Last spring, I was on the phone with my editor at this magazine, putting the finishing touches on a big, long cover story about Kevin Durant. The story had taken months to complete — we’d even gotten Durant to sit for an extended photo shoot — and we were essentially ready to go to press. There was just one small thing. “There’s a possibility we might have to push it back an issue if this coronavirus thing gets worse,” my editor told me. I told her that worked for me, but I wasn’t concerned. I was sure it would be fine.
Four days later, Rudy Gobert and Tom Hanks tested positive for COVID-19, and it became clear that it was perhaps not the best time for a 6,000-word feature on Durant and his management team’s attempts to capture the hearts of New York sports fans. I went back and read the final draft the other day, and while it certainly would have been absurd to run it as the cover story that fateful week — I just don’t think America was in the mood to read about Durant’s Instagram fights in March 2020 — I think it holds up. And a year later, its central question is worth reexamining: Did Kevin Durant make the right decision coming to Brooklyn? Is this going to turn out the way he’s planning it to?
On a surface level, the obvious answer is yes. Durant’s Brooklyn Nets aren’t just one of the best teams in the NBA this year, they have proven one of Durant’s central theories of his move to Brooklyn: He could get superstars to follow him. It was way back in June 2019 when Durant announced that he’d be joining Brooklyn, with Kyrie Irving joining alongside him and — because Durant was still recovering from the Achilles tear he suffered in that year’s NBA Finals — waiting for him. Brooklyn muddled through a listless Durant-free run in the 2020 Bubble. But when Durant came back this year looking like the same superstar he has always been, former MVP James Harden forced a trade from Houston so he could join as well. The three upper-tier All-Stars have teamed up to produce one of the most glorious offenses in NBA history, albeit one that, because of the players’ injury histories and relatively advanced ages (both Durant and Harden are over 30, and Irving will turn 30 next year), has rarely all played together as a triumvirate (only seven times this season). The Nets have only won one playoff series since moving to Brooklyn, way back in 2014, but this year, anything less than a championship will be a major disappointment. They clearly have the talent to win one.
And they better.
As great as Durant has been this year — he’s averaging 28.1 points and 6.8 rebounds in only 28 games — it’s not going to mean much without a championship. After all, Durant’s choice, and the next arc of his career, was always going to be defined by whether or not he won a title. Players of his caliber are always judged solely on that. This is particularly important for Durant because he is still dogged (unfairly) by the perception that he only won two in Golden State because he piggybacked on the success of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Durant’s big bet was that he could lure top talent, that he would be the centerpiece of a championship he could truly and unambiguously call his own. It is very possible that this year, 2021, is his last best chance to pull it off. After all, the Nets’ big three are only under contract for one more year after this one, and considering everyone’s health and ages — not to mention a potentially wide-open field of impressive, but unproven, title contenders to go against this year — the opportunity they currently have may not be available to them in 2022. (All three players can opt out after the 2022 season, and if they haven’t won a title by then, you can be sure they will.)
Then there’s the matter of Durant’s status in the city. One of the things he said to me a year ago was that he recognized New York was and would likely always be Knicks Central. “I’m not expecting it to be a Nets town the second I get here, or in 20 years,” he said. He also admitted that Nets-Knicks games at Barclays Center would “always” feature more Knicks fans, and even that the atmosphere at Barclays with Nets fans isn’t necessarily “exciting.”
What would have been difficult for Durant to predict is that while he has brought stars and success to the Nets, the Knicks would also suddenly have, out of nowhere, their best team in nearly a decade. And they’re clearly capturing more hearts in the city than the Nets have. Case in point: On May 12, the San Antonio Spurs will play the Nets in Barclays Center, and on May 13, those same Spurs will play the Knicks. To watch them play the Nets will currently cost you 91 bucks on StubHub; the cheapest ticket at the Garden is more than $250. This despite the Nets having three of the best, most famous basketball players on the planet. The Nets trio can’t even have the New Yorker cover without the Knicks sneaking on there too. When Durant chose to play at Barclays instead of Madison Square Garden, there was every reason to think the Knicks would stink in perpetuity or, if they ever pulled themselves out of the muck, their clownish owner James Dolan would do something to sink them back in. (One reason Durant turned down the Knicks was to avoid his meddling.) The Knicks could still fall from grace this year. But even though Durant was fully aware of the Nets’ second-class status in New York from the outset, it must be frustrating that he has a chance to win the team a championship, with a historically entertaining team, and still can’t even make them the more desirable choice in his own city. (He certainly seems to welcome the opportunity to take the Knicks down, if he gets the chance.)
Durant’s off-court projects have been slowed by the pandemic, but they’re obviously not going too badly: He just won an Oscar, for crying out loud. (And for a far, far better film than Kobe Bryant won his for.) And coming to New York will likely be a boon for Durant’s business interests, though he and his manager Rich Kleiman opened their gleaming new office in Chelsea just before offices in New York City shut down entirely.
But as he and every other athlete knows, your off-court ventures are always defined first by what you do on-court. Durant’s big bet was that he could come to Brooklyn, win a championship, and make himself the center of the NBA universe. So far, for all his brilliance, he is not even the center of his city’s universe. The NBA playoffs begin in two weeks and may be how Durant and his decision will ultimately be judged. He can still pull this off. And maybe it’ll get him a magazine cover of his own, after all.