The Mazzola Minute: Kevin Durant

On Feb. 8, in response to another bout between NBA superstar Kevin Durant and members of the press, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr referred to the league as a “soap opera,” with coaches and players as actors. The job of professional basketball players includes much more than being an athlete.

Durant’s charged relationship with the media and fans has created a positive feedback loop. Durant reacts strongly to the media’s coverage of him, the media covers that reaction, fans voice their discontent.

Media members and fans insulting NBA superstars is not a new phenomenon strictly associated with Durant. Unlike other superstars, however, Durant seems unable to block out what he views as unfair treatment, frequently responding on social media, in press conferences, or even during actual NBA games.

There’s nothing morally wrong with hypersensitivity to criticism; it’s the manner in which Durant responds that raises eyebrows. It’d be impossible to cover every instance of Durant acting prickly toward the media, so let’s look at one instance of this.

Durant took to social media in early July of 2018 to respond to a teenager’s criticism of his leadership and playmaking abilities. The account @bucketscenter is run by 17 year old Kalyb Champion. In addition to responding to Champion in the comments section, the two got in a heated exchange over direct messages, with Durant calling Champion a “Middle school/knock off stephen a.” After the teenager suggested Durant use his and others’ doubt as motivation, Durant responded, “Nah buddy you’re like 12, your opinion will not be used as any motivation.”

Durant has not always been this abrasive. In fact, Nike debuted the “KD is not Nice” campaign back in 2012 to remind the world that, despite being humble and soft-spoken, Durant was still a killer on the court.

Fast forward to 2019. No longer the NBA’s soft-spoken fan-favorite, Durant plays the arch-villain, the man who left the small-market Thunder for the 73-9 Warriors. Durant’s move to the Warriors worked against his public image in another way, too.

Playing in the Golden State’s egalitarian offense, Durant’s isolation-heavy tendencies are accentuated. In Oklahoma City, Westbrook was labeled the selfish one, unwilling to sacrifice for his more talented teammate, even as a point guard. On the Warriors, Durant has taken the selfish mantle, and for good reason.

In Durant’s isolation possessions, Curry and Thompson are effectively stranded at sea out on the perimeter as Durant operates alone on an island. Curry and Thompson are at their best in rhythm, so they require a steady flow of shot attempts.

Worse, Durant essentially refuses to play off-ball, merely standing around on plays that don’t directly involve him. Unless he’s playing the point, Durant either posts up at the elbow, a set engineered to give Durant a favorable matchup in isolation, or he ball-watches from the perimeter.

Durant is also not much of an off-ball screen-setter. The beautiful chaos of Golden State’s offense is predicated on role-players and stars, alike, setting off-ball screens to free shooters. Curry fortified the Warriors “Strength in Numbers”-based culture with his willingness to set off-ball screens for mere role-players, doing so at a rate never before seen from a superstar.

First, Durant was slammed for joining the Warriors. Now, he’s bashed for not fully buying into their offensive scheme. If it seems a bit like a no-win situation, that’s because it is. Sadly for him, even Durant’s play is not immune to critique.

Again, this issue is not unique to Durant. In fact, to this day, his teammate Curry is criticized for over-reliance on his jump shot. You don’t, however, see Curry personally responding to every (or, really, any) of his critics.

The “new” Durant, with his focus on deriding fans, and not buying into the team mindset established by the startup-wizards of the Bay Area may spell trouble for what otherwise have been an incredible legacy. One might look at Michael Jordan’s legacy, of outstanding achievement on the court, and questionable character off it, as a model to understand this change.

In game five of the Western Conference Finals last year, Kerr relayed a speech to Durant told by Chicago Bulls’ head coach Phil Jackson to Jordan in 1993: “When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game,” Kerr said. “He kept trying to score, and he was scoring, but we weren’t getting anything going.”

Like Jordan, Durant had been scoring consistently (albeit inefficiently) in that series, but it came at the expense of getting his teammates in rhythm. Jordan ended up winning the finals that year off a game-winner from teammate John Paxson. For Durant, Kerr sought to instill greater trust in his teammates.

Durant did a better job of distributing in later games, and, as a result, the Warriors wound up winning the series. For all his personal flaws, specifically in his relationships with media members and fans, Durant’s on-court achievements are undeniable, and, like Jordan, he would be wise to continue taking advice from his coaching staff to further bolster his resume as an all-time great.