The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
It’s safe to say that Kevin Durant’s public image has changed since the last time he suited up for an NBA game. The newest Golden State Warriors superstar move away from the Oklahoma City Thunder did not receive nearly the hate that LeBron James did when he chose to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for the Miami Heat in 2010, but the mere fact that we are able to make the comparison speaks to the enmity that came Durant’s way after he made his free agent announcement on the morning of July 4. A player once held up as one of the NBA’s good guys was suddenly all types of bad — a coward, a traitor, a general talent who’d rather coast to a title than truly earn one with the franchise that helped him grow.
This line of thinking has been cast as childish in so many articles over the past few months that it’s not worth making the argument again. Durant had the chance to choose his destination and picked a franchise that made sense for him — the Warriors offered him the chance to succeed in an environment that most players would love to join. The question isn’t why Durant wanted to play for the Warriors, because their 73-win season and entertaining style of play are obvious points in their favor. It’s why he, in his capacity as the sort of all-world superstar looked at as a genuine steward of the league, chose something that threatens to make the next few NBA seasons less interesting.
No matter the logic of Durant’s move, it’s hard to escape the thought that the identity of the 2016-17 champion feels preordained. The Warriors were overwhelming favorites last year and added one of the two or three best players in the league. The last three games of the NBA Finals proved that the inevitable can sometimes be nothing of the sort, but that was a historic comeback for a reason. Does it really make sense to bet against Golden State this season? And who else but Durant is to blame for the prospect of more than six months of awaiting a result we already seem to know?
I’m here to tell you not to worry — this season is going to be fun, like all of them are, and maybe especially because of Durant.
Kevin Durant, basketball player, is much more interesting than Kevin Durant, offseason lightning rod. In fact, the Olympics were a nice reminder that Durant can still capture plenty of positive attention with his play on the court. His performances for Team USA were quintessential KD, full of the effortless jumpers and loping dribble-moves that have become his trademarks. As leader of the gold medalists, Durant displayed his incredible talent and at least momentarily reminded everyone why everyone paid special attention to every update on his free-agent decision early this summer. Even his new home with the Warriors seemed more like a simple fact of his career than a league-shaking threat. Patriotism surely had something to do with that acceptance, but it surely helped that Durant’s play makes him so easy to support. After all, that’s the biggest reason he earned so many fans in the first place. Those two weeks in Rio de Janeiro went well enough that Durant himself referred to it as therapy.
Plus, there’s reason to believe that Durant will be even more exciting to watch with Golden State. As Jerry West argued in what is already one of the most famous phone calls in NBA history, Durant now has the opportunity to become known as a great player for more than just his scoring. In fact, his performance against his new teammates in the Western Conference Finals could prove as a template for his forthcoming role. While Durant had an up-and-down series with plenty of inefficient shooting nights in the Thunder’s seven-game loss, he offered perhaps the most complete view of his game to date. KD made plays all over the court, particularly as the most suffocating defender in lineups brimming with length. Plenty of teams will try to mimic Oklahoma City’s efforts in that series, but they’ll be missing the guy who made it most possible. Unfortunately for those opponents, he’ll be on the other side.
It’s easy to imagine Durant in a similarly versatile role for the Warriors. He’ll shoot, of course, but also slide into Golden State’s much-vaunted switching defense, share playmaking duties with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, and chip in on the boards against teams that look for an advantage over the Warriors in at least one facet. He’s likely to shed many of the isolation tendencies that occasionally rankled in OKC, too. In other words, he’ll be a basketball player that’s nearly impossible not to enjoy for some reason over the course of 48 minutes. Anyone who doesn’t like any of it will be trying not to.
That’s not to say he’ll be loved. It’s too simple to say that Durant will eventually reclaim his old image, because the move to Golden State obviously changed the course of his career. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the view of him as a humble tonic to the too-arrogant LeBrons of the world was always overly simplistic. Durant has always been a complicated person with varying views on the life of an NBA superstar, and anyone who thought him a long shot to leave Oklahoma City saw only what they wanted to. Yet such a change can be jarring even if the initial impression was misguided, and it will take some time for people to come around on the new Durant.
But this is still the same guy everyone wants to watch every time he takes the court. There are few NBA-related things as fun and awe-inspiring as Kevin Durant at the height of his powers. A lot of people don’t like the idea of the 2015 MVP in a Warriors jersey, but that same group won’t begin to come around on Durant until they see him in it. In the end, talent usually wins over the unforgiving. It’s just a matter of how long it will take.
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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!