The sad fact of today’s world is that no matter what you do, you are always bound to piss somebody off. You could walk down the street, talk to nobody at all, and a complete stranger would still find something to criticize about your gait, ugly face, or skin color. You can’t win.
It’s even tougher for professional athletes, millionaires who are paid to play the games they love, but politics, fandom, and controversies often detract from their ability to focus solely on their sports. We have talking heads debating sports all throughout the day who give us reasons to love a player, reasons to hate a player. There’s no middle-ground, we’re either watching the greatest or the worst of everything. Reactionary culture is a plague.
For someone like Kevin Durant, the polarizing, divisive power of the media – in conjunction with his decision to join the Golden State Warriors – has created an almost palpable hatred among his detractors. This is a guy who was beloved around the league for his easy-going manner and proclivity for saying and doing the right thing.
It became a meme in and of itself, but Durant’s MVP speech is still one of the most heart-warming videos you can watch; it’s beyond apparent how much he appreciated his teammates like Russell Westbrook and his mother, “the real MVP.”
Overnight, Durant became the most hated player in the NBA. In all honesty, I’ve always liked the guy and rooted for him. In fact before he left OKC the Thunder were my pick to win it all every year since 2013. And maybe I, too, have changed since LeBron James’ infamous “Decision” in 2010, but this time around I don’t feel compelled to follow the masses and hate blindly. I see the hypocrisy resplendent around the league, and I’m going to bat for Durant now (even though he sure as hell doesn’t need my support for motivation).
I follow a fair amount of basketball folks on Twitter, and one random Jazz fan I saw said KD is the “MVP of fake tough guys.” After I asserted that the world will do their usual 180 once he wins it all this year, similar to James in 2012, the guy comes back with: “Totally disagree. What KD did is a completely different story. I don’t think OKC fans (or NBA fans in general) will ever forgive him.”
Now this is a self-proclaimed “Hoops Enthusiast,” a guy who writes for two small publications and has enough followers that it doesn’t matter what he says, his stuff is still going to be retweeted and liked because of the Law of Large Numbers. But for the life of me, I can’t find anything online – other than a massive hard-on for the Jazz – that tells me he is in any way qualified to make that kind of sweeping generalization.
(Let’s also not forget that lifelong Jazz fans are unlikely to be unbiased on anything Sonics- or Thunder-related. 1996 Western Conference Finals anyone?)
And so it’s important now to delineate how James’ and Durant’s decisions to leave their first franchises are impossibly intertwined, and to forgive LeBron after the fact but not KD is hypocritical and petty. Let’s take a look:
LeBron James’ biggest reason for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010 was perpetually failing to make it out of the East, compounded by his team’s inability to acquire reliable sidekicks and role players. He fled to South Beach where the Miami Heat, with an exorbitant amount of cap space, signed three stars in James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in addition to a valuable role player in Mike Miller. Eddie House, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Juwan Howard eventually came aboard with the veteran’s minimum salary.
As we all know, the Heat fell in six in the 2011 NBA Finals, but the allure of playing with three superstars in their primes allowed Miami to attract quality role players like Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, and Chris Anderson for extremely cheap, and the Heat reigned atop the East for four years before James left in 2014.
Those who are studious about the league’s financial structure understand the reasons behind the lockout in 2011. The Collective Bargaining Agreement was renegotiated to allot a smaller share of revenue to players, and the soft salary cap was retained with harsher luxury tax penalties. This tax was intended to make it harder for major markets to hoard star players (or, conversely to make it easier for smaller market teams to compete).
Now let’s consider the major differences between a major city and market like Miami and a smaller one like Oklahoma City. In Miami you have championship pedigrees across all major sports, excluding hockey but the Panthers have still been to a Stanley Cup Finals series; in Oklahoma City you only have the Thunder, a team whose franchise history technically includes the 1979 NBA championship as the Seattle SuperSonics. In Miami you can live in a beautiful beach city; in OKC you’re stuck in the middle of the continental United States, not quite as scenic.
And so the upstart Thunder lost in five to the Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. How did both teams fare in that offseason, the first under the new CBA which was implemented to help smaller markets? OKC was forced to choose between Serge Ibaka and James Harden, eventually trading away the reigning Sixth Man of the Year for pennies on the dollar. The only remaining assets from that trade the Thunder have on the roster are Alex Abrines and Steven Adams: one marginal rotation player and an average center at the expense of losing a guy who has now finished second in MVP voting for the second time in three seasons. Darn.
What were the Heat able to do in that same offseason, limited by cap space but fresh off an NBA championship? They signed Rashard Lewis, four years removed from the All-Star Game, for the veteran’s minimum salary, and they picked up the greatest shooter of his generation in Ray Allen to serve as the Sixth Man at a discount. That luxury tax sure worked out as planned.
(It’s also worth noting that same offseason saw the New Orleans Hornets trade a franchise PG in Chris Paul to a major market in Los Angeles, twice actually if you count the nixed Lakers’ trade.)
That new CBA definitely did its job.
So let’s look at the next four years before Durant finally had enough of OKC. Westbrook’s injury in the 2013 playoffs derailed any chance of a title that season, but it allowed KD to win his first MVP a year later in 2014. Unfortunately the Thunder ran into the buzzsaw team-of-destiny San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, and they bowed out in six. In 2015, Durant goes down with injury and the Thunder miss the playoffs. In 2016, they upset the Spurs but blow a 3-1 lead against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors as the underdog.
Not once over these four years did the Thunder do anything to acquire pieces to help Durant win a title (unless you count Andre “Nightmare on FT Line” Roberson, Dion “I Love Midrange Fadeaways” Waiters, and Enes “Defense?” Kanter). In fact they jettisoned two other quality players in Reggie Jackson and Thabo Sefolosha in that time. And to make matters worse, the final straw was trading away rim protector Serge Ibaka for borderline starter Victor Oladipo. Seeing some similarities to LeBron’s issues with Cleveland?
“You’re crazy. Durant still had a top-5 player in Russell Westbrook to play with.”
Oh, you mean the hyperactive scoring-guard-in-a-point-guard’s-body who shot the Thunder out of the playoffs in the final games of 2012 (4-for-20), 2014 (8-for-23), and 2016 (7-for-21)? You mean the top-5 player who couldn’t carry the Thunder to 50 wins – even though Durant won 59 in his own MVP season – and bowed out in five in the first round this year? Yeah I’m sure Durant really misses that genius iso-ball now that he plays in a real system in Oakland.
*Just to clarify, I’m not trying to bash Russ here. I love his maniacal energy, but to say that Durant should have stayed for Westbrook is an oversimplification of their troubled dynamic. Having two alpha dogs just doesn’t work, which is why Kobe and Shaq split up.*
And let’s also talk about coaching. Scott Brooks, while he certainly had his share of troubles developing a real system for Westbrook and Durant to succeed, is two games from the Eastern Conference Finals with the Washington Wizards. His replacement, Billy Donovan – a glorified college coach whose only claim to fame is riding Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer to two titles – thinks the playoffs are the right time to focus on building Roberson’s “confidence.” Red Auerbach he is not.
Taking all this into account, you can see why LeBron’s and Durant’s decisions to leave their first teams were glaringly similar. Both franchises failed to add pieces to push them over the edge, and the CBA failed gloriously in making it easier for them to compete with big markets. But here you’ll find most detractors pointing to Durant joining the team that just beat him as a “cop-out.”
Now, we’ve established that the Thunder’s front office failed KD. With a 3-1 series lead over the Warriors, OKC’s task was simple enough: win one game either in Oracle Arena, where the Warriors were one of the most dominant home teams in NBA history; or, win a game at home. Simple enough. As expected, Golden State held serve in game five and forced the series back to Oklahoma, and if not for Klay Thompson going Super Saiyan, the Thunder would have reached the 2016 NBA Finals.
At this point the insanity inherent in ridiculing KD boils over. For his entire career he’s been labeled “ring-less,” as if winning championships is the only way to earn respect. But those who defend LeBron’s resume over Michael Jordan as the greatest ever perpetually insist that rings are not a deciding factor, that going 6/6 in the NBA Finals somehow isn’t as good as potentially going 4/8. It’s ludicrous how Durant’s detractors keep moving the goal posts just to justify their hatred.
*It’s also worth noting that most of his detractors are, in fact, LeBron stans, guys who will do anything to preserve James’ reign atop the NBA and want to poison other fans against the Warriors just to paint the Cavaliers as “heroes.”*
So at this point, Durant is damned either way. If he stays in OKC, a losing situation, he’ll forever be derided for being “ring-less.” If he leaves OKC he is derided for lacking “loyalty.” Here’s what I say to that:
Loyalty isn’t proclaiming that you won this title for your hometown despite ditching them just over four years ago because they couldn’t satisfy you. Loyalty is playing for your hometown for 20 years despite only reaching the playoffs three times, like Tony Gwynn. Loyalty is taking a pay-cut so your team can afford to sign other players, like Tom Brady. Loyalty is sticking with one franchise through thick and thin despite coming up short year after year and having faith you will eventually break through, like Dirk Nowitzki.
Moreover, why does Durant owe OKC loyalty in the first place? That franchise moved from Seattle the year after he was drafted – presumably after selling KD on the glory inherent in reviving the forgotten city. He’s the greatest thing that ever happened to them and they refused to make the necessary moves to win titles, and it’s not like Oklahoma City is his hometown either – he was born in Maryland!
So the loyalty argument is bullshit, and really the only remaining factor in favor of hating Durant is his decision to join the Warriors, the best team in the league. So exactly how is this worse or different than James joining the Heat? We acknowledge that LeBron did so to win a ring, and KD is trying to do the same exact thing. I’m sorry that he doesn’t have two other superstar friends to collude with to screw up the balance of power in an entire conference. I’m sorry that he is making the best of his options and wants to win the ring that fans so ardently deride him for lacking.
“He could have joined a team in the East, why is he scared of LeBron?”
This sentence perfectly encapsulates why the West is seen as better than the East. The West is a better conference overall, so why has James avoided it his entire career? Why is there a double standard concerning everything LBJ? And as for electing not to join his “hometown” Wizards, it likely has something to do with Brooks inability to previously capitalize on Durant’s skill and the fact that, as our nation’s capital, Washington DC has far more to its history than the city of Cleveland, where LeBron James is quite literally the only good thing that town has ever produced. The hometown argument doesn’t work here.
So it boils down to a bitterness that Durant chose Oakland, to play for a team that didn’t exploit the salary cap – you’ll note that the Cavs, a luxury tax payer, circumvented the system by acquiring Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, and Andrew Bogut (quality starters elsewhere) for next-to-nothing. Actually, I consider Mike Dunleavy’s rotting corpse to be nothing. The Warriors lucked out on their draft picks, and I’d hardly consider it lucky that Stephen Curry’s bargain contract is only because of constant injuries early in his career. The Warriors built a contender the right way, there’s no denying that.
*Just another sidenote, you can bet your ass that Shaq or Mutombo would have considered joining the greatest team ever in the ’96 Bulls if Chicago had the same leverage and cap space that the Warriors had this past off-season. Breaking news: great players enjoy playing with other great players. And if you feel the need to reference Durant’s tweet against super-teams in 2010, kindly remind yourself that the internet’s permanency means your embarrassing Myspace profile pictures from yesteryear can someday be held against you as well.*
It’s not as if Durant joining Golden State is along the same lines of A-Rod becoming a Yankee or Randy Moss coming to New England. The Yankees and Patriots are miles more successful than the Warriors, who only became relevant again recently after decades of misery. Cleveland fans want you to think of the Warriors as the Evil Empire (even though that’s the Lakers, thank you very much). They want you to despise Draymond Green, who despite his infatuation with kicking nuts has actually toned it down this year and is probably the best underdog story and hardest worker around the league. God forbid he talk smack when your lord and savior LeBron is over here actively disrespecting opponents and the game of basketball.
And for once let’s consider it from Durant’s perspective. This guy has been labeled and mocked as “2nd Best” practically his entire life. At what point does it stop? I mean seriously, what is the NBA community if not a bunch of petty sorority girls making fun of non-members, throwing barbs at each other to feed their egos. Latching onto the idea of cheering for LeBron and booing Durant is akin to ganging up with the popular bully and picking on the skinny nerds in gym class. You feel more powerful when protected by the crowd.
To return to my point about the masses, I truly believe that this outrage against Durant is due to a relentless desire for modern people to follow what’s popular and feel accepted by blindly hating someone who has done nothing immoral or illegal. Constantly labeling him a “bitch” or “cupcake” is further proof that humans are wicked people who will seize any opportunity to insult another person if there won’t be any consequences – no one online has the guts or courage to say that shit to KD one-on-one. They hide behind their computer screens just like the general populace in “Nerve,” cowards and followers ready to disperse once their masquerade ball ends.
So at this point any determination to continue hating Durant is either due to a long-standing grudge that started long before he joined Golden State or an ignorant preference to follow along and hate when it’s popular to do so. You’re free to make up your mind, but if you’re going to follow the crowd at least put yourself in KD’s large, Disney-looking, yellow shoes and truly consider what you would have done in his situation.
And be honest. You probably aren’t nearly as virtuous, “give me the hard road,” and saintly as you imagine yourself. So don’t be a hypocrite.