I was on my way to pick up some hot dogs and mustard for a 4th of July cookout when I got the news—Kevin Durant was joining the Golden State Warriors. After hours of anxiously refreshing my Twitter feed, this news was welcome relief. But that relief was quickly followed by disappointment.
Fresh on the heels of one of the best Western Conference Finals ever, a top three player in the NBA was leaving his superstar running mate, Russell Westbrook, to join a 73-9 team. For the sake of competition, this was a bummer. The Cavaliers were the only team with a prayer of beating the Warriors, and they wouldn’t meet them until the NBA Finals. We were doomed to watch young talent languish on bad teams whose front offices were busy tanking and acquiring picks. To my surprise, however, this NBA season has been as entertaining as ever, and not really because of the Warriors or Cavaliers.
For one, the individual performances and stat lines this season have been historically good. What has always separated the NBA from the other major sports leagues in America is the emphasis on the individual. There are only five players on the court at once. Superstars are involved in the action for most of the game. Viewers get close ups of individuals faces. NBA players become distinct characters.
The 2016-17 NBA season has been showcasing individuals better than any NBA season in recent memory. Isaiah Thomas, a 5’ 9” cannonball of a point guard, is second in the league in scoring and has the Boston Celtics in second place in the East. A refreshed James Harden is running the show in Houston under Mike D’Antoni, putting up ridiculous stat lines like the 53/16/17 he dropped on the Knicks on New Year’s Eve—the first 50/15/15 game in NBA history. Best of all, Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double two-thirds of the way through the season. No one has averaged a triple-double for a season since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62.
The focus on the individual in the NBA creates additional narrative. This season, no narrative is more dramatic than that of Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant. When Durant left the Thunder this past summer to join the Warriors it didn’t sit well with Westbrook. According to Westbrook, all Durant did by way of saying goodbye was send him a text. Since then, Westbrook re-signed with the Thunder and established himself as the loyal hero, in contrast to Durant’s flightiness.
In their first meeting of the season, Westbrook showed up to the arena wearing a photographer’s outfit—a direct trolling of Durant’s well known photography hobby. In their most recent game—Durant’s first game back in Oklahoma City—Westbrook and Durant got into it, with Westbrook yelling “I’m coming” over and over at Durant, despite his team being down by 12. Never before have I enjoyed an NBA game where a mediocre team lost to a great team by 16.
As the NBA Playoffs approach, and the trade deadline has come and gone without any of the real contenders making dramatic moves (sorry, New Orleans. Maybe soon!), there is still no doubt in my mind that the Warriors and Cavaliers will meet in the Finals. However, the ride to get there has been fun.