The Warriors won a title two years ago and nearly again last season and that was without Kevin Durant. So, where exactly would a championship on a super-talented team place Durant’s legacy?
In basketball, perhaps more so than any other team sport, it’s what defines a superstar’s career.
It is the difference between Kevin Garnett and Charles Barkley. It is what separates Hakeem Olajuwon from Patrick Ewing. It is what distinguishes Isiah Thomas from John Stockton and so on and so forth.
I am speaking, in this case, about an NBA title — and if you’re an elite player who wins one, your legacy rises to one of the most exclusive planes in the sport.
Season series: Tied, 1-1. The Cavaliers pulled out a 109-108 victory in their heavily hyped Christmas Day matchup in Cleveland when Kyrie Irving made a turnaround jumper with 3.4 seconds remaining to complete a comeback from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit. Golden State answered with a 126-91 rout nearly a month later, leading by as much as 39 points at home.
Story line: The Warriors and Cavaliers make NBA history by becoming the first teams to meet in three straight NBA Finals. Golden State won in 2015, Cleveland erased a 3-1 deficit to win its first championship last year.
Key matchup: Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James. Their second NBA Finals matchup comes five years after their first, when James won his first championship as Miami overpowered Oklahoma City in 2012. Durant has a much better team and has become a much more complete player now in his first season with the Warriors. But this also may be the best all-around version of James, who is averaging 32.5 points on nearly 57 percent shooting, and adding 8.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game.
The Associated Press
Unless, of course, you joined a 73-win team.
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A week or two from now, former Sonic Kevin Durant may very well be a guy who just won a ring. But I’m not sure he’ll be a guy who earned one.
His resume may soon boast the word “champion,” but it’ll be hard not to see an asterisk by it when you squint.
Durant is probably the most talented player to never win a title — and that includes Barkley, Karl Malone, and Elgin Baylor. But the Warriors topping the Cavaliers won’t validate his career. That championship monkey will remain cemented to his back.
For years, Seattleites saw Durant as a nauseating reminder of what could have been had the Sonics not moved to Oklahoma City. He was the face of a consistently-contending franchise that simply could not be supported around here.
From an individual standpoint, though, it seemed folks from the 206 always wished they could pull for KD. But now that seems difficult, doesn’t it? What would him winning a championship really prove?
No superstar has ever joined a team as dominant and established as Golden State. With the core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson — not to mention 2015 Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala — the Warriors broke the all-time regular-season wins record last year and were a minute away from repeating as NBA champs.
Durant is almost like a lotto winner who simply needs to drive to 7-11 to claim his prize. At this point, his only job is to not mess it up.
I know what you’re thinking: How is Durant’s choice different than LeBron’s decision to form a super team in Miami seven years ago? Legitimate question, but it doesn’t let Durant off the hook. First of all, nobody was quite sure how LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would jell. The assumption was that they would put out a championship product, but it’s not like the Heat was of championship caliber the year before James arrived.
Secondly, had someone other than James been one third of that South Beach trio, it’s easy to speculate that Miami would have gone championship-less.
James won NBA MVP in each of the Heat’s championship seasons. He had epic Game 7 performances against the Celtics, Pacers and Spurs.
LeBron wasn’t just the best player in the league, he was the difference-maker when his team needed him most. He was, in a word, irreplaceable.
That’s the difference between Durant’s Warriors and that of super teams past. If you took Magic away from Worthy and Kareem, the Lakers would have folded. If you took Bird away from McHale and Parish, the Celtics don’t win those titles.
But if you took Durant away from Curry, Thompson and Green … the Warriors would be just fine. They did, after all, win 13 straight without him.
I’m not saying Durant necessarily made the wrong decision. It’s his life, and if he’s happy, good for him. He’s in a great city. He enjoys a rabid fan base. And if the Warriors go 16-0 in the playoffs, one could argue that he played on the greatest NBA team ever.
At the same time, however, I can’t help but imagine what the league would look like had Durant gone to Boston, which tried to nab him in free agency. I think about how there could be four or five legitimate contenders every season, each with a definitive star fighting for his place on the totem pole.
But now, a Golden State-Cleveland matchup just seems inevitable. And if the Warriors dominate every game this series, serious boredom may be in the NBA’s future.
The Finals begin Thursday, and there is intrigue everywhere you look. For the first time in league history, two teams will meet on this stage for the third consecutive year.
If James is able to drive his Cavs past a squad with four All-Stars and the last two NBA MVPs, he’ll inch that much closer to Michael Jordan and prove himself as the most dominant athlete in the world. And if Durant is able to guide the Warriors to the title, he’ll prove … well, I’m not sure what exactly.