We revere Bill Russell for a stoicism bordering on disdain, because he valued winning above all else and gave us this second law of his basketball philosophy at the height of his playing career: “You got to have the killer instinct. If you do not have it, forget about basketball and go into social psychology or something. If you sometimes wonder if you’ve got it, you ain’t got it. No pussycats, please.”
We worship Michael Jordan for a competitiveness on compulsion’s edge, because he came through in the clutch and convinced us cheating against old ladies in card games, bullying teammates and setting fire to the league in his Hall of Fame speech was more maniacal drive than just plain insane.
We appreciate Kobe Bryant for a bravado teetering on conceit, because he dared compare himself to Jordan and damn near reached that height. Even MJ tipped his cap to Kobe for that level of bombast. And if you didn’t much care for Bryant, he wore you down, because the Mamba mentality is relentless.
“When you’re looking at players out there now,” Bryant told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck in April, “you’re saying, ‘OK, there’s not a next Michael Jordan.’ It’s not about the surface stuff. It’s about: Are they approaching the game the way he did? … That is what it means to be a Michael Jordan—to be a Kobe. That is what we should be looking for.”
So, we revile LeBron James despite him displaying many of those same traits, because he fell short of his pledge to deliver countless titles after making a spectacle of taking his talents to South Beach.
I’m not sure sports takes were hot enough in the decades following Russell’s retirement to measure every great that came after against his 11 rings, although Wilt Chamberlain experienced it in real time. I do know Bryant was compared to Jordan every step of the way, and LeBron was held up to both.
Weighing their performances against each other is never enough. We dissect their personalities — that killer instinct, the clutch gene and a mentality to always take the last shot with the game on the line. This is why LeBron caught so much flak for joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, earned a modicum of vindication for winning in Cleveland, and still managed to hear the noise after passing to Kyle Korver and watching Kyrie Irving dribble out the game clock with this year’s Finals in the balance.
How you feel about LeBron in relation to Bryant and Jordan probably says a lot about whose side you took in the feud between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that spanned the entire 2016-17 season. And it also probably says a lot more about you than it does them. Because one won the Finals MVP, the other will most likely take home regular-season MVP, and they reached those by tearing down the walls we’ve constructed to judge the game’s all-time greats by hardware and statistical achievements.
Following Durant’s decision to join the Warriors, Jordan told Complex magazine of Westbrook, “Thirty years ago, that’s me. The attitude, trying to prove myself, showing so much passion for the game of basketball. You see it in his play. You can tell he loves the game, he plays with energy and flair.” And then the two teamed up on a commercial branded with the slogan, “Some run, some make runways.”
Anyone who watched Westbrook play basketball this season could see he doesn’t just have a killer instinct; he is trying to gut you on every single possession. This approach resulted in a historic triple-double campaign, clinched with a 50-point performance that was capped with a buzzer-beater, eliminated the Denver Nuggets from playoff contention and meant nothing to his own team’s seeding.
That was the defining moment of Westbrook’s season. In a relatively meaningless early April game, when other stars may have rested, he went supernova in a singular effort that encapsulated every one of the characteristics we hold so dear about the game’s great winners and all but clinched his regular-season MVP campaign. Two weeks later, Westbrook’s Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Durant was widely criticized for joining the Warriors a month after that 73-win team required a 3-1 comeback to slay his OKC squad in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. It was portrayed as the coward’s way out. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Traitorous. And still is in some circles.
Durant had his defining moment, too — a 3-pointer in stride over LeBron to give Golden State the lead for good in the final minute of Game 3 of the NBA Finals that essentially ended Cleveland’s chance of repeating as champs. It was as killer and clutch and mentally tough a shot as any those other greats ever had. And it set his Finals MVP candidacy in bronze. Five days later, he was crowned a champion.
Yet, there are those who discredit Durant’s accomplishment because he had help. Or rather because of who helped him. Had he won with Westbrook, who many believe was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player this year, instead of Stephen Curry, who everyone believed was the league’s MVP last year, it would be a different narrative, more positive for Durant. Except, we may never have told that story.
You see, tucked away in Lee Jenkins’ wonderful post-Finals feature on Durant was this little nugget:
When the Thunder faced the Clippers, Matt Barnes defended Durant while Chris Paul drew Westbrook. “The only person in the world who can stop you,” Barnes crowed, “is your teammate.” The most effective trash talk, Barnes has discovered in more than a decade of NBA rabble-rousing, is the kind spiked with the smallest shred of truth.
More than ever, it seems Durant was convinced last summer he couldn’t win with Westbrook. Or didn’t want to. Or at least didn’t think their styles of play and personalities meshed the way his might with the Warriors, and so he joined Curry and company in Golden State to see how the other side lives.
Prior to his debut for the Warriors, Durant said, “You hear family a lot. That’s just a word sometimes, but this is really a lifestyle here. … I feel really grateful to play for a team like that and play with a bunch of players who are selfless and enjoy the game in its purest form.” After the season, he added of Curry, “The stuff you hear about Steph as far as sacrificing and being selfless and caring about his teammates, caring about other people is real. It’s not a fake. It’s not a facade. He doesn’t put on this mask or this suit every single day to come in here and fake in front of you guys. He really is like that. And it’s amazing to see a superstar who sacrifices, who doesn’t care about nothing but the group.”
Both of which could be perceived as digs at his former teammate. In between, Westbrook called Durant’s “family” comments “cute.” He posted pictures of cupcakes to Instagram, wore a photographer’s bib to their first meeting and called at least one Warrior a “b**** a**” in the second.
Those, too, can be interpreted as shots at an ex-teammate. If we learned anything about these two players this year, it’s that both embraced who they really were all along. Durant wanted to play with his friends and enjoy the game again. Westbrook sought vengeance against anyone who crossed him.
Westbrook yelling at Durant: "I'm coming"
Durant shrugging it off, believe he said: "You're gonna lose"
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) February 12, 2017
Maybe they’re both happier now. We know one of them is, and it’s not the one we all thought had the killer instinct. It’s the one who proved he did when it mattered most, when the Finals were on the line. And if we believe Durant is happier now in the Bay Area, then to still think he should’ve stayed in OKC is to say he doesn’t deserve that feeling, which we should all agree is a really weird thing to say.
It’s not like Durant owes the league, not after they moved his franchise from Seattle to Oklahoma City, not when Thunder general manager Sam Presti traded James Harden for a song, and not after owner Clay Bennett helped lead the charge in locking him out and taking seven percent of his future income.
And it’s not like he owes Westbrook. They had their chances. A handful of them. And they fell short. Durant was done playing hero ball with someone who’s always trying to play the hero, with teammates who make it increasingly difficult to be the hero, because double-teams came easier in OKC than they do alongside Wade and Bosh, Irving and Kevin Love, or Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
Ask Durant, and he will tell you, as he did during his media rounds this week, one look around the league revealed the one player who kept raking in the chips had stacked the deck against him. Like Kobe chased Jordan and LeBron chased Kobe, Durant was chasing LeBron, and the only way to catch him was to beat him at his own game, to choose the selfless brand of basketball he wanted to play, with teammates who let him work in space, and who would help him reach even greater heights.
And make no mistake: Durant never played better than he did during the 2017 NBA Finals.
He took his talents to the Bay Area for the promise of untold titles, only without the pomp and circumstance. He didn’t feed the media spectacle beyond being who he is and signing with the team he did, and there wasn’t much he could do about that, beyond doing what he didn’t want to do.
Joining the Warriors wasn’t an acceptance of defeat in the face of LeBron; it was an acceptance of who he is, an all-time great chasing arguably the greatest of all time. It was a chance to change the narrative, to find the killer instinct, the competitive fire, the cocksure mentality on his own terms, all while working with people who make the job more fun in a city that serves his interests better.
And it worked. Just ask Paul Pierce, who needed help chasing Kobe, and who — after Durant amassed 71 points on 67 percent true shooting, 22 rebounds, 14 assists against two turnovers, five blocks and three steals in Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals — said, “He may be the best player in the world today.”
Even if it wasn’t true, that’s the good stuff. We do not fault Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister for creating alliances in their quest for the Iron Throne. LeBron was the King; Durant is the Kingslayer.
We could argue Durant could’ve reached the same mountaintop with the Thunder. That he and Westbrook should’ve beaten the Warriors and the Cavaliers last year. That there’s an emptiness in chasing a ring with the team that took them out. But that’s our story. He fell short against LeBron, Wade and Bosh in 2012, and never got his shot at LeBron, Irving and Love in 2016. Who’s to say he ever gets there again without Curry, Thompson and Green? Maybe there’s an emptiness in him, then, or maybe there’s an emptiness in winning without guys he’d rather play with, the way he’d rather play?
He did not choose the Thunder. The SuperSonics chose him. That may sound trite, but it’s true.
This isn’t to denigrate Westbrook. He may value loyalty above all else. Defiance may be his greatest virtue. Signing an extension after Durant joined the Warriors certainly suggests that to be true. And it was entertaining as hell to watch him take on the league like a one-man army, going down in a blaze of glory. Hopefully Westbrook finds peace in that. But he doesn’t get to dictate Durant’s happiness.
It’s like LeBron said of Jordan and Bryant comparisons after winning his first championship in 2013:
“There are different ways to hunt. I watch the Discovery Channel all the time, and you look at all these animals in the wild. And they all hunt a different way to feed their families. They all kill a different way.”
I used to disagree with this, adamantly. I always thought there was honor in dying on the hill you were given, which is maybe why I feel so fondly about Pierce’s career arc with the Boston Celtics. Even then, it took a pack of killers to take out Kobe. And surely Minnesota Timberwolves fans feel differently about Kevin Garnett than I do about Pierce. KG’s journey wasn’t the same as Durant’s, but nobody’s is.
I might even still feel the league would be better off with Durant on the Thunder. That he and Westbrook would have given us at least one more great playoff series rather than the predictable postseason we just witnessed. That falling short again would’ve been more honorable and virtuous.
It’s a tough topic to tackle. But that’s my problem, not Durant’s. And at least the way it all shook out we were treated to a heckuva 2016-17 storyline, culminating in Westbrook’s historic individual effort and Durant’s contributions to arguably the greatest team of all time. Each gave us those moments — that game-winner in Denver and the shot to seal Game 3 — that will stand the test of NBA time forever. And both found their killer instinct in their own right, not the way we might’ve scripted it.
Maybe I’m softening with age. Maybe I’m appreciating the importance of the people you work with and their effect on your happiness a little more this week. And maybe it’s time we view of our superstars in a different light. Times are changing, and it’s OK if the way we view NBA greatness changes with it.
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