“A Minister of Error”

Discovered in the Nile riverbank city of Beni Mazar in Egypt in the 1970s, the Gospel of Judas has long been a divisive document among religious scholars. Because it is sympathetic to the most infamous turncoat in history, its place in the Christian canon is dubious at best. Judas himself is, well, necessary for the progression of the whole kit and caboodle. Without him selling out for thirty pieces of silver, how does humanity get saved? Short of hitting the reset button and preventing Adam and Eve from diving haphazardly into that apple, we were all doomed anyway.

In the Hamptons over the weekend, representatives of several NBA teams did their best to entertain the most compelling free agent in years. Somewhat improbably, the Sanhedrin of the Golden State Warriors was able to pry Durant away from the organization that drafted him. Perhaps it was their startup culture surrounded by startup cultures. The way they perpetually frame themselves as underdogs, despite having just set the league record for regular season wins, meshes perfectly with Durant’s “I’m always second” brand. Their thirty pieces of silver, of course, includes a few glimmers of gold, the prize that has always eluded him.

If it was going to be anybody, it almost had to be the Warriors. Their inevitability was pervasive this season, right up until LeBron James had The Block™ on Andre Iguodala and lifted a city out of its collective, monochromatic misery. Just as much as pure, unrelenting dominance, what had marked the Steve Kerr-era Golden State Warriors was an ability to recover, recovering to the home screen and booting up the app faster than anyone else could close it out[1].

Being up 3-1 on the theretofore Best Team Ever seemed to alleviate any concern the Thunder had that Durant would leave this offseason. Even after losing the series in unbelievably devastating fashion, knowing that Oklahoma City had kept it that close had to have been encouraging, with Durant and Russell Westbrook having more consistently realized the point at which their wildly contrasting bell curves each concurrently peaked than at any time since their Finals run in 2012.

Under the new salary cap, however, all things are possible. Harrison Barnes became Golden State’s scapegoat during the collapse against LeBron’s Cavaliers[2], and Andrew Bogut has long had problems staying healthy. Durant, a former MVP who is seven feet tall with the game of a shooting guard, is the next natural phase for the Warriors’ exploration of the outer limits of basketball in the time of the Positional Revolution.

In turning his back on Oklahoma City, which is neither his home nor the actual city that drafted him but is nevertheless where he has become a superstar, Durant finds himself in the middle of another FreeDarko theory: liberated fandom[3]. Durant’s move stretches this precept in almost physically elastic ways. If you’re a Thunder fan, and really a Thunder fan, do you bother following Durant, hoping he can make good on his own personal promises? Long abandoned by their franchise, many fans in Seattle persist in rooting for Durant’s individual success because, after all, he was theirs, if only for a year.

On the other side, Durant’s reputation as an all-around nice guy is so persistent that he has bothered to center marketing campaigns strictly on the idea that he isn’t actually that great. Oklahoma City’s fans are likely to buy more heavily into that notion now, despite the Slim Reaper’s penchant for charity work and his having put that franchise solely on Oklahoma’s map, in the age predating Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden or Steven Adams.

What is largely at stake here, and what people are going to pin their criticisms on if and when the promise is fulfilled, is Durant’s legacy. As vague and subjective a concept as legacy in sports is and always will be, it does serve its purpose from the simple, surface-level view of how a player desires to be remembered. In choosing a better team with a more stable, if more self-aggrandizing, organizational structure, Durant chose to pursue all-time team greatness, somewhat paradoxically, to his own detriment. In a way, what he did was more sacrificial than selfish, being that he will have to cede at least some of the burden to the other three All-Stars with whom he’ll share a starting lineup, as well as Iguodala, the ultimate bottle of NBA Elmer’s.

Criticizing Durant at this point is fine, though it’s more justified if you’re a Thunder fan. The kicker on that, and what he will not do à la LeBron following the 2011 Finals loss, is that he will not outright tell you that he does not care what you think right now.

Also, he has a point. It stands to reason that the same people who are chastising Kevin Durant for jumping ship on Russ[4] and the re-tooled Thunder are the same people who would take him to task in retirement for not being a winner[5]. Pop quiz, hot shot: what is your knee-jerk reaction when I rattle off names like Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton? That list is likely to provoke a pensive nod, an oblique glance toward an uncertain distance and the subdued utterance of two words, “No rings.”

Legacy hounds want to talk rings, which is fair and just if that is truly the baseline. Chris Bosh caught some flack at the time for being the third banana on LeBron’s Heat championship teams, but he’s a two-time NBA champion. Do you think he, or Durant, or any of the people on the list in the previous paragraph, would care about the means with an end like that?

Kevin Durant benefits from having left his original franchise in a post-Decision world, and his Players Tribune announcement reflects the tactfulness required to switch teams without sparking riots; Caesar’s kiss-off to Brutus, “E tu, Brute?” may have been colder than Judas’ actual kiss-off to Jesus just because nobody saw that one coming. Durant’s place in basketball lore was solidified already, courtesy of his having accumulated four scoring titles by the time he was 25. But impeccable scoring ability, even as good as Durant’s, has its own ceiling. Just ask Hall of Famer, and non-NBA champion, Allen Iverson.

So, about Judas. After Jesus taught him about the destruction of aimless stars, their inhabitants sacrificed for the good of humanity, Judas gave up the Son of Man for that silver. Then, bastard as he is, he went and hanged himself without ever spending the money on anything beyond, presumably, some industrial stock twine. His reputation has – *ahem* – noticeably suffered, but he at least deserves an asterisk, what with having kick-started a budding religion, even in the face of his own imminent eradication.

Kevin Durant has an unimpeachable individual resume, littered with countless awards and honors along with frankly shockingly limited team success. His relationship with Russell Westbrook lacks comprehension, forever and always. The Warriors still have an entire season to play with some notable roster concerns. How the move to Golden State affects Durant’s legacy is immaterial to him and will likely only enhance it in the long run. But if he loses, well, thirty pieces of silver don’t buy you a chariot to the Promised Land.

*     *     *

[1] This is as much literal as it is a tech metaphor, as the Thunder know all too well.

[2] Because how could it be the fault of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala? Blasphemy!

[3] In short, as FD founder Bethlehem Shoals himself wrote in 2014, “…at bottom, it was about the right to root for whatever (or whomever) you felt like.”

[4] He’ll get his, in both usage rate (over/under 50%, honestly) and words from me. He always does.

[5] Hate for the sake of hate, basically. Speaking of which, Laker fan: were you crying about parity when your team made a ridiculously lopsided trade for Pau Gasol? E tu, Celtic fan, with KG and Ray Allen?

    • Neither was anybody else, and that’s why we play the game. Thanks for reading!

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