The Phoenix Suns forward has two championship rings and all the stats to backup claims on basketball Mt. Rushmore. His exclusion from the conversation highlights the complexities of greatness in the lore of basketball
Kevin Durant is one of the most impressive NBA players that we have ever seen. He is 7 feet tall, handles the ball like a point guard, shoots 38% from three, and can score from anywhere on the court. He is the archetype of the modern player, and 16 years in is still one of the best offensive players in the NBA. When it is all said and done, he will likely finish in the top 10 in points scored all-time (he currently sits at 12th). And yet despite all that he has achieved he is left out of conversations about the games greatest player, something that he recently wondered about aloud.
Durant and most basketball fans know why he is not as revered as his contemporaries, however. When Durant joined the Golden State Warriors after nine seasons in Oklahoma City, many viewed it as stacking the deck. The decision to join a team that eliminated his team and had the best regular season record of all-time was interpreted as gutless and anti-competitive. The result has been the devaluing of the two championships that Durant won in Golden State, which is particularly damaging in a sport that worships titles when evaluating players. The argument that Kevin Durant is posing is one that showcases that even though rings are all that matter to many basketball fans, the context of said ring might be even more important.
The Durant Dilemma
When Kevin Durant, a league MVP and top three player in basketball at the time, decided to sign with the Warriors in the summer of 2016 I had the same response that most basketball fans did. The NBA was coming off of two consecutive years of the Warriors playing against LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Finals. Adding such an elite player to an already dominant team felt like the death of competition in the NBA. Durant was raked over the coals for his decision, with many questioning his leadership, calling him soft, and as Stephen A. Smith put it, “the weakest move I’ve ever seen from a superstar”.
Kevin Durant has had the unenviable destiny of entering the league when LeBron James was in the midst of his prime. A prime that has lasted longer than any other in NBA history. LeBron James came into the league and by his second year was considered one of the best players in the NBA. It is a distinction that 20 years later still rings true. Durant has always had to fight for the spotlight of great talent against a player that many consider is the greatest that we have ever seen. His move to Golden State was a direct response to this, because LeBron won two titles in Miami and then went back to Cleveland and won another in 2016. As a basketball culture that respects championships more than any other accolade, Durant knew that he needed to win.
What he did not consider in this calculation, was that many people do not respect an elite player jumping on to an already successful team. Fans expect superstars to carry their teams over the proverbial hump and overcome the team in front of them, making the pay off more special. The expectation was for Durant to either stay in Oklahoma City or join a team where he could beat the Warriors as the focal point. Instead, Durant opted for the “if you can’t beat them, join them” method. And despite winning two titles where he was named the Finals MVP, people refused to embrace the greatness of Durant. It was of course still Stephen Curry’s team and not his.
This perception, it can be argued, is the reason that the second half of Durant’s career has been so disappointing. He left Golden State, which all things considered, was a great basketball fit for him as a player. The lineups that the Warriors were able to construct with the combination of Durant, Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson were the basketball equivalent to poetry. But he wanted to be the face of a team. This is why he signed with Brooklyn in the summer of 2019 alongside Kyrie Irving and eventually James Harden. That team was derailed by Irving’s stance on vaccines during the COVID-19 restrictions and by injuries to both Harden and Durant.
That team was set up for success but came up short in the playoffs due to the trio of Harden, Durant, and Irving never being able to play together. Durant then wanted to start over and put the Brooklyn experience behind him and was traded to Phoenix where he now plays alongside Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. They are two excellent players but he is generally looked at as the team's best player. But yet again, the Suns feel a step behind other elite teams in the Western Conference with Durant continuing to seek the validation of winning a ring under the right circumstances. He is a prime example of talent not being good enough in the world of basketball that relies so heavily on mythology.
The Mythology of Greatness
One of the reasons that we love sports as much as we do is because of the storytelling arc that they provide us. It isn’t just that someone wins a game, it is the adversity that they overcame to get to that moment that makes it so special for us as viewers and lovers of a game. The reason that Michael Jordan is treated with such reverence is because he overcame the Detroit Pistons of the 1980s and dominated the league. When he came back from retirement, he lost to the Orlando Magic, and then came back the next season and swept them out of the playoffs. That tells a story of climbing the mountain that we can all appreciate.
This expectation of the path and journey only increases when you are a star player. When P.J Tucker signs with various contenders in the twilight of his career nothing is thought of it, because ultimately P.J. Tucker is not, nor was he ever, the face of a franchise. But star players are treated differently in the way they are officiated, marketed, and looked at. When we look at Bill Russell we see a player that was the anchor for a defense and the emotional leader that led his team to 11 championships. We look at Kobe Bryant and we see the most determined winner of all-time who won with a dominant Shaquille O’Neal then overcame the odds and won again with Pau Gasol.
Winning a title as the main unquestioned piece of the puzzle can reshape the way we view a career. A great example of this is Dallas Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk today is viewed as a European big man that changed the way that we looked at both European players and big men. He was a shooting big in an era largely devoid of that player archetype. This viewpoint is enhanced thanks to an impressive 2011 playoff run that saw him win his first championship. Many people view Dirk’s 2011 championship as more valuable and meaningful than both of Kevin Durant’s Golden State titles because he reached the top of the mountain without much assistance, and without any doubt over the team's best player.
It can be suggested that this is the burden of the star player. That they are judged with a different lens than most others because of their ability to elevate others in a way that is unique and rare. We expect mythological greatness from them because we have seen others in their position reach those heights. This dynamic is all a byproduct of ring culture in basketball, where championships define who you are as a player. The case of Kevin Durant in particular challenges the way we look at great players and should lead us to question the weight that we give to championship rings.
The way that we define greatness at the highest level of basketball has always been something that is a moving target. If it was based on total championships we would think Bill Russell was the greatest player ever. If it was based on longevity and stat accumulation, we would consider Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or LeBron James as the greatest to ever do it. If we measured it solely on dominance during prime years, then it would be Michael Jordan. There is no true formula for what equals greatness, and as such there is no accepted way to quantify a player like Kevin Durant that is an artist of offensive basketball.
Much like Pete Maravich in the 1970s, Durant is a basketball savant. A player that can score in a myriad of ways and do so with such efficiency that it looks effortless. When his career is over, Durant may go down as the most versatile scorer of all-time. But why is it that a classification like that keeps him behind other players in debates of the greatest to ever play the game? It ultimately comes back to the story of the player, and how they won their championships. Winning matters to be considered in the pantheon of greats in NBA history. It is why Russell was favored over Chamberlain, and why the way we view players like Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing are diminished thanks to Michael Jordan.
If we boil down the debate of greatest players ever you will likely hear five names more than others: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Kobe Bryant. Each one of these players has a story that makes their greatness magnified. Jordan overcame beat downs by Boston and Detroit to become the most dominant player of a generation. James left Cleveland, learned how to win in Miami, and then delivered the Cavaliers their only title against the best regular season team in NBA history. Kareem was the ultimate winner in college and the pros, and elevated the legend of two of the best point guards the game has ever seen: Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. Russell overcame racial tensions in the 1950s to become the player with the most titles, establishing the Boston Celtics as an elite franchise. Bryant won early as a sidekick to Shaquille O’Neal only to reformulate his legacy as a winner with the best work ethic we have ever seen. These are stories befitting of basketball gods that we want to tell.
The stories that we don’t want to tell is how a player like Kevin Durant won his titles by joining the team that beat him and featured the greatest shooting tandem of all-time (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson). Ultimately we have an obsession with winning but more specifically with winning despite adversity. We are enthralled as a society about stories of sacrifice and resign from the ashes. Even the superhero movies that have dominated pop culture often feature a protagonist that has had to overcome the odds in some fashion.
Is this fair to a player like Kevin Durant or James Harden? Probably not, but what it does is speak to our need for a great story in the world of sports. Kevin Durant did the basketball equivalent of a Fortune 500 strategic merger in a universe that craves the fairytale. His story and the titles he won will be remembered as a good moment, but never as a great moment which holds him back from these sorts of conversations. It is why Kevin is now in Phoenix, trying to find that elusive fairytale ending that so many before him have failed to capture. I hope he finds it, because a talent like Durant’s is one that we should be celebrating.