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WHEN WILL DURANT LEARN? A SUPERTEAM SPEED TRAIN ALWAYS DERAILS
We can root for him as he tries another mash-up — with Booker, Paul and Ayton in Phoenix — but as he knows after a Brooklyn disaster and Warriors breakup, collecting stars doesn’t work in today’s NBA
One more time, Kevin Durant has booked an express train at Superteam Station. Doesn’t he realize the service no longer works, inevitably breaking down before reaching the desired destination of Championshipland? Is he having amnesiac denial about his two anguished derailments?
If anyone should grasp the perils of speed trains, it’s Durant. He tried in the Bay Area, abruptly got off after an initial joyride, then tried again in Brooklyn, only to crash ingloriously in the most glaring and turbulent example of why superstar mash-ups don’t work in today’s social-media-consumed, greed-and-megalomania NBA. Now, here he is once more, 6 1/2 years after first leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State in his gypsy journey, bags packed for Phoenix, where Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, coach Monty Williams and an ambitious new owner await.
And something will go wrong.
In his awkward chase of titles, he has become something of a sympathetic figure when, at this point, Durant should be mounting a legacy as an all-time basketball force. It wasn’t his fault that Draymond Green is a miserable S.O.B. who bullied him — “You’re a bitch and you know you’re a bitch!” Baby Dray told him — in the petulant on-court rant that chased him from the Warriors after back-to-back championships. It wasn’t his fault that his Achilles ruptured in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals, which ended the Larry O’Brien Trophy haul at two when it was supposed to be six or seven, more than the ‘90s Bulls. In hindsight, we could say he never should have left Steph Curry, who heartily welcomed Durant and the hope of dynastic domination.
But his first pratfall led to the worst decision of his basketball life. He’s the one who thought he knew and understood Kyrie Irving when, of course, Kyrie Irving doesn’t know and understand Kyrie Irving. Durant didn’t vet his partner’s tortured mind. He was caught off-guard by perpetual agita, the endorsement of an antisemitic film, the vaccine opposition and quarrels with the New York City mayor, the dozens of Nets games he blew off — all while not caring about Durant and his legacy in the big city. Finally, as Durant dealt with his latest injuries, Irving demanded a four-year extension for $200 million last week and was told it wasn’t happening. He threw another Kyrie fit and demanded a trade, with Dallas gambling on his psyche and owner Mark Cuban desperate to make Luka Doncic happy. For now, after one victory, the Mavericks like Irving and Luka is smiling in his snug sideline sweater, dreaming of glory in a jumbled Western Conference.
And something will go wrong.
Sick of it all, Durant finally told Nets owner Joe Tsai to shove his billions. In truth, Tsai was the one who enabled the absurd idea that Durant, Irving and James Harden — remember him? — could unite for one purpose at Superteam Station. The melding was a monumental meltdown. The tragic trio played all of 16 games together. Finally, aware that he’s turning 35 this autumn and that his health is a constant issue, Durant bailed and approved a blockbuster deal with the Suns, who emptied their asset vault a night before the trade deadline.
This is his fourth team since 2016, his third since 2019. Since then, Curry has reigned as the beloved long-range gunner, product endorser and four-time champion who could run for U.S. president if he chose. LeBron James continues to play at an elite level and just became the league’s career scoring leader, amid resuming G.O.A.T. debates, as the Lakers shed their own superteam detritus — Russell Westbrook — and struggle to win a measly play-in berth with the volatile likes of D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley. Giannis Antetokounmpo has won a title and two MVP trophies in Milwaukee. Nikola Jokic might win a title and his third consecutive MVP award in Denver. What happened to Kevin Durant and his mini-beard? He got stuck in Brooklyn Bridge traffic like everyone else, swept from the playoffs last spring by the Boston Celtics, perhaps trumped this season by Joel Embiid and Harden in Philadelphia.
It was time to take his ball and head to the desert. Only days after the NBA finalized his $2.28 million bid in a 57-percent controlling stake, Mat Ishbia is the latest owner infected by superteam fever. The bench-warming pest at Michigan State has grown up to be a billionaire dreamer, and now, Ishbia is trying to ward off the abusive demons of former owner Bob Sarver with a Durant fantasy splurge. Never mind that the Suns gave up Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder and four unprotected future first-round draft picks. Never mind that Paul is showing his 37 years and might not stay healthy in the postseason. Never mind that Williams, a stoic with life perspective, will be tested by a sudden demand that the Suns return to the Finals and energize a bleak local sports scene.
How do I say this to Durant politely? He is setting himself up for another letdown. The Nuggets are the best team in the West. The Memphis Grizzlies aren’t far behind if Ja Morant and his troublemaking entourage keep their guns to themselves. The Suns had their championship window two years ago, when Booker was dating Kendall Jenner and Paul was aiming for his first title. Since then, Jenner has moved on to topless Instagram photos while Paul has been nudged by Patrick Mahomes in State Farm’s heavy-rotation ads. The age-old NBA conundrum applies: If Booker needs the ball, Paul needs the ball and Ayton needs the ball down low, how does Durant fit when he needs the ball?
But, hey, Kyrie is praying for him.
“I’m glad that he got out of there,” Irving said after his successful debut with the Mavericks, a win over the Clippers in Los Angeles. “I'm just praying for his happiness, praying for his well-being. We had a lot of conversations throughout the year of what our futures were going to look like. There was still a level of uncertainty, but we just cared about seeing each other be places that we can thrive — whether that be together, whether that be apart.”
Thrive? I normally don’t invoke the Grateful Dead in columns, but the lyrics apply: “Driving that train, high on cocaine. Casey Jones you better watch your speed. Trouble ahead. Trouble behind.”
And something will go wrong.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.