Kevin Durant, basketball player, is much more interesting than Kevin Durant, offseason lightning rod. In fact, the Olympics were a nice reminder that Durant can still capture plenty of positive attention with his play on the court. His performances for Team USA were quintessential KD, full of the effortless jumpers and loping dribble-moves that have become his trademarks. As leader of the gold medalists, Durant displayed his incredible talent and at least momentarily reminded everyone why everyone paid special attention to every update on his free-agent decision early this summer. Even his new home with the Warriors seemed more like a simple fact of his career than a league-shaking threat. Patriotism surely had something to do with that acceptance, but it surely helped that Durant’s play makes him so easy to support. After all, that’s the biggest reason he earned so many fans in the first place. Those two weeks in Rio de Janeiro went well enough that Durant himself referred to it as therapy.
Plus, there’s reason to believe that Durant will be even more exciting to watch with Golden State. As Jerry West argued in what is already one of the most famous phone calls in NBA history, Durant now has the opportunity to become known as a great player for more than just his scoring. In fact, his performance against his new teammates in the Western Conference Finals could prove as a template for his forthcoming role. While Durant had an up-and-down series with plenty of inefficient shooting nights in the Thunder’s seven-game loss, he offered perhaps the most complete view of his game to date. KD made plays all over the court, particularly as the most suffocating defender in lineups brimming with length. Plenty of teams will try to mimic Oklahoma City’s efforts in that series, but they’ll be missing the guy who made it most possible. Unfortunately for those opponents, he’ll be on the other side.
It’s safe to say that Kevin Durant’s public image has changed since the last time he suited up for an NBA game. The newest Golden State Warriors superstar move away from the Oklahoma City Thunder did not receive nearly the hate that LeBron James did when he chose to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat in 2010, but the mere fact that we are able to make the comparison speaks to the enmity that came Durant’s way after he made his free agent announcement on the morning of July 4. A player once held up as one of the NBA’s good guys was suddenly all types of bad — a coward, a traitor, a general talent who’d rather coast to a title than truly earn one with the franchise that helped him grow.
This line of thinking has been cast as childish in so many articles over the past few months that it’s not worth making the argument again. Durant had the chance to choose his destination and picked a franchise that made sense for him — the Warriors offered him the chance to succeed in an environment that most players would love to join. The question isn’t why Durant wanted to play for the Warriors, because their 73-win season and entertaining style of play are obvious points in their favor. It’s why he, in his capacity as the sort of all-world superstar looked at as a genuine steward of the league, chose something that threatens to make the next few NBA seasons less interesting.
No matter the logic of Durant’s move, it’s hard to escape the thought that the identity of the 2016-17 champion feels preordained. The Warriors were overwhelming favorites last year and added one of the two or three best players in the league. The last three games of the NBA Finals proved that the inevitable can sometimes be nothing of the sort, but that was a historic comeback for a reason. Does it really make sense to bet against Golden State this season? And who else but Durant is to blame for the prospect of more than six months of awaiting a result we already seem to know?
I’m here to tell you not to worry — this season is going to be fun, like all of them are, and maybe especially because of Durant.