Kevin Durant Is Living, And Thriving, In The Moment

For much of the last year, the story of Kevin Durant has been about where he might go as a free agent. He's telling a different story on the court right now, and a much more entertaining one.
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There's an apparent effortlessness to the way Kevin Durant carries himself on a basketball court, and it has been striking to see how unruffled and outwardly impassive he’s remained even while shredding the most formidable opponent he's ever faced in these Western Conference Finals. "Apparent" because it's almost certainly not real—Durant is a grown-ass man who's spent nearly all of his 27-and-change years on this Earth perfecting his craft, which is a lot of effort—and outwardly because it is clear that there is something very hot boiling away behind his eyes. Durant, more than anyone in the NBA today save for the superstar opposing him in this series, has a way of toying with the game. He treats world-class opponents the way teenagers treat their eight-year-old kid brothers in driveway games of one-on-one. It only looks easy.

Durant curls artfully around a teammate's screen, leaving a defender chasing helplessly behind him as he finds a ray of daylight in which to squeeze off a step-back jumper. He attacks the paint, weaving his way through two defenders before flying to the rim for a dunk. He glides down the floor in transition, finds a comfortable landing spot just beyond the arc, catches an outlet pass and flicks an easy 24-footer through the bottom of the net. None of these things actually happen without effort, but you could not be blamed for believing otherwise.

Part of it is the fact that Durant's entire life has prepared him for these moments; he's spent more time cutting around screens and running fast breaks than just about any of us have doing anything. The other part, if we’re being fair, is that he's a freak. Depending on how you frame it, Durant is either a power forward with an impossibly smooth jumper or a shooting guard with an impossibly long 7-foot-4 wingspan. Either way, he's an incomparably gifted player, so to a certain extent, yeah, the game is indeed easier for him than most other people on earth. If you’ve seen him, you already know all this.

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On July 1, Durant will hit the open market and test free agency, making him the most high-profile player to hit the open market since LeBron James left Miami in 2014. There's no escaping the inevitability of this—no matter what happens, Durant is five weeks away from the most difficult decision of his life. On one hand, he's been loyal to Oklahoma City and Oklahoma City has been loyal to him, so it would make perfect sense for the two to hold their ostensibly stable marriage together for at least another season or five. But Durant will also hold the power to choose basically any basketball future he can imagine for himself, and that will not be an easy call. Basketball is muscle memory at this point for Durant; basketball, relatively speaking, is easy. Free agency is new and unfamiliar, and will be difficult even if the Thunder win it all. 

For those who use sports as a sort of escapism from their daily lives, the agency part of free agency is the appealing part—the possibility of a player making a decision that triggers great and sudden change across the league. The fun of Kevin Durant, the free agent, is getting to picture him in any one of 30 different uniforms; your mind can go to some fun places when you let it wander. With Durant, though, the mental exercise is an odd one, because we know nothing about his thought process. Durant isn't dropping hints on Twitter about his future destination, nor is he leaking details behind the scenes to Stephen A. Smith or whoever—he’s at work winning a championship, and his only interactions with Stephen A have been to dismiss his speculation. Durant has given us nothing but his silent, focused, determined play, which honestly is plenty. This leaves fans with nothing but wild guesses about his future, either by projecting the mindsets of other players ("Maybe Durant will 'go home' in free agency, just like LeBron!") or just making shit up ("KD is a #FutureLaker!"). This would all happen even if Durant had been open about his thoughts on free agency, of course.

The takes get tiresome, for Durant as much as anyone else, which is another reason that the Thunder’s ongoing surge is so gratifying, and so welcome. It’s been a pure respite, and there has been a nicely appropriate comedy to seeing the aspiring dynasties most rumored as possible destination—first San Antonio and then Golden State—try to deal with him in the moment. In the eight years since Durant and Westbrook joined forces, this might be the best chance they've had yet at a title—that 2012 NBA Finals team was too young, too raw, not quite ready, and they’ve had awful luck since then. This year's group appears poised to take full advantage of the opportunity they've been given, and to swing from conversation piece—the team that Durant and Westbrook were destined to leave—back into real-time relevance.

Many words have been written about the interesting stylistic contrast that exists in this playoff matchup between the Thunder and Warriors. The Warriors are small; the Thunder are big. The Dubs, with their ability to use Draymond Green at center and space floor to death, can extract a staggering level of efficiency from every single possession offensively; OKC, with their Steven Adams-Enes Kanter-Serge Ibaka murderer's row on the front line, wins by dominating the offensive glass and simply creating more opportunities. Both tactics are viable, and their juxtaposition has made this series fascinating.

Durant, though, has stood above the whole thing. He is the best of both worlds; he's both small and big. He can use his jump shot to create spacing like none other; he can also use his size to bully almost anyone. He can do it all, and right now, he is. Durant the player—not Durant the pawn on the July free agency chessboard—has the ability to make basketball look as free-flowing and inspiring and joyful unlike just about anyone else in the world; the only player who’s close is Stephen Curry, who currently stands between Durant and another NBA Finals. May and June suddenly look a lot more interesting than July, for Durant and everyone else.

For months, there was a nagging sense that we would never get to enjoy these moments with this team—there was sort of a specter looming over this Thunder playoff run, this depressing idea that they weren't so much actively vying for a championship as passively letting the future happen to them. It felt like it was only a matter of time until OKC got pasted this May by a superior team, at which point the end of the KD Administration would begin in earnest. The future cast a long, cold shadow on the present.

That’s dissipating now, and Durant is transparently enjoying the hell out of the present. At 27.7 points per game, he's the leading scorer of the 2016 playoffs, and his team is putting it to the historically great Warriors. Durant has seized control of his own story, and is telling it the way he wants, undaunted by the Spurs, Warriors, or anyone else. Forget about Durant's free agency; right now, it's his agency that matters.


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