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The problem with Kevin Durant’s villainy

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Kevin Durant is not a bad guy for exercising his collectively bargained right to work somewhere else.

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As we embark on a championship series in which LeBron James and Kevin Durant will be the biggest names and their legacies will be the hottest topics, it’s worth remembering July, 2010.

No one could forget what LeBron did in those tumultuous days. King James ripped apart the fabric of the league by choosing the Miami Heat in free agency, spurning the Cleveland Cavaliers and building a true superteam in South Beach.

Meanwhile in Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant quietly forged his reputation. With three years in the league, Durant was eligible to sign a huge contract extension, which he did with no fanfare, no cameras, and little notice by casual basketball fans.

KD announced it on Twitter, and did relatively little press in the following days and weeks. He was lauded for the lack of attention he drew himself, and for his loyalty.

As Tommy Craggs documented in Slate at the time, most who lavished praise on Durant ignored the fact that LeBron had signed a similar extension in 2006, and that most superstars or superstars-in-waiting quietly lock in their early extension at max money at first opportunity. They tend to consider their options after that contract, as unrestricted free agents. Most stay, some leave.

The truth is that many basketball fans don’t like to see players leave, even if they are not a fan of the team from which the star flees. The dirty secret is that many basketball fans don’t like the fact that stars are allowed to decide where to play. That’s why LeBron was a villain and Durant a saint in 2010, and it’s why their roles are more or less reversed now.

Of course, most of us inherently know that people should have a right to determine where and for whom they work. Nearly all occupations in modern society allow that freedom. Free agency has been around for almost 50 years in sports thanks to pioneering athletes like Curt Flood and Oscar Robertson.

But so many people still aren’t comfortable with the idea that mere players like LeBron and Durant can determine the course of a league. So many, it seems, are repulsed by player power. It’s a bit too gauche to simply say, “I don’t think players should be able to have free agency.” As a result we hear excuses.

Instead of making a case to remove LeBron’s agency, people whine about the new generation taking the easier path. They mock the style in which the stars announce their decisions, whether they be television specials or meetings in the Hamptons. It’s graceless to argue against player freedom, so they shame them on technicalities.

It’s a boorish perpetual cycle. LeBron revealed it to be an unbelievable sham when the same fans who had burned his jerseys rallied to his side upon his return in 2014. Because of contrived rules about loyalty (a quaint notion in a multi-billion dollar industry) and tone (Lee Jenkins vs. primetime on ESPN), LeBron’s 2014 decision was received differently.

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs - Game Three Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Durant’s move to Golden State is seen as lame because he joined a club that already made two straight NBA Finals with the core of a team that had already won a banner. The move is seen as shameful because Durant couldn’t beat the Warriors, so he joined them. His decision to leave Oklahoma City for the Bay Area plays into the Warriors’ own growing villainy. It’s also linked (at least tangentially) to a national skepticism about Silicon Valley’s influence and power.

The real problem people have is that Durant exercised his right to determine his own future. If Gordon Hayward leaves Utah in July, people will find an excuse to lambaste it whether or not they actually care about the Jazz. If Anthony Davis leaves New Orleans in 2020, fans will rage at his internal weakness at refusing to carry that franchise. If Russell Westbrook — whose reputation benefited immensely from Durant’s fall from favor — leaves Oklahoma City in a year, the mood will turn against him, too.

The solution isn’t apathy: of course we all care where players go. The fix is to stop blaming players who take advantage of free agency to build better situations for themselves for the league’s problems.

Durant smartly pointed out this week that his decision isn’t the reason the Nets or Magic are terrible. It’s interesting that so many scold Durant and the Warriors for the NBA’s parity issues, but don’t blame the general managers who make foolish deals or the owners who preside over generational failure.

The NBA’s own pro-parity rules that give teams an advantage in keeping young stars — the rules that kept Durant in OKC in 2010 — helped build the Warriors juggernaut every bit as much as KD’s decision to join. Those pro-parity rules helped Golden State keep Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson while preserving the salary cap space in 2016 to sign a big-name free agent.

Other once-in-a-lifetime events (like the salary cap spike) aligned to make it possible. Instead of chalking it up as an aberration, we badger Durant for taking the so-called easy way out. It’s all so unnecessary.

This isn’t to say you have to like Durant as a Warrior, or an NBA that allows so loaded a roster. You can object on structural and aesthetic grounds. That is valid.

But casting aspersions on Durant because his decision about where to live and work doesn’t align with your tastes is absurd. Star athletes have agency. Get used to it.