Photo: Ezra Shaw (Getty)
Kevin Durant could have chosen better than to make Brooklyn the new center of the universe. For example, he could have joined Kawhi Leonard in Toronto and taken on the entire National Hockey League at its very core by making basketball Canada’s new national pastime. I mean, it’s one thing to kick the Eastern Conference’s ass, but something else entirely to eat an entire sport from the heart out.
But Brooklyn? All for it, even if it means the How The Universe Works–denier Kyrie Irving is part of the fun.
I don’t know what Durant wants to do with the rest of his career or the footprint he wishes to leave in his wake, but I’m completely fine if it involves destroying the NBA’s cultural hierarchy. I mean, signing with the Nets rather than the decrepit New York Knickerbockers is in and of itself a monumental victory. Anything that reminds the basketball universe that the Knicks are essentially the Chicago Zephyrs—useless, miserable, repellent and deserving only of relocation and forgetting—is a triumph.
The problem, of course, is that the Nets have always been dismissed as the thing that will never be the Knicks because in their collective ignorance, the New York basketball establishment has decided that the Knicks always matter just because they do, even though it’s been decades since they did. It’s as if Spike Lee and Stephen A. Smith get to determine the basketball taste of the country’s largest city based on their paralytic 50-years-past-the-truth worldview. They’re the Knicks because they’re the Knicks, which while indisputable on its face is now essentially meaningless. Kevin Durant looked at the Knicks, threw up in his mouth, and went to face them frontally with the team closest to them. He fired out double birds at the New York basketball establishment to show that the New York basketball establishment is eons past its sell-by date.
But for this to work perfectly, Leonard needs to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers as a direct repudiation to the other team that we think is too big to fail even though it has spent most of the past decade failing. Leonard is listening to Magic Johnson out of a misplaced sense of franchise value, but the very act of doing so should tell Leonard that the Lakers are so utterly gangrenous that they need to employ former employees to do their sales work because their present employees couldn’t sell antivenin to snakebite victims. He should take that sales pitch and walk down the hall (literally) to sign up with Nets West, and then announce that the main lure was neither Steve Ballmer nor Jerry West nor Doc Rivers nor going home, but rather killing the Lakers as a concept the way Kevin Durant is killing the Knicks as a cultural myth.
There is a clear difference between the Lakers and Knicks, of course, and it is the three-plus decades of difference between their levels of failure. The Lakers have only been a clown car since 2014; the front office has only been a mess for three; Anthony Davis provides an avenue through which the Lakers can be cured. Not that they should, mind you, but that they can. But like the Knicks, the Lakers have assumed their essential superiority based on their very existence, when it would seem that other teams have passed them by being more nimble, creative and aggressive. Davis all but traded himself because he believes in the magic of LeBron, but the Lakers are no longer the league’s pre-eminent destination. James went there for post-career entertainment opportunities, but he went to Miami and then back to Cleveland for his own motivations as well. He wasn’t star-struck, he was remorseless.
I mean, a bad team can be made good and a good team great; Durant has already done each of those things, and Leonard gave an already-proud team another decade of dignity. So what’s really left for a great player to do? Revolution. Making legacies with teams that have struggled to create them, and having the power to ignore the old powers as Grandpa’s teams. Durant brings new and exhilarating chaos to the Eastern Conference, and Leonard, who gave an entire nation that worships another sport the power to dream offers the same to the West.
Smothering the Lakers and Knicks in their sleep is an absurdly difficult task; the basketball punditocracy alone breaks into malarial sweats just considering the idea, which is one more reason why it must happen. But it won’t happen on its own. They have failed spectacularly on their own and haven’t changed the lazy bastards’ status quo. This, then, is the next step: superdeduperstars opting for the teams everyone has always dismissed, and making it clear that the good old days can be rendered ridiculous.
In a non-regional and player-driven sport, cities don’t matter any more. If the goal is to make the Los Angeles Lakers the new Providence Steamroller and the New York Knicks the new Baltimore Bullets, this decade-and-a-half already has done heroic work with the center of the basketball universe shifting from San Antonio to Miami to Cleveland to Oakland, and Durant has advanced the process one more step. Now Leonard must do his bit, and then both be followed by the next generation of supermax insurrectionists. The goal must not be personal empire building, but the ejection of the status quo and the lazy thinking that powers its networks. Next to Kamala Harris becoming the new commissioner, this is the best available play.
Oh, and the effect on Durant’s departure to the Golden State Warriors? Feh. The Warriors are already the stuff of rearview mirrors. We are fomenting non-violent overthrows of the status quo, damn it! Burn down the village to save it! Rage against the bloated and malignant machine! Crush the Lakers, kill the Knicks and up the Nets and Clips! Let the NBA’s new selling point be ants on a dessert cart, and eradicate traditional label-shopping as a customer option forever more. Kevin, you are the kind of headstrong Trotskyite we can all get behind.
Ray Ratto is all about those new Syracuse Nationals.