Kolsky: Don’t blame Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant just wants to hoop.

He’s said it repeatedly, and I believe him. He said it about the 2016 Olympics, when other NBA stars were dropping like flies; he said it about his free agency decision in 2016; he said it again this year about the All-Star game festivities. He spent several podcasts discussing it with Bill Simmons.

More than that, everything Durant has said and done indicates he wants to play a particular brand of hoop — the kind that is unselfish, team-oriented and championship-winning. That plan went pretty swimmingly in his first year with the Warriors, but Year Two has been a roller-coaster ride; and despite evidence to the contrary, even Bay Area fans seem to be intent on laying it at Durant’s feet.

The argument is simple: the Warriors haven’t looked like “themselves” for much of the season, including parts of the playoffs. “Themselves” run an offense based on player and ball movement, one that is a beautiful symphony of basketball skill and teamwork when it’s really humming. When the offense bogs down, possessions often end with KD taking a tough shot out of isolation.

This chorus of criticism is not just the usual ratings plays from puffed-up pundits. A remarkable number of Warriors fans seem to blame KD for mucking up the works. In reality, he is at worst an equal participant in the team’s issues, and at best a welcome lifeline.

There is a temptation to call the Warriors’ struggles “uncharacteristic” or look for an answer to what went so wrong to allow them to fall behind 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals. However, their bipolar play only seems out of the ordinary when compared to last year’s 16-1 annihilation of playoff competition. Contextualized within this season, it’s perfectly in-character.

The Warriors have let their offense bog down constantly this season, with and without KD. If Durant is in the game, the natural strategy for the last eight seconds of the shot clock is probably for him to go to work — there are few, if any, better isolation options in the game.

Many of Durant’s isolation possessions in the series with Houston came in exactly that form. On others he was simply given the ball and an entire half court to work with, while offensively-challenged foursomes stood on the far side and watched. It is difficult to understand how that can be viewed as him ruining the offense.

KD’s worst shots are pull-up three-pointers early in the shot clock, and he’s guilty of taking them with some consistency — but there’s not a lot of complaining when he bottoms them, which he does more than almost anyone else in the league. His biggest and most famous shot as a Warrior was just that kind of pull-up, right in the face of the best player in the world.

Durant also plays right next to a guy who takes similarly ill-advised shots (at least by normal human metrics). Steph Curry’s shot selection, viewed without context, is downright ridiculous. It is one of the chief components of his worldwide appeal, but he’s still going to miss more than half of his threes and there’s not much complaining. Instead, it’s usually excuse-making and defensiveness: “He must not be healthy…” “He doesn’t get the calls other MVPs do…”.

The Warriors’ ultra-loyal fanbase turned on Durant with a quickness and severity that they would never apply to Curry. Truly understanding why is tricky, but finding potential reasons is not.

For one thing, KD is the newcomer, which really shouldn’t mean much, but clearly does. Warriors fans will defend Durant from outside criticism — call him a punk for choosing Golden State in free agency and they’re coming after you — but the response is equally aggressive in the opposite direction if you try to say he’s the team’s best player or hold Curry culpable for some of the offense’s flow problems.

It’s only natural, I suppose. The Bay Area has watched Steph mature from a skinny kid with bum ankles into a two-time MVP and unquestioned future Hall-of-Famer. There’s a familial attachment for a fan base that gets to watch a guy grow. It’s not entirely reasonable, though, and it certainly isn’t fair to Durant.

At the basest level, Steph may simply be a more embraceable public persona than Durant. The Curry family is an American Dream — their image is sparkling, from Dell down to Riley and Ryan — and Steph feels approachable and relatable. KD is a more complicated figure, from business tattoos to burner accounts, and is occasionally more ornery and defiant as a personality.

The fretting over Durant’s response to Steve Kerr’s mid-game story about Michael Jordan certainly feels like an expression of this take on his personality. Viewed reasonably, KD’s half-attention to a story about Phil Jackson making MJ pay attention to an open John Paxson is a whole lot of nothing — Kerr never even played on a team with Paxson and Jordan — but because of how people view Durant and his personality, his apparent brushing off of the coach became a story.

If this feels like a criticism of KD, it isn’t. If it stokes his fire to clap back at idiotic haters from time to time, that’s exactly what he should do. Get into opponents’ Twitter mentions, like some controversial stuff on Instagram, write a Players’ Tribune piece; this is the NBA in 2018, it’s pretty clear we’re all here for the drama.

The good news is, none of this distracts or deters Durant from the mission at hand. In the Game 5 loss that drew him so much criticism, he was +2 for the game while the Warriors’ other three all-stars were -9. In the clincher, he led the team in scoring and blocked shots, shot over 50 percent from the field and chipped in five rebounds and five assists.

He’ll probably be the lightning rod for criticism if the Warriors slip a bit in the Finals. When the offense bogs down, it will be KD’s fault for forcing them into isolation, for not playing team ball. We know he hears the critics, and he must know they’ll be back. He might even engage with them out in the world, but when it comes to basketball, he’s doing his thing and pushing towards a second ring-fitting.

Kevin Durant just wants to hoop.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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