The NBA Bubble has been brilliant, but it’s missing the game’s best player – Kevin Durant.

Kevin Durant

If you sat down with Adam Silver right now, I bet he would be pretty thrilled with how Project Restart has worked out. After all, the storylines are everywhere and the NBA is back on its podium, controlling the sporting media and unleashing hell on NBA Twitter each and every night. The NBA UK community is also more vibrant than ever, benefitting from a unique combination of friendly tip-off times and the fact the Premier League season has ended, which means Sky Sports have been going-to-town on their live coverage – we see you Mo. Mind you, they’ve had a helping hand, thanks to an exceptional level of play upon the return.

Bubble life.

For the most part, the first week of action has been business as usual. Giannis Antetokounmpo is dunking his way through Disneyland, Anthony Davis is still inconsistent, the Clippers are still on autopilot and the Rockets have continued to small-ball their opponents into oblivion. Yet, many things have changed, not least the setting, where the Orlando Bubble has given the basketball world a glimpse at the kind of competitiveness normally reserved for the postseason. To witness this level of play during the regular season, after a four month hiatus, is staggering.

In fact, the more this carries on, the stronger the calls will be for a mid-season tournament, designed to do exactly what the NBA Bubble is doing right now – generate hype and higher levels of performance.

Just look at LeBron James, who almost had more rest leading up to the return than the previous three offseasons combined. And yet he’s started the remainder of this season like it never stopped, even though the Lakers are somewhat floundering, and led them to their first No. 1 Seed since the Kobe Bryant era. Then there’s Devin Booker, who appears to have used the time off to channel his inner Mamba and become the superstar many of us always thought he would be. Add to them Damian Lillard, who’s out here leading the Portland Trail Blazers on a tear towards that treasured No. 8 Seed out west, and Dallas’ Luka Doncic, who’s setting records the likes of which we haven’t seen since Oscar Robertson. Even the star-less Milwaukee Bucks beating Brooklyn Nets have been fun to watch. 

This is NBA basketball at it’s very best and we haven’t even reached the postseason. The league also happens to be missing a player who, according to some, is the best player on the planet. That’s right, I’m talking about Kevin Wayne Durant, who, thanks to the performances of his teammates, has earned a $1 million bonus due to the Nets clinching a playoff spot.

Someone’s missing.

As great as the Orlando Bubble has been, I can’t help but miss Durant, who on his day, is absolutely the best player on the planet and a true joy to watch, especially when he takes that ‘Stop and Pop’ unguardable mid-range pull-up. He would no doubt thrive in the Orlando Bubble, where his unique personality traits and basketball ability would be on show in their purest form. Durant does, after all, come across as one of those players who gets wound-up by fans, especially those seated courtside, and whilst we all miss that aspect of the game, the player vs player match-up we are being treated to now is almost cathedral-esque in its grandeur.

It is perhaps remarkable that despite not having stepped on a court this season, Durant is still making headlines. The majority of which aren’t positive. It’s Kevin ‘arsehole’ Durant, they never are positive. Most recently Durant’s name popped up on last night’s NBA on TNT, when Warriors forward Draymond Green and former teammate of Durant decided to have yet another back-and-forth with Charles Barkley whilst discussing the MVP finalists. The conversation went as follows, or you can watch the video below the transcript.

Charles Barkley“This guy here (James Harden), may be the best offensive player we’ve ever had because as great as Michael and Kobe were, they weren’t three-point shooters. This guy is a better three-point shooter…”
Kenny Smith“Kobe did get 81 in a game”
Barkley“I think James Harden could get 81 in a game, if he went on and just said I’m gonna get 80.”
Smith“So, are we all agreeing on the same thing?”
Barkley“Well I’m just saying you act like he was the seventh best player.”
Draymond“But does James score like that back then, when y’all were playing and fouls weren’t called the same way they’re called today?”
Barkley“I did use that caveat, in today’s game he’s the greatest scorer I’ve ever seen.”
Smith“Yeah, it’s a different game.”
Barkley “It’s a different game but I said that he’s the best we got offensively today.”
Ernie Johnson“We do know this, that whoever wins that will be saying they’ve won it again, so it’s Giannis and Harden, LeBron…”
Barkley “Ernie, you’re asking us who we think should be the MVP.”
Johnson “I had Giannis.”
Barkley “Ok.”
Draymond Green “Kevin Durant is the best scorer by the way.”
Barkley “Oh no…”
Green“The best scorer, ever. Not even close.”
Smith – “In this era?”
Green “Na, no disrespect to James but Kevin Durant is THE best scorer ever.”
Johnson – “Alright, let’s move on”
Barkley – “That’s a fair, I don’t agree with you”

Challenging public perception.

The back-and-forth made for great television, but Draymond’s staunch defense of Durant seems strange considering the two reportedly fell out of touch last season in San Francisco. But there’s more to this than just a general debate on who is or isn’t the greatest scorer in the game today or indeed, all-time. It comes down to a simple fact that Durant’s stature as a player in this league has taken a significant public hit since he left the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden Warriors. After all, that Warriors squad had just won 73 regular season games and been to a second straight Finals appearance. Opinion of Durant altered overnight and conversations that should have been had regarding Durant’s greatness were never had. Ethan Sherwood Strauss touches on this public perception change in his book entitled The Victory Machine, where he tells his story of what really went on behind the scenes in the Oracle and how an organisation bowed down to the talented but incredibly different personality of KD. Chapter 5 in particular, titled ‘Kevin and Me’, is a must-read for all NBA aficionados.

In this chapter, Sherwood Strauss gives us his first-hand account of conversations he had with Durant, his teammates and staffers of the Cleveland Cavaliers after their back-to-back Finals match-ups, which saw LeBron go head-to-head with Durant on the biggest stage. Ethan draws particular attention to the 2017 Finals, where he tells us that Cavs staffers were upfront about how Durant outplayed LeBron and that one staffer went as far as to admit their amazement that the question ‘Has KD supplanted LeBron as the best player in the world?’ wasn’t being asked more often.

The same happened the following season, as Durant yet again bested the best player in the world, earning another Finals MVP along the way. In Ethan’s own words ‘Durant had become a man without a country. Fans in Oklahoma City resented him for what they regarded as a betrayal. Fans in the Bay Area preferred the little guy and always would. Sure, they’d defend KD against the slights of outsiders, but ultimately he wasn’t their favourite. They also didn’t trust him. You can’t keep signing one-year deals and expect unyielding fealty from a fan base.’

I guess that ultimately the answer to why this question hasn’t been asked more often is fairly obvious – we all know the Warriors could have won another title without Durant. However, to hold so much against a player who, at the end of the day, was only doing what he considered to be the best for himself, seems completely insane in the year 2020, when everyone is literally out for themselves. I mean, just look around you. We’re not as caring as we used to be. The thoughts of others are as easily attacked as they are heard, and in a world dominated by social media, Durant appears to be a victim of the times just as much as he’s a victim of his own insecurities.

The obvious comparison here is LeBron James, who in 2010 decided to leave the Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat, teaming up with two other superstars on his way to back-to-back titles. But again, the situation is different. The Heat weren’t some unstoppable juggernaut the previous season but they had won 47 games and made the postseason out East. Which makes me ask this, would LeBron have done what Durant did, had he encountered the same opportunity in 2010? 

Well if you go back and look at LeBron’s options in the summer of 2010, they weren’t exactly great and he ultimately chose Miami because they were the one team that could in fact build a superteam. So the difference between LeBron and Durant, is just that the latter had an option to join a pre-existing, ready made superteam. Are you telling me LeBron ‘air-to-the-throne’ James wouldn’t have picked a ready made team that would ultimately make his championship aspirations easier? This is the same LeBron James who has been at the very centre of the basketball world since he entered the league at 18 years of age, facing unimaginable levels of scrutiny. The same LeBron who jumps team every time he thinks a championship is off the cards. I’d like to think he would always choose the harder road, but the evidence we have suggests otherwise. So why do we attack Durant for doing the same thing at his particular moment in time? 

Closeout

This is all, of course, a good or bad opinion, a matter of conjecture, depending on how you’ve reacted to these words. We all have our own views on Kevin Wayne Durant. But I believe he should be considered as the best player in the league today and that the Durant narrative should have taken a dramatic shift after the 2018 Finals. Yet instead, it’s disappeared into a distant memory, buried by a turbulent 2018-19 campaign which culminated in an unfortunate injury during the 2019 Finals, where unbelievably, the Toronto Raptors claimed their first championship. Now the Warriors are outside the bubble, their do-it-all forward is on NBA on TNT and the game’s greatest player remains sadly absent from the court, but more than active off it.