Kevin Durant is still standing as a member of the Brooklyn Nets.
After a tumultuous summer, and an even rougher start to the season, the superstar who requested a trade some seven months ago enters Friday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans (7:30 pm ET, ESPN) playing arguably the best basketball of his career. He finished the month of December averaging 28.3 points a game while shooting 58% from the field.
The 34-year-old finds himself in a good place and says he believes the league is in a good place as well. Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford spent last season working with Durant while serving as a consultant on Steve Nash’s Nets staff, and pointed out Durant’s passion and knowledge of the game. “He’s going to come in and say, ‘Did you watch St. Peter’s/St. Francis?'” Clifford said. “He’s always watching basketball, college or an all-star game. I bet if you spoke to him, I bet you he knows some of the top high school players. He lives it.”
The 6-foot-10 forward, in his 16th year, has been the pillar of stability on a Nets team often defined by the opposite. He has vaulted the Nets — winners of 16 of their past 18 games, while pushing himself to the forefront of another MVP conversation.
Durant sat down on multiple occasions throughout this season with ESPN’s Nick Friedell to discuss his trade request over the summer, how the Nets managed to stay together when things could have split apart, what the league can do to improve the regular season and if he believes tanking is a problem as teams watch the development of top 2023 draft prospect Victor Wembanyama.
[Editor’s note: Answers have been minimally edited for clarity and brevity.]
Why didn’t things splinter apart after all the Kyrie [Irving] stuff — why have you guys come back together now when things could have easily exploded?
Because we were together regardless. I think coming into the training camp, we understood that it’s going to be a lot on us from a media standpoint, from just the noise in general around our team, so I think that made us tighter once camp started. So we were able to take the Kyrie stuff and move in stride because we were already stuck together before that. We started to win some games, started to get better as a team, and do some things out there that work for us. And now it seems like everything was patched all together, but it felt like it was always cool, to be honest.
Over the summer, when you decided to come back, why were you so confident that you guys could still compete for a title?
I don’t even look at s— that way. My whole thing was like — are we, does the process matter to us? And that’s one thing I did know that people here enjoy, grinding. So that was the most important thing for me. Titles and stuff come with the process in which you — how you prepare. It was more like, “All right, are we going to practice harder? Are we going to pay more attention to detail?” Not just everybody else, all of us, me included. Is that going to be preached to us every day? I had the faith that that would happen because I voiced that throughout the summer as well. Even behind the scenes, like, “Yo, this is what I like to do. This is how I like to practice.” I’ve been saying that for the last couple of years, so I figured at that point with me going through that, they understood what I value. That’s what I was hanging my hat on, the preparation side of it.
“Because we consume everything at all times, we’re starting to take a lot of stuff for granted. The NBA is one of them.”
Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant
As you well know, on a lot of other teams, when a star player asks for a trade, I’m thinking of James Harden with the Rockets, Jimmy Butler with the Timberwolves, Anthony Davis with the Pelicans, everything around that team seems to disintegrate even if that player stays after …
But you got to realize with their situations, when did that happen for them? During the middle of the season.
Well, Jimmy’s started in the summer …
[He got traded] during the middle of the season, when he was in Minnesota. Remember, he was playing games when he wasn’t — he was sitting out some games, he got traded in the middle of the season from Minnesota, right? James, the same way. AD, the same way. This was a summertime thing. We weren’t playing any games. I didn’t interfere with what we were doing on the court every day. It wasn’t a question of what you were asking my teammates every day after a game or a practice. What I didn’t get in the way of the games that were being played, so I felt like that’s the difference in everything. So we hashed that all up right before camp, and it was cool, it didn’t get in the way of the hoops. So that’s the difference between what happened with those guys and [me].
Having lived what you just lived over the summer, do you think there is too much focus on free agency?
The NBA has been around for so long, the regular season — for real basketball fans, they enjoy the regular season for [what it is]. But our league is full of casual people who enjoy basketball, but it’s not really — they don’t care for it as much, you know what I’m saying? They like to watch it as a hobby, but it’s not — there’s some people who are real fans of the game, you know what I’m saying? …
When it comes to people and it comes to how they consume things — everything looks like it’s doing incredible right now. So adding free agency, summer league, regular season, all that stuff, I think that’s just another avenue for people to be engaged in the game. Free agency is a huge deal — and they want to see where their favorite players are going, or their favorite teams are getting, because they see guys starting to move. So it’s important, but the games are the only thing that really matters, to be honest.
What do you think the league can do to improve the regular season?
What do you mean — “improve?”
Make it so that there’s more intensity during regular-season games — or feel free to disagree with me if you don’t think that’s an issue?
I don’t think there’s an issue at all. I think the game is in a good place. I think people have learned how to consume things a little differently. They might not appreciate a basketball game as much as they used to back in the days. The more something’s around, the more people take it for granted. We’re a huge, huge corporation. We move a lot of things on this earth, as NBA players, as a league, so at this point people are just nit-pickin’ cause the numbers show the popularity, all of these ratings, analytics how popular the NBA is because people are intrigued and watching all aspects of the NBA — regular season, summer league, free agency, trade deadlines, draft. They’re all, it seems like from the chatter and popularity of the league, that everybody loves us, so I don’t see where a problem is.
Do you think there is a perception issue in those regular-season games that don’t get the extra spotlight, that the average fan wonders just how hard somebody is playing in an average regular-season game?
Fans have become more entitled than anything. So they’re starting to question our motives for the game, or how we approach the game. The ones that do question — like who are you? Just shut up and watch the game tonight. We go as hard as we want to go. We go as hard as our bodies allow us to go at this point.
They only see us when the games come on, but the travel, the practices, the shootarounds — we’re constantly moving around. So every game’s not going to be a high-intensity playoff game. It’s going to be times where as a fan you’re going to have to watch and see, “Oh, these guys traveled. This is the last game of a road trip. They may have to dig a little deeper to win this game. It might be a little sloppy tonight. We can appreciate that about the NBA because there’s so many games and these guys go through a lot of moving around throughout the season.” So if fans just stop taking us for granted, for one. Stop putting too much pressure on each athlete to live up to their standards. But then everyone appreciates what we bring to the table. … (Laughs) It’s seven, eight games on a night. Every day. You rarely get a day off as a fan from the NBA, so learn to appreciate the grind that we go through and stop just looking at the money and expecting us to just perform for you and perform from the standards — those high expectations that you put on each one of us as individuals. And then the dialogue around the game wouldn’t be, wouldn’t be so — what’s the word I’m looking for?
Yeah, tense. Diluted. It’s narrative-driven. It’s agenda-based. Biased. I just think a lot of stuff — because we consume everything at all times, we’re starting to take a lot of stuff for granted. The NBA is one of them.
Do you like the idea of that midseason tournament?
I don’t hate it, I don’t like it. It is what it is. It doesn’t affect the season. I think we’ll still go on about it as [part of] the regular season. But the games will mean a little bit more, so it really doesn’t matter to me as long as we’re playing.
You follow the game as closely as anyone I’ve come across within the game. Do you think the league is going to have an issue this year given how much intensity there seems to be around Wembanyama — on the tanking issues coming back up to the forefront?
Nah, teams have been tanking for a minute. What, you’re going to force them to be competitive? I don’t see a problem with it, because each year there are only a few teams that can win it anyway. So the rest of the league is trying to figure out where they are. And that’s pretty smart business if you’re a team and you know you’re not going to be a playoff team or play-in team, you might as well try to play for [the No. 1 pick]. You might as well try to get some of the guys who probably won’t get real rotation minutes if you have a good team, get them some reps and maybe those guys can change their lives as well.