DAN BICKLEY

Championship or bust stakes remain clear for Suns, Kevin Durant

Dec 28, 2023, 4:16 PM

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at Footprint Center on December 25, 2023 i...

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns during the NBA game at Footprint Center on December 25, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Mavericks defeated the Suns 128-114. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Kevin Durant is a basketball villain.   

He’s not a dirty player like Draymond Green, Dillon Brooks, or Patrick Beverley. He’s viewed as a moody mercenary in a black hat, the joyless player with a long history of callously leaving teams in his wake. He ranks among the most shameless offenders of the Player Empowerment era, where NBA stars seek out the path of least resistance, where the truly elite can determine their employer and their working conditions. 

Durant is also largely misunderstood. He is a selfless superstar, a generous passer and an extremely hard worker. He’s been in the league for 17 seasons, and mostly every teammate will attest that he’s an exemplary coworker. 

Yet for all the myths, truths, and whatever falls in between, this much is also true: 

Durant is championship or bust in Phoenix.   

The stakes are simply too high on Planet Orange, where Suns fans have been traumatized by heartbreak and playoff failure, brainwashed by local broadcasters who relentlessly blame the officials, dangerously fueling the civic angst and our longstanding persecution complex. 

Durant was also traded for two of the most popular players in team history, along with enough draft capital to hamper the Suns for the near future. Durant experienced firsthand the loving reception showered upon Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson when the Nets came to town on Dec. 13. He’s smart enough to know he’ll be shouldering the blame if he doesn’t deliver that elusive championship banner, even though he’s currently performing at an MVP level. 

That’s how damaged we are as a basketball town.  

In July 2021, the Suns held a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals. We had a homegrown team that danced and preened and played with exuberance and innocence, with fearlessness and joy. A lot has happened in just over 29 months, and the rollercoaster has made us all queasy and disoriented.   

Just a few days ago, there were fears that the Suns were spiraling the drain for good. Eric Gordon grumbled about shot attempts. The team seemed unimpressed and uncommitted to the defensive blueprint, and there was a noticeable lack of connectivity on the court. Some feared the team hired the wrong head coach in Frank Vogel, bringing in a defensive specialist to oversee a team built on three offensive superstars. Others worried that owner Mat Ishbia was reckless in trading for an aging Durant and throwing money at a top-heavy team, effectively proving that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. 

Finally, the ominous Christmas Day report about Durant’s growing frustration, along with the heavy implications that he was quickly souring on his Phoenix experience. 

To his credit, Durant offered a powerful rebuttal in the Suns’ victory over the Rockets. Bradley Beal is expected to return from an ankle injury very soon. Devin Booker has ditched the headband and is overdue for a lengthy hot streak. 

Even though the Suns have wasted a lot of tarmac, there’s still time to make this right. There is still enough runway to become frightening and formidable, maybe even indefensible.   

Alas, there are also plenty minefields in our immediate future. Because nothing ever comes easy for basketball fans in the Valley. And because we are all easily triggered on Planet Orange.  

We have the scars and PTSD to prove it.

Dan Bickley

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