The third installment of the Cleveland Cavaliers versus the Golden State Warriors starts on June 1.
With the championship score deadlocked at one win apiece, this match third consecutive matchup between LeBron James and Co. and Steph Curry and Co. will be littered with legacy affecting storylines. But perhaps the player with the most legacy juice on the line is the newcomer to the already developed Cavs-Warriors rivalry.
In order to preserve his all-time legacy, Kevin Durant needs an NBA Finals victory more than any other player in this series.
Durant’s need for a ring even surpasses LeBron James’, who is currently looking to stack championships to build his argument as the greatest player ever.
As history continues to tell us, championships are an extremely important factor that defines a great player’s overall legacy. James is still battling Michael Jordan for the “GOAT” title despite having either surpassed, or being on pace to surpass, nearly every statistical achievement Jordan managed. However, at the end of the day, Jordan has six rings to James’ three.
That’s where the precedent is set for a player of Durant’s caliber. Regarded throughout the league as one of the premier talents, potentially even the second best player in the world, Durant is facing a situation where he is just four wins away from his first ever NBA title. But this isn’t new territory for Durant. His first chance at etching his name in stone as a champion came back in 2012 when his Oklahoma City Thunder faced off against James’ Miami HEAT. James thwarted Durant’s attempt at eternal glory in five games.
What muddies the water here for Durant is the manner in which he could potentially obtain his first ring. After being drafted by the Thunder (Seattle Sonics at the time) in 2007, Durant quickly became the face of a franchise that was in a delicate transition and helped them stave off irrelevancy while looking to develop a new identity. Over the course of the next nine years, Durant propelled a talented team with other players of a similar caliber — James Harden for three years, Russell Westbrook for eight — to the cusp of ultimate greatness.
However, after blowing their 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals just a year ago, to the Warriors no less, Durant made a decision that will forever shape his career. He jumped ship to the 73-win Golden State Warriors. The same team who ended his bid for an NBA championship that same year.
While comparisons were, and continue to be, drawn to the time James took his talents to South Beach to join Dwyane Wade and the HEAT, the situations aren’t particularly similar. Before James flew south for four winters, Miami was on the heels of two straight first-round playoff exits. The team Durant decided to jump to had just set the record for most wins in a season and were well on their way to beating James’ Cavaliers in the Finals before James pulled off arguably the greatest three-game stretch in the history of the sport.
What Durant did is what so few athletes do over the course of their careers. He sacrificed large sums of money for a chance to win. By joining the best overall team in the league, Durant made the dominant Warriors unfathomably dominant. Golden State enters this Finals matchup with a perfect 12-0 record with only two of those victories coming down to single digits. Ten blowouts in 12 games were the results Durant was looking for in a playoff experience when he moved from Oklahoma City to Oakland. But in doing so — by sacrificing the money and opportunity to be “the guy” on a title winning team — Durant left no room for error.
If Durant and Warriors fall to James and Cavaliers the landscape of Durant’s legacy will undergo a seismic shift. The narrative that he was too young and it wasn’t his time yet — like what was said in 2012 — won’t fly. The excuse that he didn’t get enough help against a formidable Cavaliers team doesn’t apply either as he has three all-star teammates. Anything but a victory in the Finals this season for Durant will be looked upon, currently and historically, as a failure.
With his tenth season coming to a close, the difference in adding a ring to his already impressive career could swing Durant one of two ways. A championship propels him closer to the discussion of all-time players and champions, that includes James and Jordan. Another loss sets him down the path of the greats who never won it all, like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley.
Durant wasn’t around when the Cavaliers-Warriors rivalry started, but for the sake of his legacy, he better do all that he can to end it.
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