear I’m sober.)
But, Erik, how can a league be great when one team went 16-1 in the playoffs en route to a championship?
Context is critical.
For myriad reasons, Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City had everyone feeling some type of way, like a Drake song dropping every day for a full NBA season. There was no middle ground. NBA fans loved or hated it. I watched my good friends spew hate toward the guy all season, as any spurned OKC fan is wont to do.
Each milestone cultivated more detractors. This roster Durant joined had already won the game’s greatest prize, and set the mark for most regular season wins -- further alienating another grumbling fan base: The Jordan-era Bulls fanatics. Durant, in many people's minds, was a coward for leaving his Thunder team, one that went to seven games against the Warriors two seasons ago. He was the best player in free agency, joining the best team, which appalled most.
The narrative writers, hot-take artists and trolls looked for anything to marginalize an extraordinary player joining an already extraordinary team. (As long as y’all keep engaging, that content will keep coming.) The end result was an enigma around the 2017 NBA champions.
Durant is still the same 6-foot-11 basketball savant, driving intrigue with his mix of size and sky-high skill. Each play he makes is incredible. It’s rare to see him do anything average, though we become so desensitized to the fade-aways, step backs and drives to the rim that scoring just 30 or so points becomes boring for some -- like Russell Westbrook or James Harden putting up another triple-double. Ho-hum.
It’s almost as fashionable to lash out at Durant is it is for some to pan LeBron.
While LeBron hate is perhaps the most unearned and insane way to attack basketball’s mostly physically gifted and skilled player, consider this: Kevin Durant in Game 3 sent the LeBron trolls into a feeding frenzy when he drilled the boldest shot of the Finals. James defended on the play, backpedaling in transition until he found the 3-point line. All of the almost 7-foot Durant blitzed into a pull-up 3, gave the Warriors the game, a 3-0 lead and the iconic moment of the Finals.
Durant bettered LeBron, two of the game’s greatest forever connected in a dynamic moment, even if it was an impossible-to-defend 3, and even if Durant has literally done that to anybody and everybody in the league. The shot mattered more because it was James, the NBA’s greatest player and greatest scapegoat, defending, and people’s ever-growing expectations dictated to them that he should be able to stop an impossible-to-defend shot.
Did I mention that shot was impossible to defend?
Everybody wants to relive the Jordan narrative. Nobody wants to embrace individual choice and consequences, the new NBA free agency where the best player on the market can join the best team in the league.
Everybody wants to cheapen current teams and championships because they aren’t carbon copies of past champions or past greatness. The New England Patriots have been so thoroughly consistent in the NFL and Tom Brady could well be the greatest quarterback of all time playing for some of the greatest teams of all time, but you’re not having that conversation without talk of San Francisco 49ers in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the ‘90s Cowboys, the ‘70s Steelers and the ’72 Miami Dolphins.
Everything is, of course, debatable, but as we’ve learned from our nation’s politics, people on both sides of a topic’s fence can dig in and never see the other’s argument.
Though, I assure you, in 10 years, people will look back at this decade and marvel at how good the Warriors were. Even more recently, after James brought a championship to his home state, he was largely forgiven for his Miami exodus and continued to be a face and force of the NBA. Championships and a pinch of time heal all wounds.
The hate still came for Durant: COWARD, some would say. WEAK, others chimed in. COULDN’T WIN BY HIMSELF, more would relent. Durant did what was best for himself. All of those things can be true, to some, at once. I just happen to side with the player. He had a chance to enact change. He did. While the Oklahoma City Thunder’s front office has largely been a successful group over the years, why Trust the Oklahoman Process, when he would compete for championships in an instant?
It didn’t matter Durant averaged 35.2 points and shot 55.6 percent from the field, 47.4 percent from 3, and pulled down 8.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. Those stats were inflated by playing for a super team, detractors noted, and came on the heels of a super-scoring season. It’s easy to forget the other sensational players we celebrated this season were James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who all played alongside Durant in an NBA Finals, losing to James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat.
Durant, like it or not, had a super team before, albeit through different circumstances, but he’s the subject of ire now. Even if we want to con everybody into thinking, “but Westbrook and Harden hadn’t fully developed yet!” back in 2011, Durant had an incredible roster and it still wasn’t enough to dethrone James.
The amount of people extending outside of OKC that felt a stake in ownership over Durant and his career is borderline lunacy -- but it is what makes fans and sports great. Seeing a gangly kid out of D.C. ascend to become must-watch material, and fuel a franchise that needed good karma after ripping the hearts out of Seattleites, Durant mattered. He’s given us so many outstanding moments in his 10-season career -- the buzzer-beaters in the playoffs, the scoring titles, the MVP, the calling his mom the real MVP, his mom becoming the real MVP again on national TV Monday as ABC’s Doris Burke tried to corral the champ for a postgame interview -- that anything and everything he does can and will be dissected.
If you follow sports media closely, you’ve undoubtedly heard my colleagues defend free agency moves. It’s literally the players’ right to make a decision. I didn’t hate LeBron for The Decision. I didn’t hate Durant for his move, either. This summer, when a few other All-Stars swap rosters, it won’t be bothersome. It’s new. It’s fresh. It’s the future of the NBA (pending major overhaul of the collective bargaining agreement). It’s their choice.
It’s also not the first time it’s happened in the NBA or other major sports leagues. People have such poignant memories of James’ move that they forget other teams have been assembling powerful rosters throughout the NBA’s history. The country largely accepted the Celtics’ assembling their Big Three in 2007-08 because they yearned for Boston to be NBA-relevant again. And it wasn’t a matter of the best players in the league joining forces, but rather a collective of three of the top 25 players. It’s OK for some teams to form and we don’t accept others. The Miami Heat, squeezing every cent out of its salary cap, to form James’ first super team, was a problem. Shaq to the Lakers? Largely OK, joining the NBA’s royalty is a rave-worthy move. The list goes on and on.
I think about NBA free agency this way: If my best, elite sportswriting buddies and I had an opportunity to form our own publication that would pay us more, market the hell out of us, put us in line to win awards and the earn the top recognitions in our field, would I do it?
As a competitor, I’d be crazy not to. (No offense to all my colleagues at the Independent Record. Love y’all.)
Everybody that tunes into the NBA postseason is a victim to the stor ylines. We as a society crave drama, and if broadcasters manufacture it for us, we’ll happily lap it up. For an NBA Finals that lacked drama, the visceral and loudest reaction that ratcheted up this postseason is: It’s been bad.
That take is wrong, and borne out of culture that feasts on the extraordinary and has never had more access to the extraordinary. We have so much media at our fingertips in our smartphones, smart TVs, laptops, tablets and every other gizmo, that one reasonably could expose themselves to only extraordinary content all day long.
Why watch a lopsided Finals game when you can spend the same amount of time and get up to date on the latest season of Silicon Valley? It’s just a few buttons away.
Sports -- until somebody scripts or greatly alters -- buck the trend. If you begin a sports broadcast, you are dedicating an hour or three of your life. When that period of time goes by without high drama -- last-second shots, scuffling, record-shattering performances -- it can be a letdown. Subconsciously, everybody second-guesses that time, knowing they could have been consuming extraordinary content elsewhere.
I guess I’m old-school in that regard. Every game intrigued me. There’s glory in the inglorious.
Even without the delicious drama, context still matters. A game without a few points difference still has its beauty. And Kevin Durant and the Warriors’ trouncing of the NBA was a masterpiece.