Basketball: New York loves Kevin Durant, but does Kevin Durant love New York back?

A billboard depicting Kevin Durant and Kristaps Porzingis in matching blue jerseys, reads “Can You Make NY Sports Great Again?” outside of Madison Square Garden in New York, on Oct 25, 2018.
A billboard depicting Kevin Durant and Kristaps Porzingis in matching blue jerseys, reads “Can You Make NY Sports Great Again?” outside of Madison Square Garden in New York, on Oct 25, 2018.PHOTO: NYTIMES

(WASHINGTON POST) The craziest possibility of the craziest era of NBA star independence now features a billboard to legitimise the impossible dream. It went up on Thursday (Oct 25) near Madison Square Garden in New York, just in time for Kevin Durant's only visit to Manhattan this season.

It includes a cartoonish image of Durant in the New York Knicks' blue, along with Kristaps Porzingis, the Larry O'Brien Trophy and a not-so subtle message written above it all: "CAN YOU MAKE NY SPORTS GREAT AGAIN?" Strangely, it's appropriate to woo Durant with a dare. Think about it: A colossal challenge may be the only thing left to motivate him.

There's a hashtag, of course, #KDNY2019, because who does anything meaningful without a hashtag these days? When the Golden State Warriors play the Knicks on Friday night, it will be clear that they are competing against the future more than the present. They will be competing against the kooky idea that Durant could leave the greatest current team in American sports next summer for a franchise that has won one playoff series this century.

Such a decision would go against the NBA's the ring-is-the-thing logic. Then again, Durant got everyone's gym shorts in a bunch two years ago when he defied conventional thought and joined the Warriors after they had won a league-record 73 games in the regular season. Since then, he has watched the public alternate between hating him for making Golden State historically stacked and appreciating his legendary efficiency and back-to-back Finals MVP performances.

Now, with Durant playing on essentially his third one-year contract with the Warriors, there's a growing belief that even winning with an all-time team can't satisfy him, not when he'll be forever accused of taking the easy route. So what's the one thing in Durant's mind that could rival chasing history with Golden State? Resuscitating the Knicks, it seems.

Durant's interest in New York is being treated as an open secret across the NBA. There's enough smoke, enough hope, for NYCADSCO.com to pay for that billboard. It also should make for a wild scene at the Garden, where the Knicks are 1-4 and honest about their rebuilding process, and their fans are desperate to cling to something promising.

Not long ago, we assumed every star was at least curious about playing in New York or any of the league's biggest markets. But there has been a gradual shift over the past 20 years. The small-market San Antonio Spurs have won five titles during this span and become the most dependable franchise in the league.

The Miami Heat, once a fledgling franchise with a lot of promise, have grown up, won three titles since 2006 and attracted some of the game's biggest stars. Golden State and Cleveland, which both endured long periods as non-factors, have met in the Finals the past four seasons.

All the while, the Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers have been among the league's worst teams the past five seasons. And the NBA has thrived while they've been down.

The league's biggest markets and legacy franchises could be making a comeback now. LeBron James is a Laker, and the team should be able to add another max-salary player next summer. The Knicks have good roster flexibility, too. The Boston Celtics are back to a championship level, and the Philadelphia 76ers aren't far behind. The Houston Rockets could challenge the Warriors once again. The rebuilding Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers also will attempt to use their big-market appeal during the 2019 free agency period.

"For me, it's amazing to me how viewership of TV and all of that has been so great when the Lakers have been bad for a while, the Knicks have struggled, the Nets have really struggled, and Chicago over the last couple of years has been in a downturn," said Jeff Van Gundy, the former coach and current ESPN/ABC analyst. "It's been fascinating how the NBA popularity is still growing."

But it's never a bad thing for the largest markets to have relevant teams. James figures to help the Lakers move beyond their worst five-year stretch in franchise history. The Knicks' woes have been longer and more troublesome. If Durant were to leave the Warriors' nirvana for the James Dolan-owned Knicks, it would be both the greatest challenge of his career and the best thing to happen to New York pro basketball since Patrick Ewing's heyday.

The city went nuts when Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Knicks seven years ago, and despite the controversies and the losing at the end, he's still respected because he represented New York with such pride for seven seasons. Durant would provide next-level credibility and admiration. He would be abandoning one of the greatest forces in NBA history to make the Knicks matter again.

You can almost feel the hype. Perhaps he can, too. And perhaps that is what he's chasing. I believe it's a lot easier to think about leaving the Warriors than it is to actually bounce. If this season is a feel-good year that results in a third straight championship, it will be hard to break such a strong bond. For as much criticism as Durant has received, he is also, objectively, a perfect fit with the Warriors. No other superstar, not even James, would look so natural in their system and enhance their style of play without altering it.

But as Ewing will tell you any time you bring up his playing days, "There's nothing like playing and winning in New York." The question is how much Durant wants to stand out. Does he want to be an all-star on a team with four of them? Does he want to be in a superstar duo with Stephen Curry, one in which Curry always will be the more beloved? Or does he need to be The One?

Durant seems most comfortable when he can pick and choose when to step into the limelight. The NBA is an alpha-male league, however, and there's always this pull for the best to be more selfish. They are judged, sometimes wrongly, for things such as taking the last shot and circumventing the team's structure to prove their greatness. In that environment, Durant is a great player who hitchhiked onto a dynasty, and some may never fully respect him again unless he ratchets up the degree of difficulty.

That's why the Knicks are a threat to sign him. They have the market, the hype and the room to grow. If Porzingis returns to form after his knee injury, then Durant already would have an all-star teammate. The Knicks have some decent role players: Tim Hardaway Jr., Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Enes Kanter, though he'll be a free agent in 2019.

They should have a 2019 NBA draft lottery pick, too. It's likely that a star the calibre of Durant would elevate New York quickly to an Eastern Conference contender. And depending on how general manager Scott Perry manages the salary cap, the Knicks could have the flexibility to add another star.

For as bad as the Knicks have been, this is not a hopeless situation. But Durant will be 31 by the time next season begins, and we don't know how a player of his size - basically a 7-footer with guard skills - will age because he's his own prototype. Normally, a player nearing the end of his prime would want the best supporting cast possible. Durant already has that in Golden State.

Durant and James are good friends, and he's watching James transcend the typical career arc. He's watching James start over again, at age 33, in Los Angeles. He's watching him try to have it all, on and off the court.

After James's decision in July, Durant praised the move and referred to his career as chapters in a book."I think it's gonna make his book even more interesting when it's done," Durant said in an interview with ESPN's The Undefeated.

Does Durant's book need a New York chapter? For the next eight months, the great, and needy, basketball city will try to convince him that it does.