Nearly seven years ago, Kevin Durant became a role model for sons everywhere who wanted to honor their mothers. A few days before Mother’s Day, a tearful Durant accepted his NBA Most Valuable Player Award and doted on his mother, Wanda, who was sitting in the front row also fighting tears.
His speech turned Durant into one of the truly good guys in professional sports. He received kudos and accolades from mothers everywhere, who credited him for lauding his mother’s sacrifice. It really seemed like Durant understood how to positively impact his image and reputation.
On Friday, Durant was fined $50,000 by the NBA for homophobic remarks he made during an exchange with actor and sports critic Michael Rapaport, who this past week posted on social media a December text conversation with Durant that revealed angry words and threats from the Brooklyn Nets star. Rapaport criticized Durant for his unhappy demeanor during a postgame interview with “Inside the NBA,” where he looked as if he’d rather be undergoing a root canal.
That was pretty normal Durant behavior over the past few years. He was one of the NBA’s rising stars and bright personalities with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but a couple of things happened on Durant’s rise to superstardom.
Durant and Oklahoma City began falling short of expectations after their 2012 NBA Finals appearance, and his relationship with fellow rising star Russell Westbrook began to wane. Durant, for the first time in his career, faced criticism, and as his free agency approached, he felt as if Oklahoma City wasn’t as much home anymore.
Free agency appeared to change him dramatically. Durant’s decision to join the 73-win Golden State Warriors is one of the most heavily criticized free agent calls in professional sports history. He was accused of being a ring chaser, someone who was willing to join an archrival for the express purpose of winning that long-awaited championship. He was willing to leave Westbrook and the only NBA franchise he had known to join a team with three All-Stars that wanted him but really didn’t need him.
Durant responded to such disdain by creating a burner Twitter account from which he could respond to these criticisms. Durant’s sensitivity regarding his free agency, his career path, and abandoning Westbrook grew exponentially.
This reporter covered Durant as a rookie with the Seattle SuperSonics, and he could not have been nicer. He was respectful and soft-spoken.
Now 32, Durant is one of the top 15 players of all time, but his personality has become so prickly, his temperament so dark, that you wonder whether he’s really having fun. It just was not in his best interest to go at Rapaport, who gets paid to offer his opinions.
While Durant contributed to the Oklahoma City community, especially after tornadoes in 2013, and he has also contributed his money and efforts to social issues, these good deeds are overshadowed by his social media actions. Durant is better than responding to a wise-cracking actor and then escalating the conversation with threats.
Durant’s apology consisted of he didn’t know Rapaport would take his words seriously. Durant is better than to respond to Twitter followers who just say things to get an adverse reaction for screenshots. Durant is a future Hall of Famer, one of the all-time greats, with such a beautiful game that a framed photo of his shot release should be on the wall of every aspiring player.
Fans want to like Durant. They want his career to continue to ascend. They want to see him continue to score effortless buckets, or fly through the air for two-handed jams. The league is better when Durant is dominating.
These types of interactions, such as the one with Rapaport, damage Durant’s image and reputation. The first thing he needs to do is learn from his hurtful words and reach out to the communities who were affected by these statements. Staying off social media isn’t enough. It’s time for Durant to acknowledge that the criticism he’s withstood over the past few years embittered him, changed him.
Durant has created his own media channels where he can relay his message, his way. If there is any NBA player who needs a marketing and image redux, it’s Durant. He needs to reconsider how he approaches criticism and his necessary relationship with the media.
When he atones for his statements and softens his disposition, then fans and media can completely concentrate on why he truly wants to be here, the game.
Three cheers for fans’ return
NBA arenas are slowly returning to hosting fans. TD Garden has had 2,500-plus fans for the past three games and it truly makes a difference. What was accentuated by the pandemic was the fans’ importance to the game. The players enjoy the cheers and boos. They want reactions when they hit big shots.
Celtics faithful arrived at the Garden this past week masked and ready to cheer. The team had fans sit in socially distanced pods and there were limited concessions. What’s difficult at the Garden is the arena was completely refurbished and new food stands and a convenience store were ready to open before the pandemic hit.
The Staples Center became the latest arena to announce a date for fan inclusion. The Celtics-Lakers game April 15 will be the first NBA game in Los Angeles with fans since the pandemic. The Clippers will host fans for their April 18 game against the Timberwolves.
It will be interesting to see if the NBA will allow more fans into arenas as the playoffs approach. The league’s owners want to attempt to recoup their losses suffered during the pandemic, which is one of the reasons why the league created the play-in tournament.
But it’s heartening to see normalcy return to professional sports, and kids who have been kept away from games for more than a year come back to watch their heroes.
Redick in no mood for Mavericks
J.J. Redick was traded to Dallas, having his wishes of being dealt from the Pelicans granted, but he has yet to report to the Mavericks because he doesn’t want to play for them.
Redick said he asked Pelicans president David Griffin to trade him to a team in the Northeast, near his son, who lives in the Brooklyn area. Griffin sent the 36-year-old Redick to the playoff-contending Mavericks, but Redick said he is not healthy and then went on his podcast to express his unhappiness with the trade.
Redick was on the block because he is an aging player in the final year of his contract. The Celtics were not interested because they sought a younger player with more defensive upside, and acquiring Redick would have taken nearly half their trade exception. It’s unclear when or if Redick will actually play for the Mavericks, but it’s an example of NBA player empowerment (and sometimes entitlement) reaching beyond the superstars.
Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson is hoping Redick has a change of heart, but he understood the player’s wishes.
“I had a really good conversation with [Redick] after we made the deal,” Nelson said. “[Coach Rick Carlisle] did again today. Obviously, the big thing for [Redick] is getting that heel right. I think the preference would have been — in a buyout situation — to be able to pick his location, but it didn’t happen like that. He told me Luka [Dončić] is one of his favorite players and Luka had a chance to exchange some texts with him, as did Dirk [Nowitzki]. I think he’s pretty excited about coming to Dallas.”
The Mavericks gave up veteran James Johnson, who likely will not play much for the Pelicans, and Wes Iwundu, who immediately has become part of Stan Van Gundy’s rotation.
“I think we were also looking for a little bit of a different look. I think [Redick] obviously is no stranger to playoff intensity and big shots in big moments,” Nelson said. “To put another shooter next to Luka is really important for us. [Nicolò] Melli just provides another really solid locker room glue piece that can be kind of a utility guy, and those guys have done well within the infrastructure of the pieces we have on the team.”
The Mavericks are a franchise trying to build on last season’s playoff experience, when they took the Clippers to six games with Dončić leading the charge. Nelson has to try to build a more formidable team around Dončić to become an elite team in the West. He isn’t there yet. If the season ended Friday afternoon, Dallas would be the seventh seed, meaning a first-round matchup with the Suns, which would be a fascinating series.
“The things that were available — they have to augment and fit within the player structure that we have,” Nelson said. “We really didn’t want to tamper with the rotation, with the uptick that we have and have a ‘[Rajon] Rondo II’ deal again. It was really the pieces that would fit together with what we have.
“We felt J.J. was just a really good fit, and Melli for the reasons that I laid out. In terms of [the frontcourt], it’s got to be better than what we’ve got. You guys know some of the names that are out there right now.
“Again, are those players that are going to get flushed out into the marketplace, are they an upgrade over what we have? And then again — these guys are free agents. They’re going to go to a place where they can play. They’re basically in their contract year, so minutes are really important, and minutes are tough. Minutes are tough with the lineup that we have, so it’s kind of got to fit for the players, it’s got to fit for us and where we’re at, and I really don’t know what direction we’re going to go. But if we do pull the trigger on something and it’s a fit for that player and his agent and the minutes are right and the opportunity is right, then we’ll pull the trigger. But again, this is a dance where both parties have got to be in step.”
The Mavericks could be major free agent players this summer with the expiring contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Redick (combined $31 million) and an $11.6 million player option for Josh Richardson. The Mavericks need a reliable third scorer behind Dončić and Kristaps Porzingis.
“Look, every free agent summer has got the same pressures. There is opportunity — whether it’s trade, free agency — to add to the team,” Nelson said. “Again, I think if you look at where we are, we certainly like a lot of the pieces and they are fitting. We kind of have to give ourselves a chance to see what we have.
“It seems like any 2 or 3 or finesse-shooting 4 that plays next to Luka seems to take an uptick and I think that’s going to bode well for us this summer in terms of the kind of attractiveness to this style of play, and a championship coach and obviously [owner Mark Cuban] and Rick and Dallas and the things that you guys already know in terms of recruiting. Our sense is that we’re probably in as good of a position as we’ve ever been to have those conversations.”
While there have been comparisons between Dončić and Nowitzki since the former was drafted, Nelson said there is no comparison to how the Mavericks build their franchise around these players.
“It’s completely different,” Nelson said. “One guy is an open shot waiting to happen, and the other guy was a shot-taker and a shot-maker. I think, in terms of free agency, who doesn’t want to play with a Jason Kidd? Who doesn’t want to play with a Steve Nash? I think in terms of recruiting, it’s much better to have a ‘true quarterback’ that has the abilities that [Dončić] has.
“It’s ironic that two of the greats — when I saw Luka play for the first time, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s a 6-7 Steve Nash that can shoot it and this and that and the other thing, but he rebounds like Jason Kidd.’ To have two of the greats that were right here in Dallas, it’s going to make our recruiting efforts a lot smoother.”
The Jazz had a major scare this past week when their flight bound for Memphis had to return to Salt Lake Airport after the plane collided with birds, causing one of the engines to malfunction. The Jazz eventually flew to Memphis but without star guard Donovan Mitchell, who did not feel comfortable flying. It’s an example of how much the players are at risk with their constant flying and how professional sports are fortunate that incidents like these don’t happen more often . . . The Celtics weren’t the only ones impressed with the 21-point, 23-rebound performance of Oklahoma City center Moses Brown in the Celtics’ 111-94 win March 27. So were the Thunder. They converted his two-way contract to a multiyear NBA deal the day after the game and he now becomes part of their bright future. Brown is one of those one-and-dones who likely should have stayed in school at UCLA. The 7-foot-2-inch center went undrafted in 2019 and signed a two-way deal with the Trail Blazers. He was waived and then signed by the Thunder, and then he began taking advantage of his minutes, including a mind-boggling 19-rebound first half against the Celtics. Two-way contracts are a good way for teams to get long looks at players who may be late developing, and the Thunder have set the standard for turning those players into standouts. Luguentz Dort was an undrafted player out of Arizona State who signed a two-way deal with the Thunder and turned into a defensive stopper and cornerstone this season . . . The Thunder will have to determine a new home for former Celtic Al Horford after the sides agreed the five-time All-Star would be made inactive for the rest of the season while younger players develop. Horford has two years left on that four-year, $109 million contract he signed with the 76ers in the summer of 2019. He is scheduled to earn $53 million over the next two years. The best-case scenario for Oklahoma City is to find a trade partner and take back an expiring contract for Horford. The worst case is a contract buyout in which Horford would count against the Thunder’s cap for two more seasons. This is the risk that rebuilding teams take when they absorb a large contract for cap purposes in order to get draft picks. Horford played admirably for the Thunder this season, but he obviously wants to play for a contender.