Kevin Durant, Ethan Strauss and the real culprits in the latest Warriors drama

Going inside the press conference that rocked the basketball universe

Matt Kolsky
February 07, 2019 - 3:18 pm

The Warriors were comfortably idle as a myriad of moves were made and deadline drama swirled around the NBA on Thursday.

They were idle not only in terms of a non-game day, but idly resting atop the list of championship favorites with no concern-worthy challengers (which explains the comfortability).

There remains, however, the simmering discomfort of Kevin Durant’s impending free agency decision, which boiled up this week in the wake of a Knicks trade that looks like an opening salvo in their KD pursuit.

If the Porzingis deal was the accelerant, Ethan Strauss’s piece for The Athletic — a sort of speculative, musing affair about the two-time Finals MVP’s near future — was the match that lit Durant’s fire.

It’s possible that what follows here is an expression of pure hubris on my part, but I feel like I understand what’s happening. Since his arrival in the Bay, KD has been painted as a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but I’ve never seen it that way.

In my view, Durant is every bit a normal human with normal human emotions, hung up on the fact that his particular talents and celebrity make it impossible to live a normal human life.

This all begins with my decision to take a man at his word. There is a committed cynicism within the sports media, and though it may be well-earned I find it generally distasteful and often repulsive.

Athletes (like all entertainment celebrities) lie and mislead regularly as part and parcel to their general PR efforts, trying to show the public the most marketable version of themselves. As a result, a responsible journalist has to attempt to read between the lines and infer the truth — but the all-too-common practice of assigning nefarious subtext to every quote strikes me as lazy clickbait trash.

In the case of Durant specifically, it is very clear to me that he made a decision to share willingly of himself when he made his free agent move to the Warriors. His suddenly frequent and at times bizarrely confessional media appearances struck me as a “screw it” approach — if I’m gonna get crushed over making a personal career decision for my own reasons, I might as well just be honest about everything and let the chips fall where they may.

I think the chips may have fallen harder and in more uncomfortable places than KD expected. Before we get to that, though, a few thoughts on the other principle character in this most recent drama.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss is one of my favorite basketball writers. I find his work to be exemplary — eloquent, entertaining and as thoughtful as it is thought-provoking.

He is a nerd after my own heart, a guy searching for the best and newest ways to understand the best game while honoring the un-stat-able soul that makes basketball so beautiful.

I make this brief defense — which he surely does not require and is more than capable of presenting on his own — as a counterpoint to the silliness that has spun around him since his Durant column.

As an example, Tracy McGrady theorized on ESPN’s The Jump that Strauss had invented quotes for the piece; in fact, it includes nary a single quote and the only conclusions about KD’s opinions or plans are made based on past public comments by Durant himself.

This is one of literally thousands of examples of clueless public commentary that reflects, more than anything, the ignorance of the commenters — McGrady seemingly didn’t bother to read the column he wantonly accused of grave journalistic sin.

This nonsense is only relevant because I believe that when Kevin Durant lashes out at Strauss, he is actually expressing his dissatisfaction with the totality of the commentary and not the work of the writer.

I called Ethan a nerd very deliberately, and I would hope he wouldn’t take it as an insult — I certainly use it as a compliment and would count myself in that category as well. But I do think it’s relevant to the issue at hand, and part of what Durant is reacting to.

It’s obvious that Strauss does not have the same sort of relationship with his subjects that other, equally good writers do. Someone like Marcus Thompson, whose work I also very much enjoy, does his job by cultivating relationships with players that encourage them to share things with him that they might not share with a relative stranger.

Strauss sees his job differently, and (if I may be so bold as to presume) attempts to view the game and its attached drama as clinically as he can, drawing the most objective possible conclusions from the data at hand, whether that data is delivered as a list of numbers or via the decision to avoid media appearances for a week.

(As a quick aside, I should note that Ethan did announce plans for a book about the Warriors dynasty concurrent with his response to KD’s anger. I don’t blame him for capitalizing on the situation, and I’m not accusing anyone of anything, but it does beg the question — if we cynically read athletes’ comments and teams’ moves as signs of hidden agendas and inappropriate collusion, why haven’t I read a think piece about how Ethan orchestrated a dramatic face-off to utilize KD’s celebrity for his own personal gain?)

Circling back to Durant’s frame of mind, I see a man who has been as honest as he can be about everything pertaining to his basketball life in a variety of media. I don’t know whether he read Ethan’s article, but I feel very confident that he took note of the general and widespread reaction — largely a firestorm of fan hysteria over the mercurial superstar whose constant flirtation with free agency threatens to destroy the greatest thing going in the sports world.

From KD’s perspective, frustration is understandable. He has literally said nothing about the Knicks — has said nothing at all, in fact, which may not have been the best decision to dampen controversy — and yet he wakes up and feels compelled to speak to a whirlwind of controversy surrounding what someone else’s decisions say about his career.

“You got a dude, Ethan Strauss, who come in here and give his whole opinion on stuff and make it seem like it’s coming from me… Now y’all piling on me because I don’t want to talk to y’all about that… Let us play basketball.”

Here’s the thing — Strauss distinctly did NOT make it seem like it was coming from Durant. He didn’t make any false or irresponsible statements about KD’s actual plans. His conclusion is essentially, “Man, KD has all the power here and there’s no telling what he’ll decide… This is fascinating!”

This is the result of Kevin Durant’s decision to say “screw it,” and let the chips fall where they may — people can’t accept that he wants to be as honest as he can but can’t give a satisfactory answer to their biggest question. Namely: Kevin, what in the hell are you going to do after the season when you’re a free agent?????

I don’t believe he knows, and why should he? If you were in his position, wouldn’t the results of this season play a huge role in where you want to play next year? Damn near half the league changed teams leading up to this past week’s trade deadline, but Kevin Durant is supposed to know what he’ll want to do in July before he even knows who makes the playoffs or who drafts Zion Williamson?

Not knowing the answer to a question is as good a reason for not giving an answer as one can have, but Durant is roundly criticized for this. “He could just be like LeBron and give canned PR responses,” is a common refrain, but he seems to prefer authentic frustration to poserism and that is well within his rights.

Authentic though he may be, he’s not right when he implies that Strauss’s work is disingenuous or ill-intended. He’s also pushing the limits of irony when he tells reporters to “grow up,” only to angrily leave the press conference when asked a basketball question.

Ultimately I’m not ready to put much blame for the current circumstances on any of the top-billed actors. Kevin Durant is doing his job on the basketball floor at the highest possible level and presenting an honest and real, if often ornery, version of himself to the press and public — and that version of Kevin Durant has told us again and again that he really just wants to play basketball and leave all that other stuff for the summer.

At the same time, Ethan Strauss is doing his job at a very high level and making what I would call reasonable and considered judgments and predictions based on the available data. Everyone is doing what they’re supposed to do — the drama is nothing more than the cost of doing public-facing business in 2019.

We, the general public, cannot abide not knowing everything all the time. That thirst for answers inspires writers like Ethan Strauss to speculate about Durant’s free agency, and the resulting overwrought public outcry triggers KD’s anger and frustration, but the transgressors were us all along.

We should stop and smell the roses. Whether we’re Warriors fans or not, we should enjoy this assembled greatness — arguably the greatest assembly in the league’s long history — for as long as it does last.

Despite all the frustration, speculation and pontification, one thing remains undeniably true: the Golden State Warriors are comfortably cruising towards a third straight title and a spot in the pantheon of basketball’s all-time great teams.

Comments ()