Last year was an emotional rollercoaster for Kevin Durant. After deciding his basketball life in Oklahoma City was over, he was lambasted in the media and by fans for not showing “loyalty” to the organization for whom he had played the entirety of his nine years in the league. Durant, who prizes “good basketball” and “just being able to free yourself from the distractions and just play,” knows a thing or two about taking a chance, knowing that you might get skewered in the media. He knows how far loyalty gets you in this league (Hint: There is no loyalty), and he applauds Kyrie Irving’s decision to demand a trade from the Cavaliers.
Recently, Durant sat down with The Ringer’s Bill Simmons to discuss the Kyrie trade, along with a host of other topics. You can listen to the episode in its entirety here, and you can read a very interesting edited transcript of the interview here.
[Also, welcome to the Vox Media fam, fam!]
Kevin Durant: When you’re around LeBron James, there’s so much that comes with that. Outside distractions and conversations and just noise that just comes around just from being around LeBron James. And Kyrie was at the point, like, “All right, we lost the championship, this whole season’s gonna be about if LeBron’s gonna leave or not. I’m ready for a new challenge.” All that stuff kind of met at the pinnacle of why he wanted to leave, and it just felt like he wanted a situation where he would just be free from all of that and just play.
It’s a perfect system for him in Boston; it’s a perfect fit. Because he’s a 6-foot-3 Isaiah Thomas, basically, and Isaiah just thrived in that system, and then he got Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, who are gonna be able to make plays for him, too. It’s gonna be pretty sweet. I think it was a great deal. But I just think Kyrie just wanted a place where he can focus on just playing basketball and not worrying about the other drama that comes with.
This is pretty interesting from Durant. Look, we all know that LeBron James is a once-in-a-generation player, and can already be considered in the running for GOAT, but everywhere he goes immediately turns into a circus. It’s just the nature of LeBron being LeBron. He is probably the most famous athlete in the world, if not just straight up one of the most famous people in the world. Every tiny thing he says is mined for nuance and subtle shade. Every instagram video is debated ad nauseam in a vitriolic biosphere of loud voices and hot takes. He carries himself well, but he carries himself in the eye of the whirlwind. Everything around him bends before his great weight and power. It is as it has been since high school, and how it will be long after he has retired from this game.
For Kyrie, who in Duran’t estimation is a “pure basketball player,” it makes sense that he’d want to escape the whirlwind and find somewhere where he can just be himself. Durant knows all about that, as his jump to the Warriors was made for many of those exact reasons.
Later in the interview, Durant even took the comparison a step further, talking about how he feels similar to Kyrie in specific ways.
Bill Simmons: And Kyrie has somehow weirdly become underrated even though he was in three straight Finals. I was making the case for him before the Celtics traded for him, just because, I was going to those games, and this is one of the reasons this came up last time. I was like, “This guy’s amazing.” And you see it in person. He never gets blocked, as you pointed out. The degree of difficulty of the shots he makes. I’m excited to see him a little bit more unleashed. … You don’t think there’s a small part of it where he hears, “Of course Kyrie’s good, he plays with LeBron. That’s why he’s good.” I mean, he’s gotta hear that.
Durant: I’m sure he hears stuff. I mean, it’s hard. … It’s hard to quiet that noise, but at the end of the day, you still gotta go play every day, so you wanna have a good environment where you wanna play as far as, you want some type of structure, you wanna learn the game at a different level, you wanna kind of challenge yourself to fit in with the team and use your skill set a different way. Kyrie reminds me of myself, just from the outside looking in. I may be wrong on all these things, but from the outside looking in, I’ve been around him for a month or so, he reminds me of myself as far as just loving to play the game, just wanting to learn it and try to get better at it every day. I can feel that, I can sense that in him.
A couple things stuck out here. “You wanna have a good environment where you wanna play as, you want some type of structure, you wanna learn the game at a different level [...]” Organizations matter. Team building matters. Structural integrity, from top to bottom, matters. When Durant was battling in OKC, you never got the feeling that they were using him to the extent that his great talent would allow. It was basically, okay, Russell goes. Okay, now you go. Okay, wait, whose turn is it now? It was an incredible two-man game, but still, it was a two-man game.
In Cleveland, Kyrie Irving was the team’s starting “point guard,” sure, but LeBron James — when on the court — made every single important basketball decision about where the ball went, who was going to get shots, how the ball was swinging around, where people had to be defensively, where players should spot up, etc. It is part of his greatness, but he was point guard, the coach, the GM, and everything else at all moments for the Cavaliers. Granted, it worked two years ago. And yes, Kyrie hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history to seal Game 7 (ugh). But apparently, he wants more. Much like Durant, he’ll be headed to a team that employs a more egalitarian offensive system. He’ll finally be able to truly run a team from the point guard position as opposed to standing by, taking barked orders from James.
Lastly, maybe Irving knows the Cavs are sinking fast, and doesn’t want to be the last man standing. Maybe things are fractured beyond repair with him and Dan Gilbert. Maybe he knows LeBron and Gilbert have reached a point of no return, with LeBron just biding his time until he can flee to Los Angeles next summer. Who knows?
Either way, it was interesting that Durant chose to use the words, “good environment,” “structure,” and “use your skill set a different way,” because it sounds exactly like what he wanted when he left OKC.
It’s always interesting when NBA players open up about how they see the game. It definitely helps me understand the inner workings of the NBA, and makes everything feel closer to home. Good on Durant for continuing to be one of the most interesting players in the league, both on and off the court.