When Kevin Durant left the Warriors following the 2019 season, no one was surprised. His time in the Bay had been beneficial for both him and Golden State; in their three years together Durant, Stephen Curry, and the rest of the Warriors won two titles, made three Finals appearances, and formed a strong claim as the greatest team ever in their first year together. Yet it could not last. Dominant as the Curry and Durant pairing was, it was never a natural fit. It sounds silly to say that they never reached their full potential in light of all they achieved together, but they more often looked like two individuals who happened to be wearing the same jersey than genuine teammates. Now, two years since their dynasty came to a close, they still orbit one another, their fates no longer intertwined but still impacting the other’s.
In Tuesday night’s game between Durant’s current and former squad, the contrast between the two teams was evident. The game was close at halftime, but then Golden State went on one of their patented third quarter runs, outscoring Brooklyn by 17 in the quarter on their way to a convincing victory. Durant’s frenemy Dryamond Green helped hold him to under 20 points for the first time all year while Curry had yet another shooting night worthy of Mt. Etna, making nine 3’s and scoring 37 overall. The Nets appeared cautious, as if they were more worried about avoiding embarrassment than winning the game. The Warriors, meanwhile, were ebullient, their free-flowing offense looking like a natural outgrowth of their own sense of joy. If one wanted to treat the game as a referendum on who the best player in the NBA is, or which team looks most likely to contend for a title next summer, a clear answer was provided.
Durant could slide into the starting line-up of any team in the NBA seamlessly. He would score 25 to 30 points every night without the team having to overhaul their strategy-- just pass him the ball every few possessions and he’ll create an open look. He is the Platonic ideal of a scorer, the evolutionary end point of every great who preceded him. There are shades of George Gervin, Tracy McGrady, Julius Erving, and so many others in his game, Durant adapting and perfecting the particularities of these legends into something new, but also recognizable. He is methodical and clinical, both in style and effect. Points just seem to accumulate like water in a bucket placed under a dripping faucet: surely, consistently, and inevitably.
Curry, however, creates a world unto himself. He plays like no one else in NBA history -- who else would have even thought to try until watching him do it? Has any player ever been so audacious and had their audacity so consistently rewarded? Even though any NBA fan could identify his general tendencies, the particular manifestation of them every night seems to arise out of nowhere, both unforeseeable and fully formed. Defenders do not know when he will strike, but when he does, the points come in torrents. In these moments, it does not appear to be basketball at all, but magic. Who could refine such a blueprint?
When Durant signed with the Nets, he received everything he could have asked for: the chance to play alongside one of his closest friends, a coach who would be open to him freelancing offensively, and a franchise that would accommodate him in every way. It was a chance for him to take fuller control of his life and his career, away from the domineering on-court presence of Draymond Green and the structure of Steve Kerr’s offense. There was supposed to be freedom in this, but instead he has found himself besieged by bad luck that has him trapped in a new way. With Harden struggling as he recovers from a hamstring injury, and Irving absent, potentially missing the entire season, Durant finds himself carrying a burden that he, great as he is, cannot bear alone.
The Nets have placed themselves in a championship-or-bust situation. It was a risk worth taking in theory, and when all three of their stars are present and healthy, they form potentially the most lethal trio in NBA history. But so far, apart from intermittent moments of overwhelming transcendence that dance along the boundary separating beauty from devastation, this potential has yet to be realized. More frustratingly, it’s not that they have failed to actualize it, but that they have hardly had the chance.
Of course, this is all provisional. Perhaps Harden more fully embodies his old self as the year progresses; perhaps Irving decides to get vaccinated and rejoin the team. Maybe Golden State’s hot start is a mirage and maybe the long-term effects of two consecutive season-ending injuries will keep Klay Thompson from being his old self. Regardless, all Durant and Curry accomplished in their brief time together will raise the question of what else could have been -- no matter what else they may come to achieve individually.
As the game wore down in Brooklyn, Stephen Curry received a chorus of MVP chants from the Barclays crowd. It was a reminder of the rumors that Durant resented Warriors fans loving and appreciating Curry more than him; that he felt he did not get enough credit for all he achieved and all he helped the team accomplish. Sometimes, it does not matter how far you travel, the same problems will arise in a new guise. Few gains come without some concomitant loss. Not everyone can create their own world.