20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

What Makes Kevin Durant Run?

The September 2019 issue of The Wall Street Journal Magazine includes a J.R. Moehringer profile of Kevin Durant titled "Net Gains." The piece is well-written, but ultimately puzzling, leaving the reader wondering, "What does Kevin Durant really want?" and "What could make Kevin Durant happy?" As Bill Walton might say, "If you can't be happy winning championships and Finals MVPs for the Golden State Warriors, that's just sad."

Pro basketball writing--and writing in general--too often focuses on a preconceived narrative, as opposed to striving to make an in depth examination of the subject matter at hand. Moehringer's Durant narrative is that questions about Durant's happiness are misplaced because Durant is on an introspective search and that Durant's introspective search has been misinterpreted to mean that he is not happy. "I've always been on a search," Durant tells Moehringer, and Moehringer accepts that premise at face value. The subtitle of the article implores, in part, "Now he's focused on his recovery and elated to be coming to Brooklyn, so can everyone stop wondering whether or not he's happy?"

Life does not work like that. It is logical to assume that Kevin Durant would be happy after achieving such fantastic individual and team success as a Golden State Warrior; it is also logical to wonder why he seemed so unhappy during his final season with the Warriors, and why he left one of the sport's greatest dynasties ever to join a Nets franchise that has not won a title since its ABA glory days.

Moehringer's piece opens with this Durant quote: "Some days I hate the NBA." Durant explains, "Some days I hate the circus of the NBA. Some days I hate that the players let the NBA business, the fame that comes with the business, alter their minds about the game. Sometimes I don't like being around the executives and politics that come with it. I hate that."

It is important to remember that Durant, like most NBA superstars--and even NBA players who are not household names--lives in a different world than most of the rest of us. Moehringer casually notes that--prior to moving to Brooklyn--Durant paid $90,000 per month to live in a Beverly Hills mansion. Durant's monthly rent is more than the average annual income of 2/3 of U.S. households! His day to day thoughts, concerns and motivations are different from the vast majority of people who have to focus on having enough money to meet their basic needs. If Durant never plays another game of basketball he can live the rest of his life in the lap of luxury.

In that sense, one could argue that happiness is relative: for most people, happiness in no small part correlates with being able to survive on a day to day basis with enough money and time left over after they have taken care of their work responsibilities to do the things that they enjoy. Durant and most other NBA players have so much money that they are insulated from day to day concerns. They have minions to take care of those things for them, so their happiness is measured or conceptualized differently.

Go back to the first Durant quote. Durant hates the "fame" and the "executives and politics" that are part of being an NBA superstar. Many people would be willing to trade making $9000 per year--or even $90,000 per year--for being able to easily afford $90,000 per month in rent while having to deal with "fame" and "executives and politics."

One could counter by arguing that having a lot of money does not necessarily correlate with happiness, because personal relationships are more important--but Durant has never suggested that his personal, private life is unhappy; his complaints are primarily related to "the circus of the NBA." Many would call that the price of doing business--the price of being paid more than $40 million per year to play basketball--and many would be more than willing to pay that price without complaint (and, in fact, many NBA players express their gratitude for being able to earn so much money for playing a game that they love, a game that they had played for free for many years before joining the NBA).

In 2016, Durant teamed with Russell Westbrook to carry their Oklahoma City Thunder to a 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder looked like a very real threat to not only dethrone the reigning NBA champion--a team that had also just won a record 73 regular season games--but also to capture the NBA title. Instead, the Warriors came back to win the series in seven games. It appeared that the Warriors and Thunder had just started a rivalry that could have lasted for several years--but then Durant left the Thunder to join forces with the Warriors.

Many assumed that Durant felt that he could never win a title with the Thunder, and that Durant felt that the Warriors' free-flowing offensive system was better suited to his skills and to championship level play than the system that the Thunder used.

It is not surprising that Durant's teammates and fans were devastated and hurt by his decision. The entire community had embraced Durant and felt betrayed when he left, but Durant is baffled at the backlash he experienced. Think about it this way: If your wife left you to marry your archrival and then helped your archrival to have greater success than the two of you ever experienced while you were together, how would you feel?

Fast forward to the 2018-19 season. Durant had just led Golden State to back to back titles while winning back to back Finals MVPs but by the beginning of his third season with the team his wandering eye was already looking elsewhere. Durant tells Moehringer, "I came in there wanting to be part of a group, wanting to be part of a family, and definitely felt accepted. But I'll never be one of those guys. I didn't get drafted there...Steph Curry, obviously drafted there. Andre Iguodala, won the first Finals, first championship. Klay Thompson, drafted there. Draymond Green, drafted there. And the rest of the guys kind of rehabilitated their careers there....how are you going to rehabilitate me? What are you going to teach me? How can you alter anything in my basketball life? I got an MVP already. I got scoring titles."

Durant claims that he never felt welcomed or accepted in Golden State and that is the reason he left Golden State. Durant denies that his early season in-game argument with Draymond Green played any role in his decision to leave. Durant also mocks the Golden State offense that, at one time, was considered to be a major factor in his decision to leave Oklahoma City: "The motion offense we run in Golden State, it only works to a certain point. We can totally rely on only our system for maybe the first two rounds. Then the next two rounds we're going to have to mix in individual play. We've got to throw teams off, because they're smarter in that round of playoffs. So now I had to dive into my bag, deep, to create stuff on my own, off the dribble, isos, pick-and-rolls, more so than let the offense create my points for me."

In other words, Durant feels the need to play the way that he had played when he was with the Thunder! Is Durant implicitly acknowledging that he was wrong to leave in the first place, or is he just someone who always thinks that the grass is greener on the other side?

There is a clear pattern here. Durant never feels happy or satisfied, no matter how much those around him cater to his needs and his expressed wants. The Thunder built their team around Durant, but he left; the Warriors embraced Durant from day one, built their team around him, but he left despite having the most successful all-around seasons of his career. Durant's comment that Golden State could not "alter anything in my basketball life" is odd, unless he values his individual honors and achievements over team success: he did not obtain ultimate team success until he joined a team that had already won a title just two years before he arrived.

Moehringer's narrative is that Durant is neither happy nor unhappy but rather "pleasantly idling in neutral" during his quest for self-awareness. That may sound deep on first read, but what does it really mean? Durant was unhesitatingly embraced by Oklahoma City and he claims that no one could teach him anything about basketball after he won his MVP and scoring titles, so why leave? Then, Durant reached an even higher level individually and collectively in Golden State, only to leave after just three seasons. To be on a quest implies that there is a defined goal. What is Durant's goal? It is clearly not to play in one city for his whole career, or to win MVP, or to win scoring titles, or to win championships. None of those things satisfied him.

Durant may win multiple titles in Brooklyn, or he may not win any titles. He may reestablish himself as an elite player after missing a full season due to a significant injury, or he may never return to his old form. Based on past experience, though, one thing seems certain: he will not be happy--and that is sad.

Labels: , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 PM



At Wednesday, October 09, 2019 11:17:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

well, some people are looking for something, but they don't realize what it is... so they try different things, different settings, and it seems nothing satisfies them... they always seem on a quest for the unknown.... maybe KD is simply one of them?

Being sick and tired of NBA circus (politics, agents, and plenty of ppl who want to get a slice of your money) is certainly understandable, even when one realizes that he lives off it.

At Thursday, October 10, 2019 12:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that I understand what you are saying, but my point is that it is disingenuous of Durant and the author to argue so strenuously that there is something wrong with suggesting that Durant is not happy. The evidence suggests that he is not happy, or he would not continue to change teams and to complain about a life situation that many other people would be grateful to have.

Durant has many reasons to be happy about how his life has turned out, and hopefully as he gets older he will be able to see his life from that perspective.

At Thursday, October 10, 2019 11:23:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

Yes, I agree that analyzing it is not bad or wrong, although in todays world I think there's some kind of duty to be happy, especially when you are famous and rich... so suggesting otherwise is kind of blasphemy. And those famous and rich people have to smile whether they like it or not, because for common people they have nothing to worry about.

I agree KD doesn't seem to be happy with his professional life judging off his moves as he's seeking something else even in otherwise perfect conditions (championship dynasty team, MVPs, etc.).

At Thursday, October 10, 2019 6:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, my point is that he has every reason to be happy with his professional life, yet he seems profoundly unhappy, and defiantly unwilling to admit that he is unhappy or even that his obvious unhappiness is a subject worth discussing. Moehringer bought Durant's perspective, and perhaps Moehringer felt that was the price of admission, so to speak; it would not be the first time a writer traded objectivity for access. One could argue that he already had access and thus could write whatever he wants, but the point is to obtain future access--both to Durant, and to other celebrities.


Post a Comment

<< Home