Kevin Durant’s ‘decision’ makes it even clearer: He’s in the same league, but not shooting at the same baskets
It must be extremely isolating to be the very best in the world at something. And Kevin Durant, as one of the best basketball players in the world, has to feel that isolation.
There are only a handful of people on the planet who can identify with greatness on an elite level in a given field. And right now, there are exactly five people in the entire NBA galaxy who have been deemed the league’s most valuable player — Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. (Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett have also been named league MVP. They both played last season but could retire before next season.) Each of these men share something in common beyond their superhuman abilities to put basketballs in baskets: They were each meme’d and Michael Jordan-crying-face’d to death upon winning their individual awards and failing in a given year to take home an NBA title.
Twitter society has created an environment in which every misstep is instantly scrutinized and hashed out on shows such as ESPN2’s First Take and ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption. Every failure is accompanied by the meme du jour. Professional and collegiate players face pressure and ridicule like no other time in sports history, and there’s only a tiny community of human beings who understand the toll the scrutiny takes on the psyche when the pressure is at its highest.
When these players face the ridicule, they usually face it alone. As much as Russell Westbrook faced criticism for his role in the Oklahoma City Thunder blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors, he’s never been weighed down by expectations to lead a team to a title in the same way Durant has. Durant has had to face questions about not winning a title by himself because he’s entered a stratosphere of greatness and expectation that comes with a level of scrutiny not even Westbrook has had to experience.
Durant has been the heir apparent to James for a half-decade and that comes with the burden of an excellence that’s wholly unique. They’re the same expectations and questions LeBron James faced alone after he was unable to cross the barrier in Cleveland and even when an undermanned Cavs team couldn’t beat a legendary Warriors team in the 2015 NBA Finals. Curry had to deal with the albatross of the word “unanimous” after his heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals. Nobody is questioning Warriors center Festus Ezeli’s legacy. Nobody questioned Thunder center Steven Adams’ legacy. The elite athletes have to face these questions.
Sidenote, or perhaps, main note: During the great free-agency explosion of 2010 that eventually saw James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh join forces in Miami and have their competitive drives questioned, Rose was praised for his refusal to join the campaign to get a big star to join him and the Chicago Bulls. Rose sent a few texts to James and Wade but admitted to never pushing too hard for them to join him and make a superteam. “I want to be that guy,” Rose told ESPN Chicago in 2011. “I want to be the reason why the Bulls are back to what they were.”
Rose became the symbol of the old NBA. The guy who refused to dance before the All-Star game and wanted to win like guys won in the ’80s and ’90s. He wasn’t for camaraderie with people who played on different teams. He just wanted to win. We loved Rose and felt like it was a win for the league when he won MVP in 2011.
A year later, Rose ripped his knee to shreds in the first round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers. The same people who loved Rose were quick to make Lion King memes and create a running joke about Rose’s inability to stay healthy as he tried to fight back to health. Sure, Rose was respected for a year. Now, he’s ringless and playing for a New York Knicks team with little chance of winning a title this year. The short-lived admiration doesn’t matter anymore. Rose always wanted a ring and nobody knows where it’s going to come from.
It’s not manly and macho to say, but it’s the truth: Sometimes being alone sucks. We need to share our experiences with others who are like us and feel things as we do. When James left Cleveland to join Wade and Bosh, he left to be with those with whom he could share the pressure. To be with All-Stars who know about expectations and the need to exceed them. The Miami prechampionship, “Not one, not two … ” welcome party became a target placed on all three of their heads. James was able to sit at postgame press conferences and share the barrage of penetrating questions about why he passed the ball in the game’s waning seconds instead of taking the shot with Wade at his side. It’s easy to underestimate the benefit of being near someone who shares our experiences, and James spent four formative years of his career with people who shared his expectations, failures and joys. And Durant looked for and is looking for the same thing: brotherhood.
The recent, suspenseful process of Durant’s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors demonstrated just how little we understand about what motivates people who sit at the 0.0000001 percent of any given field. For most of the past year, pundits have expected Durant to re-sign with Oklahoma City for a year — to take the most money and move on to another team next year. But the thing the rest of the world doesn’t understand is how long a year of waiting is for someone who expects greatness. Another year of holding in Oklahoma City would mean another year of maybe not having the best team around him and maybe not having a long-term star by his side and maybe another year of getting bounced from the playoffs.
Of facing the questions about not winning again. More crying faces. More slander. For Durant, that extra money isn’t worth it. He wants his best chance of winning. And he’s taking this opportunity to win with another MVP and champions who share that same pressure and have the same urgency to win immediately. Though they won a title in 2015, the Warriors are in a unique position. They’re facing many critics who believe that their title was invalidated by the fact they beat an injured Cavs team they couldn’t beat at full strength a year later. They’re facing a 73-win season that ended without rings. And they’re facing the belief that they’re frontrunners who can’t recover from a humbling Game 7 loss at home. In many ways, Curry and the Warriors are as desperate for wins and validation as Durant.
Durant must have felt alone in the last few years as he watched Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti trade away James Harden to the Houston Rockets in a cost-cutting measure that seemingly delayed his chance at winning a title by years. The Harden trade showed a lack of urgency and a willingness to risk years getting back to a championship level. For general managers and owners who control teams for decades, these years are less precious than Durant’s, who has less than a decade to collect rings and cement his legacy as one of the greats of his generation. Curry understands that need to win — and incidentally just how fragile dynasties can become when an injury is just around the corner. Warrior Draymond Green understands that need to win. They can relate to Durant on the same level of needing to cement their greatness with more rings. And most importantly, they can give Durant the validation that he’s been looking for in the form of his first championship.
Durant made the decision to go to Golden State in a move that will ultimately serve him most of all. And why would he do anything else? Some will call Durant weak for his decision. Some will call him a quitter for leaving Oklahoma City. But if his time in Golden State goes like he expects, all of those people will have to call him a champion.
Ask Rose what he would prefer.