The NBA has been bad for two years, and it’s Kevin Durant’s fault.
If the Warriors beat the Cavaliers on Friday night, they’ll clinch a second straight title, compiling a playoff record of 32–6 along the way. This team has erased two seasons of potentially exciting basketball as thoroughly as Ted Williams’ military service erased several years of his prime.
The Warriors aren’t the ’96 Bulls. The Warriors were the ’96 Bulls—a 70-plus-win team with a superstar and a championship-level supporting cast. Then they added the second-best player in the league. It’s as if David Robinson decided to join Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and coast his way to some mid-’90s titles.
Despite the NBA’s current monotony—and despite the clarity about the one guy who made it so—most sports writers and serious fans have declined to say much about it. I think there are three reasons why.
The first is simple. ESPN needs to keep viewers invested in a sport it pays $1.4 billion per year to broadcast, and that same dynamic applies to other media outlets. Consider the stories ESPN.com ran in the buildup to the Finals. Two days before Game 1, we were lectured: “Why Round 4 of Warriors-Cavs Deserves Our Appreciation.” One day before, we were listicled: “Here are 25 reasons Cavs-Warriors is a rivalry unlike any we’ve seen in sports.” When the media tired of talking about Durant’s messy defection—Draymond Green’s sales pitch, Russell Westbrook’s cupcakes—they moved on. But the Warriors’ season-ending dominance is a story no one can escape.
The second reason is NBA Twitter, the boosterish and perpetually logged-on community that helps shape the sport’s narratives. The hoops writers and junkies who reside there consume and celebrate the NBA in its League Pass entirety, and at their best, they produce a delightful mess of GIFs and memes and exuberant in-jokes. But NBA Twitter rarely criticizes the league’s top-heavy predictability or the preposterous foul baiting of its stars. These might be the sport’s most nationalized fans, but they exhibit a small-town parochialism, where everything is wonderful so long as it’s happening in their league.
There’s one last reason Durant has gotten a pass, and it’s the most important but also the most subtle. In the past decade, sports writers (especially younger, online sports writers) have become more pro-labor—meaning more pro-player. I’m one of those younger, online sports writers, and I agree with this necessary shift. If you want to induce some eye-rolls, don’t queue up film of a Durant iso—read some old sports columns, like this Sports Illustrated back-pager by Rick Reilly, written during the NBA’s 1998 lockout.
Reilly sarcastically parallels the demands of NBA players with the demands of workers at a Peterbilt truck factory who are also on strike. “NBA players want the minimum salary for veterans raised to around $1 million,” he writes. “The Peterbilt workers have outrageous demands, too. They’re asking for … the chance to retire at a livable wage before 65.” Reilly loves cracking jokes about players like Patrick Ewing and Kenny Anderson. Yet he has little to say regarding the wealth or greed of NBA owners.
Today, this tendency has flipped. The sports writer’s instinct is to criticize the owner and defend the star, and that makes sense for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is that we tune in to the NBA Finals to watch not Dan Gilbert but LeBron James.
But we also tune in to watch a good game. While pro-player sports writing has created a better sports world and better sports writing, it shouldn’t ignore the fan experience. But too often it does. The reaction to Durant jumping to the Warriors is the best example of this in recent memory. Thanks to an explosion of broadcast money from ESPN et al., the NBA saw its salary cap spike in the summer of 2016. That gave everyone extra cap room, even the Warriors, and they spent wisely, adding Durant to a 73-win team that had just eliminated him from the playoffs. It was instantly clear that the Warriors were a supersquad without precedent, a team with four of the league’s best 15 players (and two of its best five).
The reaction, especially among young sports writers, wasn’t to lament this decision. It was to justify it. Durant was, according to Deadspin, “an employee making an employment decision.” A few months later, after the new-look Warriors had waltzed to the finals, SB Nation was still sounding this theme: “Most of us inherently know that people should have a right to determine where and for whom they work.”
That’s true, as far as it goes. But think about this from the perspective of the fan. The recent Western Conference finals was the first competitive series Golden State has faced in two full years. Why was it competitive? Because the Rockets were talented and played hard, sure. But far more it was because the Warriors struggled—because Andre Iguodala got hurt, because Kevin Durant loafed after rebounds, because the Warriors never quite clicked. As basketball fans, we should hope that each of the league’s stars does what LeBron’s been doing in these playoffs: grow, flourish, transcend. But if the Warriors’ stars did that in every game, they’d beat even the Rockets by 40 points. So instead we had to root for some of the game’s most gorgeous players to keep playing sludgy basketball.
There’s been a ton of chatter this postseason about LeBron’s legacy, about the rise of the 76ers, about the wizardry of Brad Stevens. But each of these stories always felt like a distraction—the joke the dentist tells you as he’s warming up the drill. The Warriors were going to win, unless they managed to beat themselves.
This inevitability is what Kevin Durant chose, and that choice has drained the drama from an entire professional sport. Sports writers (and sports fans) can admit this while still being broadly pro-player. They can also condemn Durant’s decision without calling for the abolishment of free agency or the burning of the nearest Thunder jersey. So far, at least, most of them haven’t. But here’s a free angle for any hack trapped in tonight’s press box, trying to find a new way to describe Golden State’s stale superiority: The Warriors used to be fun to hate. Now they’re boring to watch.