Despite being owner of the last two Finals MVPs in the league, Kevin Durant still remains as the most polarizing member of the Golden State Warriors.
From the outside looking into the fandom of the Dubs, this can be quite confusing. Outside of the burner accounts, the oftentimes angsty encounters with media, and his looming free agency, Durant has been nothing but amazing for Golden State. He’s turned a championship-level team into a historical anomaly. Our primary measure of success nowadays are rings. Given that framework, Durant’s provided two of them. There shouldn’t be any other feelings about him, right?
Except, there are. And, more often than not, it’s an issue that’s boiled down to one question: Who is the best player in the Golden State Warriors?
Since this new era in Oakland, Stephen Curry has been the golden boy for Warriors fans. He’s been there ever since 2009 when the Warriors were still languishing in the Western Conference, up until now where Golden State is treated as the Thanos of the NBA. Curry is viewed as the completed Infinity Gauntlet that unlocks otherworldly dominance for Golden State.
It’s well-established that the Warriors system is centered around the game of Curry. All the low post splits, elevator action, and defense bending pick and roll action is built off of the gravity of Curry. The attention he demands creates a domino effect, as it frees the rest of the team up. Add two MVPs and a title without Durant, and you have a case for Curry that’s close to unbeatable. Most valuable must be equal to best, right? What can Durant, throw, Finals MVPs? Scoring titles?
The case for Durant dates back to June 19, 2016. With three minutes left in regulation, the score read 89 apiece for the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, with a historic championship hanging in the balance. If the Warriors won, a title beside their 73-9 regular season record would have cemented their place as arguably the greatest team of all time. If the Cavaliers emerged as the winners, it would be their first championship in over half a century. History was about to be made, for better or for worse.
Over the course of that three minute span, both teams struggled to score a basket. It wasn’t a matter of the two teams simply missing easy looks. It was a testament to the elite defense being played by the two squads. This was a game that would be decided by a basket. Any basket. All they needed was just one.
Once the buzzer sounded, the score read 93-89. Cleveland was a city of champions. They got the basket off a Kyrie Irving isolation three-pointer. Golden State, on the other hand, was a city about to be ridiculed for years. They blew a 3-1 lead. They couldn’t get a basket, not even one.
In a matter of hours, Draymond Green went to the parking lot and called up Durant. The gist of what he told KD: “We need you here.” Not a want. Not just a luxury, but a need.
This is the often forgotten fact when talking about Durant as a basketball player. For three years now, the staunchest of critics have built him up as simply being a rich man’s Harrison Barnes who has it easy because he joined a 73-9 team.
To be fair, he did join a 73-9 team. But it was a 73-9 team that blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals. That same seemingly unstoppable group failed horribly. When they were sent home by the King. Even with 73 wins, they didn’t have the tools to fight back at that moment. Not even their golden boy, injuries be damned, could score over Kevin Love of all people.
While Curry’s value is in raising a team’s ceiling, Durant’s is fueled by raising a team’s floor. An often forgotten fact during the Warriors’ 73-9 run was how bad they were whenever nothing was going right for them. Curry, as elite as he is, can have a tendency to be very streaky. The same can be said of Klay Thompson.
During the Western Conference Finals, they needed a supernova Klay to help them survive the flawed Oklahoma City Thunder. Streakiness can only do so much. That’s exactly what we saw during Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, as the Warriors could not even muster up a single bucket.
Which brings us then to Durant, who over the course of these three years has quietly established himself as the ultimate inevitable this league has to offer. It’s also because of this consistency that he’s become one of the most under appreciated players this league has to offer.
He’s one of the only three players in league history to average 20 or more points and all of his playing years so far. He’s averaged more than 25 points in all of the years he’s made it to the postseason. It’s consistent. It is boring to an extent. But it is a necessity, especially when you make it to the deep waters of playoff basketball.
Teams aren’t always going to play at their best when they make it to the postseason. It isn’t surprising then that most players, even the most elite superstars, have their True Shooting percentages drop come playoff time. It’s a testament not only to the pressure of the postseason, but also the stouter defenses they face on an almost daily basis.
Each close out is harder. With every switch is a sneaky nudge that drains a couple of life points in your system. Getting to keep that Infinity Gauntlet in your hand is tougher than ever, because teams are trying their damned hardest to keep it off your hands. You can’t always rely on cutesy, complicated play. Sometimes, you need to keep things simple. That’s exactly what Durant brings to the table.
That’s been most evident in this year’s Playoffs. Durant has effectively taken the crown as the best this league has to offer. Not just in the 2019 Playoffs. Not just in Golden State. The entire league.
The way he’s done it has been nothing short of masterful. According to Justin Kubatko of statmuse, Durant is the first place to score at least 350 points through the first 10 games of a postseason since Michael Jordan did so in 1992. Others have tried to frame this as Durant playing like a ballhog. That’s far from true. He’s had to this out of necessity, as Curry and Thompson have had less than stellar postseasons themselves.
Has it paid off? Considering the Warriors are 2-2 versus the tough Rockets in a tense Western Conference Semifinal? It has. KD has been keeping them afloat. While Curry is the Infinity Gauntlet, Durant is Thanos. The one that keeps the Warriors inevitable despite lacking that electric vibe. That matters. Survival. Durant’s consistency has value.
Durant continues to be as efficient as ever, playing at a high usage and putting up huge point totals. Pair that with some of the best help defense in the league and sneaky elite playmaking, and you have a player that is an easy candidate as the best player in the league.
This Rockets series won’t be the last time Curry and Thompson will be less than stellar. To expect them to suddenly ramp it up and string together good shooting nights is irrepsonsible at this point. Teams already expect that. They’ve built their defensive schemes to prevent that from happening. While the Warriors hope and pray that the Splash Brothers somehow get into a groove, Durant will be there, efficiently piling up points because quite frankly, he’s the best at doing so for quite a while now.
When the clock is ticking and the Warriors need a basket, who do they go to? It doesn’t matter that he’s 2/13 in go ahead shots in the playoffs with 10 seconds or less. They will throw stats like that away when the clock is ticking down. Teams throw out set plays once it collapses. The ball will end up in the hands of the best player on the team.
“I’m Kevin Durant. Ya’ll know who I am.”
We do. Best in Golden State. Best in the league. Inevitable. You go to Kevin Durant. All for the sake of a Playoff win. Whatever it takes.
Photos from Getty Images