On the surface, Kevin Durant’s reported decision to play in the Tokyo Olympics starting next month sounds … batspit crazy.
He is 32 years old. He is already a two-time Olympic gold medalist. He is only two years removed from surgery on his ruptured Achilles’ and he just missed 37 out of 72 regular-season games for the Brooklyn Nets.
Oh, and he just got done running a mind-bending, body-breaking playoff marathon for Steve Nash, who appeared determined to use the postseason as a weight-loss clinic for a franchise player with no weight left to lose.
It would seem the last thing KD should be doing is gearing up his body for the July 6 opening of Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas, followed by five exhibition games, then an endless flight to Tokyo to compete in a Summer Games tournament played under pandemic restrictions. Only James Harden’s decision to join him, coming off the hamstring injury, would make Durant’s call seem sound in comparison.
But in the wake of a heartbreaking Game 7 overtime loss to Milwaukee, Nets fans actually should be encouraged by Durant’s hunger to add more trophies to his case. KD has publicly stated that he doesn’t spend much time weighing his place among the game’s historic figures, or fretting over a sportswriter’s favorite word — legacy. And yet everyone who spends time around the greats know, deep down, how they keep score. After Kobe Bryant won his fifth NBA title, he was asked in the postgame presser what his one for the thumb meant to him personally.
“Just got one more than Shaq,” he said. That would be Shaquille O’Neal, his former teammate and eternal rival who would finish his career with four rings. “You can take that to the bank,” Bryant added.
So you can also take it the bank that Durant is aware that a third gold medal would put him one ahead of the dynastic force he will forever be measured against, LeBron James, who will not be making the trip to Japan. And as the man who already owns the Team USA record for points in a single Olympics (Durant has the top two totals with 156 in London in 2012, and 155 in Rio in 2016), KD is surely aware he’s only one big night away from setting the Americans’ all-time Olympic scoring mark — he’s 25 points behind Carmelo Anthony.
What does this Olympic commitment mean for the Nets, other than more opportunities for Durant to get hurt?
It means the player that will lead them to a championship, or not, over the next few years is relentlessly pursuing trophies, or medals, wherever they might be available. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. You want your franchise player to feel this way, especially after his team blew a golden opportunity to cut LeBron’s lead over him in NBA titles from 4-2 to 4-3.
James and the Lakers were out of the playoffs in the first round and the East opened up for a Brooklyn team ultimately doomed by injuries. Doubled over at the end of Saturday night’s Game 7, Durant was left mentally and physically exhausted by the burdens he carried and the minutes he logged.
Now he’s already preparing his body to climb another mountain. Nets GM Sean Marks said Monday that the question of whether his players would compete in the Summer Games would come down to “a collective decision from all parties.” But when asked specifically about the Athletic’s report that Durant had already committed to USA Basketball, Marks confirmed that he would not stand in KD’s way. Of course, his former San Antonio colleague, Olympic head coach Gregg Popovich, would have removed Marks from his Christmas card list had he offered any resistance.
Durant is good to go, Marks said, “as long as several markers have been met, and that starts with us having a conversation with Kevin. … It’s difficult to turn down playing for your country. Having that opportunity is like none other, and I think Kevin knows this. Kevin knows if his body feels right and if he’s up for the task. What a great opportunity to go play alongside a lot of his close friends and go and have a very, very unique experience.”
But Kevin Durant isn’t going to Tokyo to hang with close friends. He is going there to lead Popovich’s team, and to show how far he’s come from his early Team USA days when Mike Krzyzewski had to reprimand his retreating newbie for looking down at the floor when they spoke.
More than anything, Durant is going to the Olympics to achieve things other superstars, including LeBron, haven’t achieved. If you’re a Nets fan counting on a redemptive championship next year, yes, this is a good thing.