After a long injury break, Kevin Durant is finally back and wants to continue his Hall of Fame career. The run of a complicated player is long from being over.
What’s another minute when the wait had already seemed like an eternity? Kevin Durant doesn’t need to force anything – he’s passed all that. It finally happened with 10:49 minutes left on the clock in the first quarter of the Brooklyn Nets’ season opener against the Golden State Warriors – after 560 days without an NBA game, Durant scored a basket, a three-pointer.
His next score didn’t take much longer, and Durant buried his first three shots. In the end, the 32-year-old poured in 22 points in nearly 25 minutes in his comeback – a 26-point blowout of the team for whom he had last played.
Much more important than his final point tally was that the player with the number 7 on this evening looked a lot like the player with the number 35, who had already put together a Hall of Fame-worthy career well before his torn Achilles tendon. Durant is clearly far from singing his swan song. Just the opposite is the case.
Durant has only just begun a new chapter in his career. It’s been a career which has seen him win just about every award and honor but still seems odd – also because KD seemingly makes it that way on his own. The superstar is back. Of course, he’s in the spotlight but he is also searching for his nirvana.
The nice scoring machine next door
According to the Buddhist monk Nyanatiloka Mahathera, nirvana is a state of unconditional contentment. But unconditional contentment is not really a notion that fits with Kevin Durant. Before the injury postponed his career, there were countless adjectives which could used to describe KD. “Content” was certainly one of the few.
Durant began his career as the nice 7-foot scoring machine next door. This image continued to change over time to eventually him being a controversial figure – also because KD permanently seemed irritated and acted as such. He used a Twitter burner account to discuss things with fans and quarrelled publicly with journalists and also teammates.
Durant often said he felt he was treated unfairly.
It is a matter of opinion just how responsible Durant is on his own for seeing himself as a victim. But it is a fact that KD has never felt enough recognition and appreciation for his excellence.
The search for respect
Maybe that is also because it is so difficult to understand him. That began with the start of his professional career as he was drafted No. 2 behind Greg Oden. That was mainly because Oden had a set position and Durant didn’t. KD was a prototype that had never previously existed and still really is hard to comprehend even though a whole generation has been trying.
He has the height and length of a center and the skillset of one of the best shooting guards in NBA history. His jumper is automatic and thanks to his height unblockable. He glides through defenses, is quick and agile and is a strong ball-handler. His stature is slender but he’s been one of the best post scorers in the league for years. Oh, and he can defend, pass and rebound too.
There is not a weakness in Durant’s game. He can score from any position on the court and makes it look easier than any other player in the league.
Durant is nothing short of a basketball genius – the unstoppable scorer of his era who was the top scorer in the league by his third season – and then three of the next four campaigns. He reached the NBA Finals in year five and was named MVP in year seven. But still, he had not reached the summit.
The designated number two
“I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that. I’m done with it,” Durant told Sports Illustrated in 2013 and wanted to make clear that he was out to claim LeBron James’ spot as the No. 1 in the NBA. That desire from then on defined every step in his career – both on and off the court, and both good and bad.
James entered the league four years before Durant and early on became his benchmark. LeBron collected MVP awards and was the young face of the league, the designated successor to Kobe Bryant and accepted starting in 2012 as the best player in the NBA.
Durant was his designated number two – in three of LeBron’s four MVP years, KD received the second-most votes. And LeBron’s first NBA title with the Miami Heat came against Durant and his OKC Thunder.
KD could not get it done in the Finals but he definitely had claimed the status as the best NBA player not named LeBron James. The fact that OKC could not return to the Finals after 2012 did not really land on Durant either but more on his unpredictable teammate Russell Westbroook, the Thunder organization, the trade of James Harden, injuries or all of the above.
Durant was beloved during his OKC days because as opposed to James, he stayed in his small market and tried to win there. KD had been built up as the anti-LeBron in the media, even though the two rivals had been friendly off the court. “That’s my guy,” Durant said about James in 2013. “I looked up to him, and now I battle him.”
But the dynamic changed of the next three years – because a new team and a new player who could not compete physically with James or Durant entered the stage.
Curry crashes the party
Durant had been working year by year to take the throne as “The Chosen One”. But someone else beat him to it. In 2014, Miami lost to San Antonio in the Finals and the era of the “Heatles” was over as LeBron went back to Cleveland. James also led the Cavs to the Finals, but he didn’t meet up with Durant or San Antonio but rather Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, who crashed Durant’s party.
Durant was injured and missed the entire 2015 playoffs, which saw Golden State knock off Cleveland in the Finals. And in the following year – his contract year – KD watched as the freshly-crowned champs became the biggest attraction since the Shaq-Kobe Lakers and won an NBA record 73 games in the regular season.
The first rumors started in November of that season that KD was looking to leave OKC and could maybe make Golden State his new home. Most observers considered that absurd until it became a reality.
In 2016, Golden State breezed through the regular season but were knocked off in the playoffs – nearly a round earlier than it happened. The Thunder were leading the supposed über-team 3-1 in the Conference Finals thanks to Durant’s specialness. For a few days there, the Thunder were the best team in the world and KD seemed on course to be the best player in it. Then OKC lost their mojo. Klay Thompson came up with a performance for the ages in Game 6 to even the series and in Game 7 it was Curry – not Durant – who led his team to the Finals with 36 points.
That game took place on May 30, 2016. One month and four days later, Durant published an essay called “The Next Chapter” on the Players’ Tribune, announcing his move to the Warriors.
Putting the league in checkmate
Still today, it’s hard to describe in words how much this move turned the NBA on its head. The mood for the rest of the league was pretty low. The Warriors were already the best team in the regular season and now one of the best three players in the league joined forces to finally knock off the best player in the world. It was a situation in which Durant could not lose – at least it seemed like that.
It was like that sports wise. When everybody was healthy, that Warriors team was unstoppable. The 2017 Warriors team was maybe the most talented in history and brushed aside the best version of the LeBron Cavs nearly without a sweat in five games.
Durant had finally become champion and was Finals MVP. And he repeated the whole thing the following season. Things had gone as planned. Or maybe not.
Lacking the understanding
It’s paradoxical how athletes are dependent on fans and media and how often all involved only partially understand one another. That’s the only way to explain why LeBron James was shocked from all the hate he received in 2010 for the “Decision”. And that’s the only way to explain why Durant was surprised by the backlash about his move to Golden State.
Oklahoma City wasn’t the only place that resented his departure. Durant basically did the same thing as LeBron but took it a step further by just joining a team that was already a super team – and on top of that the team that had just beaten the Thunder in the playoffs the season before. Fair or not, Durant’s right to join any new team he wanted was not respected. And it didn’t stop there.
In 2017, Durant was the best player in the Finals, in 2018 as well. He not only won the showdown with King James but also the team internal battle with Curry. Still, nobody really wanted to accept Durant as the best player in the sport, and Warriors fans would not stop emphasizing that Curry was the true leader of the team. Durant had imagined things differently. He couldn’t lose with the Warriors, but he also couldn’t really win either – at least not correctly.
Durant seemed irritated that he was not flooded with praise like LeBron experienced after 2011. Apparently that was naive. LeBron’s Heat had to work hard for both titles despite their talent, surviving a number of Game 7s while Golden State lost only one playoff game in KD’s first season.
That led to dissatisfaction that started to surface already in the 2018 playoffs and defined the Warriors’ entire 2018-19 season. During the 2018 celebrations, Warriors general manager Bob Myers joked that Durant had not “earned” his contract like Curry had. There would be more such instances to come.
Time changes nearly everything, also the view of certain situations in the careers of the greatest players. KD’s last season with the Warriors is a perfect example because it is full of irony and sadness.
Looking back, it was the season in which KD in the playoffs had finally secured the crown as best player in the world but then tore his Achilles tendon. The road to that point was rocky.
One of the highlights of the season was Durant and Draymond Green going at one another during a game against the Clippers in November in which Green called him a “bitch” and accused him of worrying more about his impending free agency than the good of the team.
In January and February, Durant attacked Warriors beat writer Ethan Strauss because the latter cited sources in Golden State that KD would be leaving the Bay Area after the season. Durant warned Strauss repeatedly to “grow up” and he boycotted the media for a week.
Once again, KD seemed like someone who didn’t understand or want to accept the machinery of the profession. The Warriors once again secured first place in the Western Conference but the happiness of the past years was missing, also because they kept on trying to bring the to-be free agent Durant back into the mix.
It didn’t work – at least not over the long haul. Rumors of an alliance between Durant and Kyrie Irving in New York hung over the entire season, just like the occasional Durant quips aimed at Steve Kerr. For all parties, the end of the partnership seemed necessary – a union that was successful but fulfilling.
End with a scare
Not that Kerr and co. didn’t continue to try. During the 2019 playoffs, the head coach continually emphasized that Durant was the best player in the world and he showed it. He dropped 45 and 50 points on the Clippers in back-to-back games in the first round and then delivered a 46-point game against Houston in the next round.
The “Slim Reaper” was at the top of his game at age 30 – whether he was satisfied or not. “I’m Kevin Durant. Y’all know who I am,” KD said during the first round a day before scoring 38 points through three quarters.
And then came May 8 and Game 5 against Houston. Durant had to leave the game with right calf problems and would miss the next nine games. Golden State reached the Finals without him but could not defeat Toronto without Durant. Kawhi Leonard had turned himself into the latest challenger for the “Best Player Alive” award while LeBron James was out injured.
Durant made it back for Game 5 and received the love he had been missing for 12 magical minutes. Golden State was down 3-1 in the Finals, and it was clear that only Durant could lead the Warriors back to the title. And what a fulfillment it could have been.
KD scored 11 points in those 12 minutes. And then he tore his Achilles tendon …
My Next Chapter
Durant was left to be only an observer for more than a year – other than his signing with Brooklyn alongside Kyrie Irving and various business moves. During that time, he watched as Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors won the title, how Golden State and Curry lost their status as dynasty and how LeBron James came back after a one-year “break” and won his fourth NBA title – while also reclaiming the title as the best player in the world.
Durant can now finally return to the battle for that status. Sure, he could retire tomorrow and would be considered one of the best 20 basketball players of all time. But if he were to lead the Nets to a title, he would make history. Nobody has led the Nets to an NBA crown.
But the situation is an entirely different one. Durant joined an alliance with possibly the only NBA player who is more controversial than he is but someone who is also a good friend. And he has reached a point where there is joy coming his way. The NBA world is happy to see one of its greats back on the court, even though he gives nightmares to every opposing coach.
Some times you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Kevin Durant, the fans and the media could make a new start. Maybe it will work better this time with the appreciation. That would truly been a “Next Chapter” of a book – and not just an epilogue.
by FIVE Magazine #175 – Kevin Durant – Text: Ole Frerks