There was once a time among the NBA’s chattering classes that Kevin Durant all but walked on water. I’m not referring to his back-to-back Finals MVPs with the Golden State Warriors, or even his 2014 MVP season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In the summer of 2010, after Durant chose to extend his contract with the Thunder following his third season (the first of four to date in which he would lead the NBA in scoring), he was effectively canonized by the NBA media in the wake of reigning MVP LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat via a television special. Durant’s glitz-free commitment to the small-market Thunder was held up as The Right Way and KD himself as the anti-LeBron during a summer when King James’ approval ratings were never more toxic. It was all pretty stupid and annoying, as deftly diagnosed by Tommy Craggs in Slate at the time.
No young athlete stays sainted forever, but it’s hard to think of one whose career has taken a downright stranger set of turns since that period of universal approbation than Kevin Durant. Durant’s Phoenix Suns—his third team in the past five years—are currently mired in an 0–2 hole to the top-seeded Denver Nuggets and have looked decidedly outmatched through those first two games. There’s still a lot of series left to play, with the tilt heading back to Phoenix for Games 3 and 4, but FiveThirtyEight currently has the Nuggets with an 87 percent chance of advancing past the Suns and into the Western Conference Finals. Now reports have it that Phoenix point guard Chris Paul may miss at least those next two games with a groin injury, a sizable loss for a Suns team whose lack of depth was already probably its greatest weakness.
Staring down the prospect of a second-round exit was probably not what Durant had in mind when he asked the Brooklyn Nets for a trade to Phoenix this past February. After Durant returned from a knee injury in March, the Suns closed out the regular season with an 8–0 record with their prized acquisition in their lineup. But in the postseason, Phoenix has looked surprisingly vulnerable, and Durant has often seemed tentative about his role, caught between wanting to play respectful sidekick to younger star Devin Booker and wanting to show that he’s still the alpha-dog killer that the Suns mortgaged much of their future to acquire. He seems unsure of himself, an uncharacteristic condition for such a self-composed hoops artiste as Durant. But perhaps it’s fitting for a man who has now spent an inordinate amount of his professional prime seeming like both a perplexed and perplexing bystander.
The last decade-plus of Kevin Durant’s career has been frequently tumultuous, sometimes for reasons outside his control. Almost as soon as the Thunder made the disastrous decision to ship emerging star James Harden to the Houston Rockets in 2012, breaking up a young nucleus that had just made the NBA Finals, speculation began intensifying about Durant and co-star Russell Westbrook’s ability, or inability, to win a championship together. In 2016 the Thunder coughed up a 3–1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors. A little more than a month later, Durant shocked the basketball world by announcing he was leaving Oklahoma City in free agency to sign with the very Warriors team the Thunder had just lost to.
Rightly or wrongly, Durant’s decamping to the Warriors rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. Adding Durant made the Warriors, who were already coming off a 73-win season, so good that they practically broke the league. Durant’s first two seasons in Golden State resulted in championships, yet through it all Durant himself often seemed weirdly dissatisfied. He spoke openly about how he’d hoped winning a ring would finally bring him peace after years of struggle in OKC but that in fact it hadn’t; he beefed with randos on Twitter; and as his Bay Area tenure dragged on, he seemed increasingly alienated from his teammates and coaches. By his third and final year in Golden State—which would end in a catastrophic Achilles injury in Game 5 of the Finals—he frequently seemed a prickly and exasperated shell of the joyful and eager young superstar who’d once so charmed the basketball world.
In the summer of 2019, Durant left Golden State to team up with Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets. In hindsight, it’s more than a little ironic that Durant was once held up as the golden child in the aftermath of LeBron’s Decision, as Durant’s Brooklyn years will ultimately be remembered as a far more turbulent saga than James’ adventures in Miami. Due to his Achilles injury and the disruptions of the pandemic, Durant didn’t make his debut as a Net until December 2020. Less than a month later, at Durant’s encouragement, the Nets sent a massive haul of draft picks and players to Houston in exchange for disgruntled Rockets superstar (and former Durant teammate) James Harden.
This version of the Nets would soon suffer one of the most spectacular implosions in NBA history. In the 2020–21 season, Brooklyn’s three stars were rarely able to stay healthy at the same time and lost an epic second-round playoff series, a series in which Durant played arguably the most brilliant basketball of his career, to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks. From there things went downhill, and how: Irving refused to get vaccinated; Harden decided he wanted out; the Nets fell into the play-in, then got swept in the first round; Irving recommitted to “managing the franchise” alongside Durant; Durant asked to be traded, then Irving asked to be traded; Durant and Irving agreed to come back; Irving tweeted an antisemitic documentary and was suspended; coach Steve Nash was fired; Irving returned and the Nets actually played really well for a stretch; Irving and then Durant asked to be traded again, and this time, the Nets finally obliged them both.
Even in the age of “player empowerment” it’s unusual for a player of Durant’s stature to change jerseys this much, each move driven by an ever-changing but seemingly inescapable disillusionment. Durant is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history and probably one of the two or three most aesthetically riveting basketball players I have ever watched. There is simply nothing else like a Kevin Durant scoring binge, his impossibly long arms, stunningly graceful physicality, and perfect shooting form all combining to produce something fundamentally unguardable, unfair even. On the court Durant seems the platonic ideal of a basketball player, and throughout his career he has carried himself like a man whose entire reason for waking up each morning is to hoop. To both Durant and his admirers, which is pretty much everyone who watches basketball, it feels almost unfair that it can’t just be that simple.
Part of Durant’s move to Brooklyn in 2019 appeared to be driven by a desire to prove he could win a championship “on his own,” as opposed to joining a team that was already pedigreed; that didn’t work, and Phoenix offers another, better chance at something like the same. (The Suns made the Finals in 2021, but the franchise has never won a championship.) So what does it mean for KD if this Suns team doesn’t get there, if the injuries and awkward chemistry lead to a second-round exit? It probably shouldn’t mean anything, but “probably shouldn’t” doesn’t carry much weight when your immense talent and choices about where to take it have always commanded such an outsize spotlight. Durant can’t win unless he wins—or maybe, as his Warriors years suggest, that’s not even true.
The frequent trade speculation around Durant in recent years has led to incessant appraisals of his place in history among the basketball pundit class, always drenched in superlative. If, like me, you listen to an unhealthy amount of NBA podcasts, you’ve probably heard Durant described incessantly as a top-12 player of all time, the greatest offensive player ever, the most malleable superstar in the history of the sport. All of these assessments are slightly strange in their own ways, and while hyperbole is the coin of the realm in such spaces, the reflexive nature with which they are delivered seems to betray a widening gap between what we’ve long expected that Durant’s historical footprint would be—something epochal and undeniable—and in 2023, what it is actually shaping up to: something more ungainly and complicated. I’m not sure if that gap is disappointment or just a nagging feeling that it wasn’t supposed to be this way, and I’m not sure if it says as much about Kevin Durant as it does about the rest of us.