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Kevin Durant turned LeBron James into a populist hero

Six years after becoming the villain by forming his own superteam, LeBron James is the good guy again.

When we last left LeBron James he was celebrating his third NBA title in style. By winning one for Northeast Ohio, James completed his transformation from unloved Goliath to populist hero. Once the most hated man in sports, and more recently, its most criminally underrated superstar, LeBron had now fulfilled a mission that anyone with a human heart could relate to.

It seemed like things couldn’t get any better for James, who has always been acutely aware of both his basketball legacy and the careful brand management that comes with being an athlete of his stature. He finally had a narrative that only he could lay claim to, and with his image burnished by the optics of the Warriors series, things couldn’t possibly have gotten any better for James as a player, a corporate entity, and presumably, as a person.

And then Kevin Durant decided to sign with the Warriors, and a whole new world of possibilities opened up for LeBron.

LeBron’s game remains so unfathomable that we strain to process it on the most basic level. It’s impossible to overstate just how surreal it has been to watch him connect so closely with the common man (or fan). This title established him as a player who saw the value of personal connection to a team and a city, and that he was capable of being downright sentimental about winning, as witnessed by his postgame tears. Far from being the NBA figure you love to hate, as he was in Miami, LeBron’s second stint in Cleveland has seen him emerge as arguably the game’s most beloved figure — or at least one qualified to give that jabber-jawing, mouthguard-chuckin’ Steph Curry a run for his money.

James was sitting pretty even before the Durant news broke, in large part because of what looked to be a long-term rivalry with the Warriors. Now, Golden State becomes a whole different kind of scary on the court and, because of Durant’s decision, takes on a decidedly nefarious cast. Not only would the Warriors now be too good for their (or anyone else’s) own good, they had arrived at it in the most dishonest way possible: by poaching the franchise player from the team that had nearly eliminated them in the Western Conference Finals. This rivalry becomes a clear-cut struggle of good versus evil and LeBron James finds himself fighting for all that’s right in basketball (and the world). What a difference six years makes.

It was only six years ago, though, that James was being blasted for bringing together The Big Three in Miami, a team that — like the Warriors now — was accused of gaming the system, colluding to upset the league’s competitive balance and just generally refusing to comply with unspoken rules about just how much star power could inhabit a single roster. The Heat, as it turned out, didn’t dominate every game they ever played, or even get a title that first year together. They certainly weren’t as good as this year’s Warriors and although there may be some growing pains to start 2016-17, we should expect the Durant-ified Dubs to be even better than the 2015-16 edition

Still, they were reviled, especially James, and to see him bounce back like this has been nothing short of remarkable. With Golden State now established as the Ultimate Evil of the sport, or at least its consummate uber-team, it falls on LeBron James — the one man who can stop them — to head into battle next season with yet another goal that goes well beyond a season championship. Unless there’s a massive reversal of opinion concerning the Warriors next season (unlikely), James will find himself tasked with defending basketball from all that this team stands for. Mercenary players, annoying tech money, dirty play, nut punches … these are now not only our sworn enemies, but LeBron’s, as well. This spring, James did something for the people. Now, as he prepares to take on Durant and the Warriors, LeBron — bizarre as it sounds — has actually become one of us.

It’s worth noting that the Heat were hated for far more complex reasons than the Warriors will be. Like the Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics before them, the Heat were a so-called "super-team," a plot set into motion by guys eager to team up together. All they needed was a franchise to call home. Where some saw an unfair consolidation of talent, others saw self-determination. While many saw the Heat as somehow out of line, there was also a sense that James, Wade, and Bosh were empowering themselves on principle. The Heat were a group of guys out to establish a dynasty, not an activist front.

But if sports has its own internal politics, its own system of rules, regulations, and boundaries, then the Heat were downright revolutionary. They certainly scared the hell out of a lot of people. The enmity toward them, especially at the beginning, seemed to have its roots in something especially dark.

Kevin Durant and the Warriors are a far more ordinary story with fewer implications that go beyond the basketball court. KD made a professional decision to go play for a team that was already historically great. There was no structural change, no shift in the way players moved around, nothing but an unpopular choice one man felt he had to make. But the Warriors may end up more widely despised than the Heat (or LeBron) ever were, for the simple fact that they’re a case of the richest of rich getting even richer. Right now, the Warriors are the 1 percent getting a pay bump.

In his current incarnation, it’s everything LeBron James stands in opposition to, to such a degree that rumors of Wade coming to Cleveland — a reunion of that notorious Heat team — was cast as the Resistance gathering up their forces. That’s all you need to know about the prevailing attitude toward the Warriors right now: They can inspire nostalgia for Miami’s Big Three.

Except this time around, LeBron James hasn’t just quit being Goliath. Against Golden State, he’s now playing the role of King David.

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1 is the loneliest number for Westbrook without Durant