Kevin Durant’s Tarnished Legacy

I like Kevin Durant. He seems, by all appearances, to be a really good guy. And if he really wants to play with the Golden State Warriors he should go do it. It’s his life. But as one who loves the historical legacies of sports, there’s no getting around the fact that by choosing the “if you can’t beat them, join them” path, Durant has placed a stain on his legacy that will be difficult to remove.

Last night I was watching Jason Whitlock and Colin Cowherd discuss the move on Fox Sports 1, and Whitlock recalled Michael Jordan’s early career roadblock of the Detroit Pistons, who took out the Bulls in the conference finals of 1989 and 1990. Whitlock pointed out that this was the equivalent of Jordan saying in effect that beating the Pistons was too hard and he wanted to join them.

I’m going to guess a lot of millennial fans get tired of the romanticizing of Jordan, or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson before them—two players who would never have even thought of joining forces. As one who came of age in the 1980s, I understand their feelings—the NBA wasn’t better then that it is today. Rival players being friends is not a bad thing. But regardless of your generation, it should be a given that cherry-picking championships by hooking up with other stars is different than planting roots somewhere and building something.

No one expects a star to win titles without help. The Bulls drafted Scottie Pippen to help Michael Jordan. The Celtics pulled one of the great draft-day steals of all-time when they dealt the rights to Joe Barry Carroll in exchange for Robert Parish and a pick that was turned into Kevin McHale. The Lakers had already pulled off a steal for the pick they used to take Magic Johnson and integrate him into a lineup that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They later pulled off another heist to get the draft choice that turned into James Worthy.

But in the case of Bird and Magic, as rich as their supporting casts were, they didn’t deliberately seek them out. In the case of Jordan, he went to a bad team and waited for them to build around him. It’s one of many reasons that so many of us believe Jordan’s greatness is a bar almost impossible to reach.

There were cases of stars trying to just graft onto a championship team—notably Karl Malone leaving Utah for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004. Charles Barkley also joined up with Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston. Neither move was particularly edifying, but both Malone and Barkley were past their prime.

LeBron James changed the game in the summer of 2010 when he joined forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Here was the league’s best player essentially admitting he needed someone (Wade) who had already been the leader of a championship team in his own right.

Durant’s decision is an even further escalation of LeBron’s Decision. When LeBron left, it wasn’t as though the Cavs and Heat had just finished a great seven-game battle in a conference finals. Miami was not the clear team to beat in the East the way Golden State is today.

This move is uncharted territory for the NBA. Unlike Malone or Barkley, Durant is in his prime. Unlike LeBron, Durant is jumping ship directly to his team’s chief stumbling block.

One of the criticisms of Kevin Durant has been that he’s not an “alpha-dog” personality, singularly suited to be the leader of a team that’s built from the ground up to win a championship. As a Celtics fan who badly wanted Durant to come to Boston, it was a criticism I tended to agree with, but was more than willing to overlook—there’s only a handful of players in the world with this kind of impact and you can’t be picky about everything. The decision by Durant to go to Golden State convinces me that criticism is accurate.

To reiterate from the top—none of that means Kevin Durant isn’t a good person. None of it means he should get venom from fans outside of Oklahoma City. It doesn’t mean we should try and live his life for him and make our priorities his own. What it does mean is that is the quality of any rings he wins in Golden State are tarnished in comparison to those won by other great players, especially the one LeBron just won in Cleveland.