SAN JOSE -- There seem to be fresh waves of speculation about Kevin Durant’s future these days, and though it doesn’t have the jaw-slackening WTF-ery of Jimmy Butler’s demolish-the-village methodology in Minneapolis, it will be as corrosive to the speculation industry in the end.
I mean, if the offseason that just ended Friday night with a 119-105 loss to the LeBron-less Lakers at SAP Center is too long to prevent you from thinking ahead to the summer, think of how interminable the regular season will be. Especially, as expected, when it is filled mostly with game highlights when applicable and daily updates on Durant's frame of mind whether applicable or not.
It is the price of still being perceived as the ridiculously best team.
The sense being offered by those who claim to know him third-best (after himself and his confidants) is that Durant, who also got the night off, feels both freed and stifled in Oakland, being presented the opportunity to broaden and hone his gifts while working within a greater organism that provides its own limits on his freedom to roam.
It is as if Durant came to the Warriors, saw more of what he could be and is now thinking about the next place where he can be even more Durant-y than he is now – the endlessly curious, introspection fiend looking for the next iteration of himself.
Then people start mentioning the New York Knicks, and that’s where my eyes start to cross.
Durant is a new, more thoughtful version of the player empowerment movement in the NBA. He can think about greener pastures than the grounds of a trophy factory because his horizons have been broadened by that factory. The Warriors have done him the service of opening his vistas just as he has done them the services of making them a potentially epochal team – which, as we all know, is better than merely being a generational one.
It’s a relationship that has served all the participants well, and may still serve it well in the future. Durant gets to decide that, though, and that is player empowerment to the nines. Sure, it may “screw up all my plans,” as Tessio told Tom Hagen before he got popped in The Godfather II, but freedom is always preferable to restrictions, even benign ones.
The notion that the Warrior Experience is the be-all and end-all of athletics is a nice one and all, but because it isn’t the only one, Kevin Durant can dream of what comes next. He is not the Warrior lifer as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson seem to be, or the vital organ whose transplantation will do everyone measurable harm as Draymond Green seems to be. He made a great team better, and they made a great player better, while getting along famously and never giving way to the temptation of arguing over which player has the right to leave practice while bellowing “I RUN THIS S---!”
There would seem to be limits to the joy of collaboration, though, and the logic permeating the Durant’s-next-team quest seems to center on that. He has never been better or more complete as a player but cannot be the premier ballhandler on Stephen Curry’s team, or the central figure in an ensemble piece in which he came after everyone else. And the idea that Silicon Valley is the only place where a rich man can become richer is easily debunked.
The trick is in figuring out what Durant’s true zen is here. Does he want to see how good he can be in a vacuum? Do the joys of being on the best team transcend individual urges? Is basketball, the sport in which individual urges are most rewarded, meant to narrow a great player’s imagination with the safety of great teammates, or widen it by building one’s own?
This, after much soul-searching and bottle-emptying, is what I have come to think is the true meaning of the Warriors’ last year in Oakland – the safety of collective excellence vs. the lure of spreaded wings that can take the owner too close to the sun. It's the existential argument that will endure when the quest for a fourth ring is settled one way or the other.
Which is where the Knicks come in. Durant has a connection with New York, his agent/business manager/man-what-am Rich Kleiman, a Knicks fan so devoted that he once tweeted out, "Imma run the Knicks."
So there's that.
But New York provides its own punishment as well as its own reward, and punishment is far more likely.
The Knicks have been one the NBA’s most enduring institutional nightmares for the bulk of their existence, a persistently ill-constructed organization whose glory days were when Red Holzman ran them as a collective almost 50 years ago. They hit an extended flat spot thereafter, then drafted Patrick Ewing and hired Pat Riley for their next burst of ringless relevance. They lingered awhile after Riley left for Miami, and then flatlined around the start of the new century and have remained there ever since.
But even with the glory days included, they have a worse cumulative record than the Atlanta Hawks, whose last and only championship came 62 years ago. They have won as many conference championships as the Baltimore/Washington/Capital/Washington Bullets/Wizards despite having played 15 more years. In a league whose collective fan base is deeply devoted to the worship of royal families, the Knicks are the one royal who is venerated more for where they are than what they've done.
If Kevin Durant’s destiny is truly elsewhere, good on him. He’s earned the right to see what he can be, even if it turns out to be less than he has here. But not New York. He deserves better than a cranky loopy team owner, a perpetually disjointed front office, and an endless string of “Yeah, but what if they got Player X?” hypotheticals that never seem to happen because the Knicks are, well, too hooked on being the Knicks.
If Durant has decided that he ran his race in the Bay Area, he will do so seeing the outer limits of what he can do. But if he goes to New York, he will see what can be done to him, and what’s the fun in that?