GOLDEN DAYS Interview 4: Superlative Durant In Some Ways Still A Work In Progress

GOLDEN DAYS Interview 4: Superlative Durant In Some Ways Still A Work In Progress

In the old days before the Internet and si.com, the worst day of the week for a writer was Tuesday. You filed your story on Sunday or Monday morning and prayed that nothing would happen to change the arc of your narrative before people were able to read it on Wednesday. (Most subscribers got it on Thursday.) Often something did change, and usually it was, for wont of a better word, harmless. You wrote a story about a hot team or a hot player and, sure enough, the team or the player takes a nosedive late on Monday night or Tuesday. Cue the story line about the writer being an idiot and the SI Jinx.

[[Fourth in a series of stories about the interviews that went into the writing of GOLDEN DAYS. Buy the book HERE.]]

Some Tuesday burns were worse than others, though. Back in 1988, I wrote a story about how Houston Rockets players Mitch Wiggins and Lewis Lloyd had put their drug problems behind them, only to be greeted with the Tuesday news that both had been banned by the NBA after testing positive for cocaine. Well played, Jack.

Obviously that wait time is worse for books, where there is an interminable (for the writer) gap between finishing the manuscript and release of the book. That’s where I’m at now with GOLDEN DAYS. Equally obvious is the fact that the constant social-media coverage makes it more of a challenge to make things hold up from one day to another, never mind from one month to another.

Which brings us to Kevin Durant, whose offseason has been well chronicled with, among other things, the discovery that he had a third-person Twitter account. He was forced to admit that he used it to bash his former coach, Billy Donovan, and some of his ex-Oklahoma City Thunder teammates. Then he was forced to apologize and that apology seemed sincere. Durant is usually sincere. But the Twitter news is what dogged Durant  as training camp began, more than the news that he took $9 million less in salary so the Warriors could keep their team together.

To be clear, I don’t think that in the past six weeks Durant (above, shown with Jerry West right after the climatic Game 5 in the 2017 Finals) has become a different person from the portrait of him I present in the book. His life over the last year has played out to a large extent in a protracted social-media docudrama, and there was no way around it: The K.D.-is-a-cupcake saga is in the book, even though I grew tired of it as the season wore on. I’m not alone.

But a 24/7 life in Twitter World seems to fit the Durant narrative. The way I see him is this: K.D. is a work-in-progress in a way that other superstars are not, even Steph Curry. Durant is a dominant player in a way that Curry is not—in GOLDEN DAYS I talk about the reasons that Curry is a revolutionary player while Durant is an evolutionary player—but he still seems to be finding his place not only within the league but also within his team. He’s a little more tentative about how to act now that he’s among the elite, a little too sensitive about past slights. Durant surely took more than his share of crap for changing uniforms—and much of it was unfair—but he remains too wedded, in my opinion, to the story line that he has been overlooked and overcriticized. As I write in GOLDEN DAYS:

Durant’s Nike commercial that aired on ABC right after the Finals struck the same note. K.D., you were the second pick in the draft. You were the league’s MVP when you were twenty-five. Stop with the nobody-said-I’d-make-it thing.

As dominant as Durant turned out to be on the court in the Finals, he did face a season-long battle to find his place on the team, one that continued, obviously, when he injured his knee on Feb. 28 and missed 19 games, by which time the Warriors had once again become “Curry’s team.” One of the points I make in the book is that, early on at Golden State, Durant wasn’t exactly playing “Warrior basketball.” The term I came up with is that, in the opinion of some, he had to be “de-Westbrooked” from some bad habits he picked up at Oklahoma City. Did he feel angry or embarrassed when Draymond Green hollered at him on the court? (He says neither.) Did he think that the oncourt adjustments he had to make were tougher than the ones Curry had to make? (No. Curry’s were tougher.) But did he have his own adjustments to make? (Yes, and here is some of what he said about them:)

I was coming from a place where they just gave me the ball. I had to create and I had to create stuff for my teammates. Here we have so many ballhandlers and people who want to handle the ball, so many guys to create. I was always aware that they wer adjusting to me, a new guy coming into a system when you’ve already had success. That can be tough. The big change was in transition. Russ would just give me the ball on the break. But now we have Klay and Steph running the wings instead of Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters, and I  have to think about those guys might wanting to stop and shoot threes. I’m not saying it’s better or worse.

Note that final sentence. Durant tried to walk a verbal tightrope all season, praising his new team while emphasizing that he was happy with his old team, too. He was not always successful on that walk.

Adjustments aside, by the end of the Finals the Warriors were about as smooth-running an offensive machine as I’ve ever seen, and Durant, to stress the obvious, was a major reason for that. One of the things I appreciated about Steve Kerr’s offense was the fact that it didn’t depend utterly on the Durant-Curry 1-2 punch but certainly used it judiciously. GOLDEN DAYS contains this passage:

When Durant signed on, Kerr found himself with two of the five best scorers in the game, both of them unselfish players who can set screens, read screens, and find the open man. So the temptation would be to run a pick-and-roll offense with Curry and Durant about a hundred times a game. What could go wrong? If the defense somehow scrambles to cover both, there are Thompson or Iguodala spotting up or there is Green going to his little pocket spot at the foul line. Or when you got tired of doing that, simply isolate Durant, spot Curry and Thompson on the perimeter, and have Green or somebody else diving for the basket. But Kerr didn’t do that. The Warriors continued to play unselfishly, cutting, moving, running after misses and sometimes after makes, working the ball around, endlessly screening away, finding daylight, looking for anyone who was open, and in general playing like, as Kerr puts it, “our hair is on fire.”

There’s a lot more about Durant in GOLDEN DAYS, particularly Jerry West’s take on his game. (Hint: He loves him.) It’s going to be fascinating to see if K.D. and Curry can produce even more magic this season.

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