Pundits are proclaiming that the NBA Finals are over after last night’s 118-113 Warriors win against the Cavaliers. With a 3-0 series lead and an unblemished record throughout the playoffs, experts are asking if this Golden State team is the greatest in league history. But the biggest question has been tossed around regarding Kevin Durant. After a stellar series, has he passed LeBron James as the best player in the sport?
Before anointing Durant as the NBA’s best though, the sports media world needs to stop and re-evaluate itself. How did we get to this point? Just one week after casting Durant as the face of everything wrong in the NBA, critics are now celebrating his undeniable talent on the court. KD’s scoring ability has been on display since he first entered the league in 2007. His rare skill and size have made him a prolific player for a decade, it’s not like this is his coming out party. So why has the narrative surrounding Durant changed so much during the course of a week?
Perhaps the media started to understand that free agency is a two-way road. The Warriors wanted Durant as much as Durant wanted the Warriors last July. The player was clearly chasing a ring. But, it was the same ring that eluded Golden State during a historic collapse just one month earlier. If Durant hadn’t signed with the Warriors over the summer, which party would’ve faced more pressure to win a title this season – Durant or Golden State? The answer is undoubtedly the latter, and more specifically – Steph Curry.
Let’s wind the clocks back exactly a year. On June 8th, 2016, the Golden State Warriors held a 2-1 edge over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Days later, the lead would become 3-1. Steph Curry scored 38 points that night with his team on the verge of capping off the greatest season in league history with a championship.
Steph Curry was on top of the world last season with fans saying, “it’s Curry’s league now.” LeBron James had been surpassed as the best player in the league in nearly everyone’s eyes. Curry became the NBA’s first unanimous MVP, cementing his spot atop the league’s hierarchy. James seemed on edge during that postseason. He was annoyed that he was being overshadowed. So annoyed that he took back his league after falling down 3-1, leading the Cavs to an improbable title over Curry and the Warriors.
Curry needed to win a title this season. Throughout the year, Curry took on James’ role of a year ago. His stats dipped as he averaged 25.3 points per game compared to the 30.1 he put up a year ago. He shrugged off criticism and questioning of his performance. Suggestions that he was a one trick pony during the finals seemed to linger over to this season. Meanwhile, James put together arguably his best season as a pro during his re-birth as the undisputed king.
Contrary to popular opinion, Curry might have needed Durant more than Durant needed Curry this year. Golden State needed to get back and win a title to avenge last year’s loss after an unprecedented 73-win season. Curry had a taste of rare-air during that march towards history. He stepped into LeBron’s shoes as the NBA’s number one star, but slipped out of that role within the blink of an eye. Curry faced the most pressure of anyone in the league to win a title this season, but the spotlight quickly shined on someone else.
From the moment Kevin Durant walked onto the podium at his Golden State introduction, he was ready for the scrutiny he would face. He embraced his role as the villain. He became the player who was cheating his way to rings. Curry was drafted by the Warriors; he didn’t choose to play there after they compiled the greatest regular season record of all-time. Durant took the shortcut; no one else did.
All Durant did by embracing the hatred was hide his teammates; namely Steph Curry. Consciously or not, KD shielded Curry from facing the same questions he would face. Nobody ever questions the guy who was already on the good team. How many times did Dwyane Wade get criticized for the Miami Heat’s super team formation? LeBron was the villain; not Wade. But ask yourself, who benefited more from that relationship – LeBron or Wade? Wade does not go to four straight NBA Finals without James by his side.
While Curry continues to play a vital role in his team’s success, he no longer has to be the man. This was the same case with Wade. When someone else is there to take the brunt of the pressure, others can flourish. Curry got tight at times during the 2016 Finals. The focus was on him the entire series. Now that Durant dawns the same uniform, Curry can play at the level fans became accustomed to seeing during his run of dominance. His 28.6 PPG through the first three games proves that he has regained his form as the Curry of old. While the rest of the world criticized Durant, his teammates likely loved him for taking the heat off the rest of them.
If the Warriors take home their second title in three years, the NBA world will be back on its axis. A whirlwind year for Golden State will end where it began exactly a year ago. Durant played great in the finals. He played the same way he has played since being drafted by Seattle. And Curry can finally go back to being Curry; a great player whose bump in the road only made him better in the long run.