If the Golden State Warriors win the NBA title without serious help from Kevin Durant, it could be the most hollow championship in the NBA archives. He would get a ring, but it would almost be cosmetic, the cherry on top of a sundae he didn’t make.
Perhaps it’s unusual, if unprecedented, to say this about a pro athlete. But this could be the first time in the history of American team sports that winning a world championship could harm his legacy.
It would certainly be odd for someone so highly regarded, heralded, celebrated and salaried.
You could say the Warriors wouldn’t be in this position if not for Durant. Except they won 73 regular-season games without him last year. You could say they wouldn’t be dominating their first-round series without him. Except they did it last year. And they’re doing it this year, so far, sans his help.
Sure, the loser of the holy hardwood trinity — Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook — is clearly Westbrook. Not only is his team easily the worst of the three, he’s about to get spanked in five or six games by Harden’s Rockets.
But at least Westbrook and Harden are the main reason their teams are in the playoffs. Does anyone think the Warriors would have won 52 games without Durant? Does anyone see Durant’s arrival as anything other than superfluous or overkill?
The NBA Playoffs have only begun, but the Warriors have coasted to a 3-0 lead over the Portland Trail Blazers, two of the wins coming with Durant on the bench. Golden State also swept Portland 4-0 during the regular season, winning by an average of 26.5 points at home and 12.5 at Portland. So in this case, Durant’s presence is almost cosmetic.
As of March 29, Golden State was 11-4 sans Durant. They were 15-5 overall while Durant sat with a bum knee. They’re 2-0 without him so far in the postseason. Frankly, the media and masses know the Warriors can coast to the conference finals with Durant swapping his sweats for suits. In fact, you could argue the club misses head coach Steve Kerr as much (if not more) than Durant. Sadly, Kerr has been felled by some malady that seems to prevent him from walking, much less coaching.
None of this is meant to demean, disparage or disrespect Kevin Durant. Whether he plays for the Thunder, Warriors or Globetrotters, he’s one of the three best players on Earth.
But there’s something to be said about chemistry. We scoff at all the bromides belched about unity and teamwork and selflessness. But it matters. And it really matters in basketball, where synchronicity is essential. With five players, five moving parts, one player’s misstep means exponentially more on the court than on the field. If the third baseman is poorly placed, it won’t matter unless the ball is hit to him. If the wideout misses his block it doesn’t matter if the ball is run to the other side.
So what does it say if the Warriors win without Durant? What if Steph Curry lifts the Larry O’Brien Trophy while Durant gently claps in an Armani suit? No one wants Durant to miss another minute of game time. But he’s been atypically brittle in 2017. And the Warriors hardly noticed.
It’s not like KD mailed it in, rode Curry’s coattails or handled himself with the slightest sense of entitlement. Durant, by all accounts, is a great guy. If you saw his sobbing acceptance speech the night he won NBA MVP, you see there’s not an inauthentic tendon inside his sprawling frame.
And Durant’s numbers reflect his All-Star arsenal. He averaged fewer points (25.1) than he had in eight years. But his .537 shooting percentage was the best of his career, as was his average inside the three-point line — a dazzling 60.8 percent. He also averaged the most rebounds (8.3) and steals (1.6) of his career and the third-most assists (4.9). Durant also averaged the fewest turnovers of his NBA career (2.2).
But is he worth the $26.5 million salary? Surely. But to the Warriors? Did they need to spend $54 million for two years knowing they were a lock for 60 wins and a trip to the NBA Finals?
Maybe it’s not what the Warriors gained as much as what the Thunder lost. You’ll recall that Oklahoma City was up 3-1 in last year’s Western Conference Finals. If not for an epic collapse, the Thunder would have at least played for the NBA title. Now, Russell Westbrook is left with the carnage, stuffing the stat sheet, losing playoff games and barking at reporters. The Warriors played this, like everything else, beautifully.
On some level, we all understand why Durant left, but his choice was curious. How could he have added to his legacy in Oakland? If the Warriors lose, it’s a referendum on Durant’s inability to play big under bright lights. It would italicize his killer instinct, or lack thereof. If the Warriors win, they did so by dint of their singular focus. Revenge. Payback. Erase that fourth-quarter LeBron block with another highlight on eternal loop.
We know why the Warriors signed Kevin Durant. Addition. Subtraction. And an assured trip to the NBA Finals. But the chip on Durant’s shoulder was removed the moment he signed with Golden State. Perhaps he can borrow one from Draymond Green.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.