Almost any other year, Kevin Durant would have been the number one overall pick. In the first year that amateur players were required to be at least one year out of high school in order to be draft eligible, Durant, so gangly at 6'10" and 215lb that without the ball he didn’t immediately visually scan as the budding superstar on the University of Texas Longhorns team, made a case that that rule was silly: he put up 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game and won the Naismith Player of the Year award as the nation’s most outstanding player. Entering the draft the summer after Dirk Nowitzki won MVP as a three-point bombing big man, at that height, after shooting over 40% from three-point range, he was somehow the second most hyped prospect.
Greg Oden, a soft-spoken center whose defensive prowess was compared to Bill Russell and who had helped lead Ohio State to the National Championship game, was considered the more generational of the two generational prospects. This was still early in the post-illegal defense/hand check rule change era, changes that respectively hindered big men and benefitted perimeter players, and conventional wisdom still held that great bigs were more valuable than great wings or guards. Oden was a great prospect even if, ultimately, his injury riddled-career would make him a tragic figure in the mold of Sam Bowie.
A couple of years later, though, the nature of those rule changes might have made Durant the consensus top pick (though the Phoenix Suns selecting DeAndre Ayton over Luka Doncic a decade later shows that conventional wisdom can hang around long after it ceases to be wisdom); as stated earlier, almost any other year, without an Oden, Durant would have been the top pick anyway. But that’s not how it happened: due in many ways to timing, when it comes to the 2007 draft, Durant goes down as number two. It likely won’t be the last time timing in relation to larger trends skews Durants place in history.
Kevin Durant is one of the greatest players in NBA history. He has the accolades: ten All-NBA selections, including six first-team nods; an MVP that comes with a memorable, tear-inducing acceptance speech; two matching NBA titles and NBA Finals MVPs; four scoring titles. On top of all that, in 2018 he was a top-ten finisher in Defensive Player of the Year voting. As important as they are, though, accolades and statistics only mean so much to a player’s legacy — when it comes to the all-time greats, everyone has accolades and statistics. Changes to the game, whether they’re the rule changes mentioned above, analytical refinements that change the pace and shot selection of the entire league, player fitness and medical advances, etc., make direct cross-era comparisons so convoluted (“are we grabbing him out of a time machine or will he have time to develop with modern training?”) that they’re not particularly useful. As objectively silly as it is, narrative is what fills in the gaps, and narrative isn’t on Kevin Durant’s side.
Perhaps no one in American sports history has a stronger narrative than Michael Jordan. This more than anything else may be why he’s never surpassed as the consensus Greatest of All Time: not only is he, well, one of if not the greatest basketball players ever, but his career was a hero’s journey worthy of Joseph Campbell: winning a national championship in college, passed over not once but twice in the draft, battling and eventually overcoming the Bad Boy Pistons, walking away at the height of his powers to test himself in baseball and against a team of alien invaders only to return, humbled, part of his physical talent robbed by age but with enough wit and wisdom to make up for it and win three more championships, retiring on top. Along the way, he and Nike changed fashion and advertising forever, ensuring his name would always be on the lips of people with no interest in basketball and making him a billionaire and NBA team owner.
That’s the worst part of his return with the Wizards: he was better that season than you probably remember, but on top of fans’ last memory being a legitimately diminished version of MJ with a bad supporting cast in an unfamiliar jersey, it was like the NBA version of JK Rowling writing weird posts about the wizarding world’s bathroom habits instead of just ending the Harry Potter series with Voldemort vanquished and all the protagonists happily grown-up. Still, Jordan’s career arc and well-earned reputation as an uber-competitive killer are what all the superstars who followed in his path would be measured against.
The NBA itself recognized that fact this week, renaming the MVP award from the Maurice Podoloff Trophy to the Michael Jordan Trophy, and building that trophy to include a bunch of things like “[standing] 23.6 inches tall, representing Jordan’s jersey number (23) and number of NBA championships (six),” further enhancing the magic of those numbers and officially making the Jordan mystique a part of every awards discussion (listen to the way Zach Lowe and Kirk Goldsberry talk about Jordan and the trophy in minute two of this podcast. Reverential!). All of this was done in conjunction with Jordan himself and Jordan Brand — another clear post-career volley, along with the Last Dance documentary, to keep his name front of mind as the greatest player of all time.
Kobe Bryant understood this. He studied and strived to be like Jordan, begging for the comparison and, to his credit, coming fairly close to backing it up. Kobe’s work ethic and competitiveness were the stuff of legend, and he’s held in extremely high regard by other players, both his contemporaries and those of the generations that followed him. There’s no denying, though, that landing on the Los Angeles Lakers gives him a bump historically. The Lakers provided a superstar lineage into which Kobe could seamlessly slide; a celebrity culture in which to quickly become more than just a basketball player; a nationwide fanbase by which to be fawned over; and, crucially, Shaquille O’Neal (and to a lesser extent Phil Jackson) to dominate the league en route to a title threepeat that helped provide Kobe’s trump card/only advantage over LeBron historically: his five championships.
Plenty of guys have played for the Lakers; in the last thirty years or so, only one became what Kobe became both on the court and culturally. This is not to say that Kobe is solely a product of the Lakers’ hype machine — to a certain extent, the current Lakers’ hype machine is probably a product of Kobe. He’s one of the greatest players of all time. But he’s probably more of a top-20 player ever than a top-seven player, let alone top two, and the fact that he’s sometimes talked about in those latter categories owes to some off-court factors, not least of which is playing his whole career for the NBA’s version of the Yankees (if Kobe is too emotionally fraught a figure to prove this point, you might look to Anthony Davis’ inexplicable inclusion on the NBA’s official list of the 75 greatest players in history shortly after winning a championship with the Lakers).
Contrast those advantages to the beginning of Kevin Durant’s career: he was selected by the Seattle Supersonics, a team with a fairly rich history but nothing like the Lakers’ success or fanbase. The team then acrimoniously moved to Oklahoma City, which had no history with the NBA outside of hosting New Orleans Hornets games post-Hurricane Katrina. Due to that acrimonious move, the franchise would shed even the Sonics’ history, giving Durant no team-based historical throughline into which he could easily slot. He would get help in that Sam Presti, the Thunder general manager, would select future MVPs Russell Westbrook and James Harden to team with KD, but as great as those guys would become, neither was on the level of Peak Shaq.
As incredible as that collection of names looks now, it’s worth remembering that Harden would break out as a true superstar only after a much-maligned trade to Houston following the trio’s sole NBA Finals appearance. Durant’s Thunder tenure would go down in history first and foremost as a lesson that young star cores and title windows are not as sure or as wide as they seem in the moment.
LeBron James also understood that Michael Jordan, as a player and as a story, is who he had to outstrip to be considered the greatest of all time. LeBron has been a public figure since he was put on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the main cover line “The Chosen One” as a 17-year-old high school junior. His interactions with the press and public over the course of his career — from making sure to be photographed reading (the first page of) specific books to activating Zero Dark Thirty-23 mode on social media to show how focused he is on the playoffs — can be read as taking control of the narrative after the poor reception of the Decision (both the television special and the actual decision to join up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami rather than continue on the traditional path with the team that drafted him) cast him in the public eye as a villain and a coward, and his subsequent NBA Finals loss to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks cast him as a choker.
Shortly after the Decision, Kevin Durant announced via Twitter that he was signing an extension with the Thunder; this was held up as a noble counterpoint:
What made it news was how it was handled was such a contrast to the other big free agent moves this summer. Durant stayed with his team, didn’t make a spectacle of himself and announced the deal quietly on twitter. As much as anything is quiet on twitter. Bottom line — Durant was everything LeBron was not.
Unfortunately for Durant, this would not work in his favor in the long run. Even if the way LeBron’s signing with Miami was announced will always be viewed as an unforced error, it still helped usher in the era of the superteam and, more significantly, the so-called “Player Empowerment Era.” Michael Jordan did presage this a bit by signing a series of one-year contracts with the Bulls towards the end of his career, forcing them to go all-in around him year after year under threat of his leaving, but LeBron helped make it a reality by actually leaving the team that drafted him, then, after four straight Finals appearances and two titles, leaving the Heat to sign back in Cleveland.
The Heat were old and salary cap-strapped; the Cavs were young and talented (with a pre-controversy Kyrie Irving and fellow first overall pick Andrew Wiggins, soon traded for Kevin Love to complete a new Big 3) and, best of all, a natural homecoming tale: after finding himself in his self-styled “college years,” the prodigal son returned determined to bring the cursed Cleveland sports fans their first title in over a decade. Of course, he had to actually make that happen, and part of what makes the players in the absolute pantheon of NBA history so special and rare is their ability to do just that, even with the greatest regular season team of all-time standing in their way. Still, the fact that it’s a nice story lends it historical weight that another title in Miami would not have had.
When Durant followed in LeBron’s footsteps and left the Thunder to join the aforementioned greatest regular season team of all-time, the Steph Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green Golden State Warriors, he did not have the historical distinction of blazing a new trail, of taking the abuse from press and fans so that the guys who left the teams of their youths for what they deemed to be better situations wouldn’t have to (it’s impossible to say for sure whether he benefitted from this aspect of not blazing the trail in terms of decreased vitriol — anecdotally, I would say he did, but he still faced a ton of hate for his decision).
Durant would go on to win two championships and two Finals MVPs in his three years with the Dubs, and was potentially robbed of a third title and Finals MVP when he went down with first a calf strain in the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals and then an Achilles tear in Game 5 of the Finals against eventual champion Toronto Raptors. But unlike LeBron and Bosh joining Wade team that lost in the first round of the playoffs the season before, Durant was joining a fully-realized team with a literal game-changing, back-to-back MVP megastar in Stephen Curry, a team that had won a championship two years prior and broken the regular season wins record one year prior.
That prior success hurts Durant historically in a couple of ways. First, even though he was almost certainly the best player on the team, the Warriors were always Steph’s Team. He was the face of the franchise, the fan favorite, the first person people will think of when they think of this extended era of Warriors basketball; Durant by contrast seems to be a temporary interloper, a mercenary. Second, because of the overwhelming talent on the Warriors, the greatness of Curry, and the perception that his presence on the team was almost a luxury, Durant was all but taken out of individual awards consideration during his time as a Warrior, never finishing better than seventh in NBA voting during those three years; During his run with the Heat, LeBron burnished his résumé with two MVPs.
Finally, if LeBron’s bringing a championship to Cleveland has more historical weight than a third title in Miami would have had, Durant’s outdueling LeBron in back-to-back years to win titles on that stacked Warriors squad holds significantly less. For some it might even hold less weight than LeBron and the Cavs LOSING VALIANTLY in 2015 when Love and Irving went down with injuries in the conference finals and game one of the NBA Finals, respectively. There’s no great story when a team with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green win a championship; it’s just what ought to have happened because they had won without Durant. That is unfair, silly, and the reality of how NBA history is often discussed and viewed.
While Durant was in Golden State winning the titles of expected of so unthinkably star-studded a team, he wasn’t just missing out on the potential fact of those MVP trophies on his mantle; he was missing out on the potential of a stretch of time as the consensus best player in the NBA. That would become important because in the meantime Giannis Antentokoumpo was emerging in Milwaukee, with all of Durant’s absurd length, all of LeBron’s strength and speed, and more than enough finishing and ball handling skill to make the best possible use of it. After a two seasons when Durant’s former teammates Westbrook and Harden would win MVP, Giannis would win back-to-back, then bring the Bucks their first title since Kareem left for the Lakers.
Giannis’s story is incredible — from the 15th overall pick out of the Greek second league to, with the grainiest draft broadcast footage since the invention of high definition televisions, to the best player in the league. In terms of Kevin Durant’s place in history, though, what matters is that Giannis’s emergence during a time when Durant will get less credit than is due to him means that any potential Durant Era may be squashed between the broader LeBron Era and the broader Giannis Era, Durant’s reign a subsection of the Warriors Dynasty. Just like in his draft year, Durant’s timing cost him. Some of the Giannis aspects of this conversation are of course speculation and projection; the current time period might, for example, be shared between Giannis, fellow back-to-back MVP Nicola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and Luka Doncic as an Overseas Era or something like that. The point is, Durant won’t have held the Best Player belt, and unlike Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan, he won’t have that association with multiple championship iterations of a single franchise, through relative ups and downs, to balance out that fact on the historical ledger by strengthening the provincial passion of his defenders.
He won’t have Kobe’s marketing to balance it out either. Kobe rises above his station historically because he was the Black Mamba, a killer, an über-competitive assassin. Be all that for the Lakers helps his legacy tremendously (and, not to be macabre, but dying tragically young doesn’t hurt his legacy). Durant is just as much of an assassin on the court — by some measures of clutch shooting, he’s more of an assassin.
While Kobe very carefully cultivated that image, though, Durant has not. He tweets about sitting up in bed at night yearning for that one special gal, about watching the History channel at the club. He infamously makes burner accounts to defend himself. He clowns people talking trash to him. This all makes him relatable (I would argue that most people who find it unlikable are seeing in him a reflection of things they don’t like about themselves) but NBA legends aren’t supposed to be relatable. They’re supposed to be larger than life, both physically and in the public imagination, titans battling not just to win basketball games but to teach the audience something about themselves and their times. Kevin Durant simply hoops better than all but between five and ten other people in the history of the world.
Durant’s career is not over, of course. Like clockwork, he’s playing at an All-NBA level, averaging 30 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. The Nets, though always one strongly-held Kyrie Irving opinion from catastrophe, are 8–2 in their last ten games and talented enough to be very dangerous if they can stay healthy and harmonious. Dirk Nowitzki’s legacy gained a huge amount of esteem by adding a late-career championship to his already league-changing career — if Durant wins a title on a squad that is firmly His Team, it could do the same thing for his. If he wins more than one — and this is both dreaming big and firmly within the realm of possibility, because he is that good — the better point of comparison might be Kobe Bryant’s latter two championship wins establishing that he could carry a team to the top of the league without Shaquille O’Neal and cementing him within the inner circle of NBA legends.
On the other hand, Durant’s decision to tie his future to the volatile Irving, who threw away most of a prime season over his refusal to get vaccinated for COVID, in Brooklyn, one of the few places that would have lingered so long as an on-court issue, could go down as an all-time bad one. Like the Thunder, they are another team without a deeply-rooted fanbase, having only recently moved to Brooklyn from New Jersey; the team plays second fiddle within its city.
The most unpredictable part of how Durant will be considered in relation to the other NBA players in his echelon (and slightly above or below) is hardest to predict: legacy depends largely on the people talking about legacy. Trying to establish the subjective things working against Durant’s place in history so they don’t work against him unfairly has been the entire point of this piece. But NBA fandom is changing: a BetUS study found that “More than 1 in 3 fans (36%) said they would be extremely or very likely to change their favorite team if their favorite player were to move elsewhere. Among these, fans supporting younger players such as Luka Dončić or Giannis Antetokounmpo would be twice as likely to support their favorite player over the team” (Note: this study also shows that Kevin Durant has a higher percentage of “bandwagon” fans and a lower percentage of “die-hard” fans than contemporaries like LeBron and Curry or even a younger player like Giannis, which may lend credence to some of what’s been discussed here).
That fans of younger players skew in this way suggests that the fans with this view of player and team loyalty also skew younger. As fans with a more player- than team-centric view take up a greater share of NBA fandom overall, maybe those old narratives of sticking with one team and weathering setbacks during a long but fulfilling climb to the top of the NBA will hold less weight. That view makes telling the story of the NBA as a whole through one player or a small cadre of players less neat but would benefit players like Durant or Wilt Chamberlain, who don’t totally have a single team to call home.
Or maybe Kevin Durant’s place in history will be the ultimate symbol of the difference between the Greatest and the Best players of all time. The difference is nebulous. Here, Greatest includes the narrative aspects discussed in this article, like Jordan overcoming the Bad Boys or the “flu” en route to championships, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird saving the flagging NBA from irrelevance, Bill Russell being so competitive that he would throw up in the locker room before games, Giannis going from skinny Greek minor leaguer to world devouring force, etc. There are objective measures of these things like hardware and championships, but aura matters just as much.
Best is perhaps easier to answer but even more subjective: if you had to pick five guys to go win a game, plucking players from their era and dropping them into the current day, who would you choose? There would be some toss-ups for me — Shaq, Wilt, or Kareem, for example, would be a very tough one — but the answer to the question of whether to include Kevin Durant, with his nearly unparalleled scoring ability, defensive ceiling, and capacity and willingness to thrive with and without the ball in any team context, would be a quick and easy “yes”.