The Warriors now find themselves down 3-1 to the Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, and Kevin Durant has yet to play a game. Durant has been out since May 8 with a calf strain, and we’re unsure if he’s even scrimmaged with the team since. The Warriors, who are also dealing with injuries to Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, DeMarcus Cousins and Kevon Looney, don’t look like the same team without their perennial Finals MVP, too. They’ve lost back-to-back games by double digits.
Head coach Steve Kerr has been secretive about Durant’s health status, hinting that he may return for Game 5 or 6 if there is one. But the extent of what he’s dealing with has otherwise been kept hush-hush.
Durant and Golden State’s medical staff have been careful with his rehab given the long-term risks. The question is, if he’s given a choice of whether or not to return, even if he isn’t at full health, should he?
ELLENTUCK: There’s never been a better opportunity for Kevin Durant to prove he is not just a mere add-on as a Golden State Warrior than if he were to return to Game 5 and win. The Warriors look tired, sad and hurt right now, and each win left in this series would drive up his worth that much more. I mean, heck, it could be enough to sway him to stay with the franchise for another stint. If he’s too hurt, he’s too hurt. But if I’m Kevin Durant, I’m lobbying whoever I have to so I can step on the floor on Monday. There’s so much more to gain than to lose.
WINFIELD: Nah, Matt. First: Add-on is disrespect. Two-time Finals MVP, and should be three-time based on how subpar the Warriors look without him. Durant’s entire Warriors existence has been validated in his absence. Returning to the lineup only puts him at risk of a) re-injury or b) a subpar performance in a losing effort where everything falls apart at the expense of a championship. Regardless, Durant is injured. If he’s able to come back, he’ll play. I don’t think he’s sitting out intentionally for legacy purposes. But, for me, it’s clear he’s the difference, and this series shows every bit how important he’s been to their success all along.
ELLENTUCK: But even if he comes back and loses, he has every excuse in the book to play. He can say he wasn’t 100 percent still and he can say his teammates weren’t 100 percent healthy either. If he’s already planning to leave after the season anyway, there’s no social risk in taking this leap of faith which could shut the mouth of every hater he’s ever had since 2016. Of course, he’d be risking re-injury, and for that reason I’d never fault him for sitting out. But from a public perception perspective — which we know he’s always thinking about — this is an easy call. Are you imagining what his entire narrative would become if he helped Golden State crawl back from a 3-1 deficit (which would ultimately kill off 3-1 jokes, too)?
WINFIELD: Maybe it’s just me, but I genuinely think any Kevin Durant hater watching this series has to pay homage. He is the ultimate pressure release. His impact on both ends of the floor is missed. When the Warriors go on to lose these Finals, this will be remembered as the series Kevin Durant missed.
It sounds great: Oh, KD came back in Game 5 and hero-balled the Warriors to three straight wins. But the man hasn’t played basketball for precisely one month, and hasn’t even been participating in scrimmages. He’s gonna be rusty, have Kawhi Leonard draped all over him, on 1.5 legs, and be under NBA Finals pressure. Meanwhile, he’s risking a re-injury, and we saw what happened with DeMarcus Cousins this season.
A return is unnecessary if he’s not 100 percent healthy. And, to be honest, it’s unnecessary for legacy purposes, too. His legacy is adequately represented by how Golden State has performed without him.
ELLENTUCK: I think the same people who ripped on Durant for signing with the Warriors are still going to feel the same way after this series. To most, that won’t matter, but most aren’t Kevin Durant. There are more excuses to pin the Warriors’ loss on than I can keep count of, given how many injuries there were. I’m still not convinced that if everyone else aside from Durant were healthy that Golden State wouldn’t be winning this series.
This is the ultimate chance for Durant to re-write the narrative of the biggest decision in his professional career to date. Think about the LeBron James-Warriors slander after his superteams fell short against the Spurs and then Golden State in back-to-back years. And then think about how coming back from a 3-1 deficit changed his entire already-cemented legacy. This could be that moment for KD, the guy who has tried so hard to validate his move to the Bay that he created burner Instagram accounts. If this matters as much to him as he’s led us to believe, I can’t see why he’d turn this opportunity down. Does anything really change if he comes back and Golden State still loses Game 5 anyway?
WINFIELD: Sometimes I forget we’re talking about a man who tweeted in defense of himself from separate burner Twitter accounts. My guy definitely cares about public perception. If Golden State comes back and loses Game 5, haters can point to that one, out-of-rhythm, rusty-ass game as “proof” Kevin Durant wasn’t the difference, that the Warriors stood no chance, regardless of whether he played or not. If he sits out, this all becomes a what-if, and what-ifs are always remembered when it comes to the greats.
To be fair, this Raptors team is loaded from top-to-bottom, and I don’t think rusty KD has any moves for Kawhi Leonard. Imagine KD returns from injury, only to get clamped up by Kawhi on one end, then torched by Board Man on the other. The conversation surrounding Leonard as the best player in the world is here because we’re in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately era, and Durant hasn’t played since May 8. Returning anything short of 100 percent creates an opportunity for Leonard to expose him. That’s not smart.
ELLENTUCK: If KD doesn’t come back and the Raptors go on to win Game 5, this will always be remembered as the what-if series for the Warriors dynasty — especially if it does collapse like we all think it will in the offseason. But for Durant’s legacy in particular, this series feels like it will be forgotten. The basketball fans will remember what he did in the Finals, they’ll remember how spectacular he and Curry were on the same court, but they’ll never remember this team as Durant’s like we do LeBron’s Heat and Cavs.
If KD sits out Game 5, there’ll be intense scrutiny on where he signs next and speculation if he’ll ever win a title “on his own.” And I think that’s what he fears most. The sweet, sweet release from narrative hell is right there if he comes back down 3-1. After that, he could ride into a Los Angeles Lakers-Magic Johnson dramedy lane untIl retirement just like the guy he’s spent his entire career trying to surpass.
WINFIELD: There was always going to be pressure on what KD does next. Even if he came back, coming back from 3-1 is unlikely the way Toronto is hooping.
This Warriors team was never going to be Durant’s. It always has been and always will be Steph Curry’s, even if he never wins a Finals MVP in his career. The Knicks on the other hand? They’re already his, and he’s not even a free agent yet. That’s the only place he’ll truly be able to win “on his own.” Let’s just fast forward to July 1. This one’s over.