By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) The NBA Finals look like many of us expected, with the un-guardable Warriors all but demoralizing an opponent that seems to know what it’s seeing. And unfair whispers are already discrediting the player who has made the biggest difference.
Of course this is happening, the sour grapes go, because Kevin Durant took the easy way out in joining a team already established as one of the true title contenders. He couldn’t beat the best, so he joined them.
Such thinking is wrong for a couple major reasons, and it’s important that on an issue like this that some of us learn from our previous mistakes.
First, the narratives that define the best of the best players and ultimately validate their legacies are championships. We have created this environment as fans, much of it in the Jordan vs. Kobe Bryant debates and on into the LeBron James era. Dwyane Wade learned it when Shaquille O’Neal arrived in Miami; Kevin Garnett knew it when his Celtics team coalesced for him to get his ring. And it is what James understood when he made his poorly handled “Decision” to leave Cleveland.
We demand that the greats have parades and hold it against them forever when they don’t. Players watch the way O’Neal treats Charles Barkley on TNT’s Inside the NBA, continually whipping out the trump card of his championships and slamming it on the table to big-time the end of an argument, knowing Barkley can’t respond in kind. Nobody wants to be Barkley in that scenario, despite his immensely successful Hall of Fame career and unquestioned talent.
And those of us who were turned off by James and his high-profile departure to join forces as part of the Heat’s “Big 3” have to remember what actually happened immediately thereafter. I was among those questioning James’s level of competitive desire, unhappy that he appeared to take a less-challenging road after doing all he could to carry undermanned Cavaliers teams to ultimate glory. But when it mattered, James was the player actually doing everything. Wade again understood innately that it wasn’t his show, and Chris Bosh settled into a complementary role as a floor-spacing stretch big man. The Heat won twice because of James, not merely with him.
So it goes with Durant, who James himself described as what is making Golden State something so far superhuman. Durant left Oklahoma City because he understood that there would be a glass ceiling no matter what he tried to do at the peak of his abilities, and he took the challenge of fitting into the Warriors’ controlled chaos of a culture and an offense run by meritocracy among numerous great shooters.
Where the rubber has met the hardwood, Durant has proved to be the dominant force in this final series so far, at times matching up with James on either end of the floor, yet averaging a team-leading 35.5 points and 11 rebounds to go with seven assists. He’s a 6-foot-10 shooting guard who has also functioned as their rim-protector, blocking five shots in Game 2 alone. It’s not as if he’s just glomming onto glory here, when he’s the one doing work on the biggest stage.
When the inevitable occurs and the Warriors are rolling slowly on double-decker buses through confetti-strewn streets, Kevin Durant will be riding no coattails.