You probably saw the Nike and Foot Locker commercials starring Kevin Durant two years ago. “KD is not nice,” the slogan went.
The idea was to play off Durant’s down-home, aw-shucks personality; a polite, mild-mannered young man off the floor, but a mean, ruthless scoring machine on it.
It became an easy viral play. Big dunk from Durant? KD is not nice. Dagger 3? KD is not nice. Technical foul? Not nice. Search “KD is not nice” on YouTube and you get a roll call of some of Durant’s most vicious plays.
Nothing has changed on the court since. Durant is as mean as ever, a merciless destroyer of defenses, and last season he even finished tied for the league lead with 16 technical fouls. He was literally not nice on the floor.
But that persona has followed him elsewhere, with Durant showing an edgier side this season off the court. The latest example saw him targeting the media at All-Star Weekend, telling them, “Y’all really don’t know s—.”
What’s gotten into Kevin Durant?
As Durant noted, part of it is finding his own personality and voice in the league. He’s 26, and a seven-year veteran. He’s been to the NBA Finals, he’s won four scoring titles, he’s played in six All-Star Games and he won the MVP award last season. He has influence, he has pull and his voice carries weight. Durant has always been genuine, but he has never been one to make many headlines with his words.
The other part is more complicated. Durant’s beef with the media doesn’t stem from what’s written about him; he’s been widely praised and revered for his play. His issue is with the constant dissecting of the Oklahoma City Thunder. From his mercurial teammate Russell Westbrook, to his free agency in 2016, to his oft-criticized coach, to a perception of a cheap ownership group, to misunderstood front-office blunders.
Let’s start with the James Harden trade, the team’s shadow the past three seasons. Some view that move as a death sentence for the organization, the pendulum shift when the Thunder prioritized the bottom line over a championship window. And it’s true: The Thunder haven’t been back to the NBA Finals since making the deal.
But discussion over the Harden trade almost always ignores a few cold hard truths. The Thunder won 60 games with a near historic margin of victory the season after the trade, before their postseason was derailed when Westbrook tore his meniscus in the opening round.
In Season 2 without Harden, the Thunder won 59 games despite Westbrook sitting 36, and made their third trip in four seasons to the Western Conference finals. They were matched up with the San Antonio Spurs, a team they had swept 4-0 in the regular season and had mostly dominated since defeating them in six games in the 2012 West finals. Except Serge Ibaka sat Games 1 and 2 because of a calf injury he suffered at the end of the previous series. Ibaka returned in Game 3 and the Thunder made a series out of it, but he played on a hobbled leg, and the Thunder fell in six games, losing in overtime to what’s now regarded as a historically great Spurs team.
And now this season. The Thunder are 28-25. After four straight years of title contention, their immediate goal has downshifted to playoff contention. There’s been a rush to diagnose their issues, whether it’s chemistry, roster flaws or coaching problems. But the big issue, once again, is injuries: Durant has missed 27 games because of three different ones, and Westbrook missed 14 with a broken hand in November.
They started the season in a 3-12 hole and have spent their time since trying to crawl their way out of it. Every player but four (Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and newly acquired Dion Waiters) has missed time because of injuries. The Thunder haven’t just been bitten by the injury bug; it’s been gnawing on their legs for the past four months.
And yet, that fact is so often forgotten when diagnosing the team. That’s why Durant is so annoyed.
After a win, he’s asked “Are you guys back?” And he bristles, pointing out that they’ve always been fine, just hurt.
After a loss, he’s asked “What’s wrong?” And he bristles, pointing out that the season is long and sometimes you lose.
The up-and-down opinions dancing around the Thunder’s season have worn Durant’s patience thin.
Example: At a shootaround last week, Durant was asked if the team’s attitude and spirit had changed, because of the appearance that the Thunder were having fun again.
“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “You thought of that probably because you’re on the outside looking in. We struggled to win games. It happens in this league. But we didn’t get down on ourselves. Everybody on the outside just automatically says we’re done, trying to figure out what’s wrong with us. But I guess a week later everything is all right. That’s the nature of our game — what have you done for me lately. Everybody builds you up just to tear you down. So we don’t give a damn about that.
“We’re just going to focus on us and worry about us. We know there are peaks and valleys throughout the season, so we’re going to keep our heads up and let you guys worry, and not go to sleep at night because of us.”
Or take this response when Durant was asked if it felt like the team was “getting back to normal” following a rout of Memphis last week:
“Normal? What do you mean?” a testy Durant said. “Last year we struggled too, we had ups and downs. It’s an NBA season. We’ve always been normal. It’s a matter of our guys being healthy.”
Durant is sensitive to the perception the Thunder have underachieved, and turns salty over any attempt to figure out why they have. Rarely is the blame put on him for it, but Durant stands tall for those around him, and thus has to constantly explain why it’s not so-and-so’s fault.
It’s no coincidence the question that set Durant off in New York this past weekend was about Scott Brooks’ job security. Durant’s head coach for almost his entire tenure in Oklahoma City has become the easy target. But that rush to scapegoat Durant’s coach, a coach he likes very much, conveniently overlooks the bad luck that has been at the heart of the Thunder’s shortcomings.
The Thunder may indeed be inherently flawed. There may be something wrong, they may not ever be able to recover from trading Harden. But Durant is right: If you don’t factor in all of the injuries that derailed the Thunder the past few seasons, you don’t really know anything.