Kevin Durant has often allowed perception to dictate his reality. Few things in the NBA are as fickle as a narrative, and yet it’s hard to think of a player who has let it impact him to that extent as Durant. Call him a millennial athlete, but this susceptibility to criticism is uniquely human. Durant is extremely online. He is aware of what people say about him. The unfortunate part of this is that for a player that could very well be the best basketball player on the planet, the narrative has never been particularly kind.

He’s just a scorer.

He killed budding rivalries between the Warriors and Thunder, and the Warriors and Cavs, by simply signing on the dotted line to go to California.

He’s a luxury player on a team that does not need him.

Some of these narratives have been fair, but where Durant has really been different is in letting these narratives impact his decision-making. Before leaving Oklahoma City, Durant added the ability to play all-world defense. Was it something he did all the time? No. But his absurd quickness and length translates into rim protection, shot disruption, and switchability that’s paramount in today’s NBA. Serious articles have been written about his candidacy for the Defensive Player of the Year award. Interestingly, Durant has credited his improvement to…not wanting to be called out as being simply a one-way player.

The other decisions have been fairly straightforward. In our NBA culture of rings as the ultimate arbiter of greatness, the risk of staying in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook and an owner that was reluctant to pay the luxury tax was too great. The appeal of Golden State to help him end that narrative was too attractive. However, it seems as though he did not prepare himself for the backlash that would come.

For Durant, he was joining a team that he had very nearly beaten, and one who had lost to LeBron James and company in the 2016 NBA Finals. They were asking him, a free agent, to help push their team back over the top. All KD did after that was deliver. Two seasons, two NBA championships, and two Finals MVPs later, he could be forgiven for believing he’d be considered the best player in the world. Instead, people like Steve Kerr, his own coach, were still giving LeBron James that recognition. In the meantime, he was seen as joining an NBA championship team, one that had won 73 games before luck and a dinged-up Steph Curry opened up just enough room for James and the Cavs. No, Durant was simply a luxury for what might be the best team of all time, the theory went.

This view was so ingrained that teammates even felt comfortable calling him out on it. The same Draymond Green who reportedly recruited him from the parking lot was willing to call him a “bitch” to his face this season. From Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports:

Green called Durant a “bitch” multiple times, sources said. In a summarized version, sources said Green shouted, “You’re a bitch and you know you’re a bitch.” The rhetoric, sources said, continued even when Kerr attempted to direct the team’s attention to his whiteboard.

But what ultimately led to Green’s suspension, sources said, was a remark in which he dared Durant to bolt in free agency next summer. Durant has a player option for the 2019-20 season, and the Warriors want their superteam intact for the opening of their new arena, the Chase Center in San Francisco, next season.

Green reportedly told Durant something along the lines of, “We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.” The Warriors were willing to suspend Green, but that’s beside the point. Durant’s value to Golden State has always been questioned.

And so that’s been the conundrum of Kevin Durant. Making decisions based on narratives without the self-awareness to understand which new ones would arise even as successes mount. He can’t make people love him, and each time he gets caught with a burner account or gets into an argument with an ESPN personality, he slips further away from what he really wants: respect.

What do you do if you’re an impending free agent with multiple rings, nothing to prove, and owe nothing to anyone within your current organization?

There could be a happy ending here for Durant, though. Just two weeks ago it was close to the consensus view that the Warriors did not need Durant and, in fact, might even be better without him. With his team down 3-1 in the Finals to the Toronto Raptors, that notion is now out the window. His calf injury has kept him out since Game 5 of the second round against the Houston Rockets; the Warriors did just fine with him out against the Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, but it’s almost impossible to see them coming back in Toronto without him.

He’s likely to play in Game 5 in Toronto, having completed a practice on Sunday afternoon. But it comes in the context of anonymous teammates sniping at him in the media for not gutting it out and getting back into action sooner. The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami put it in stark terms:

It’s impossible to know. It’s probably a bit cynical to even attempt to analyze. But just ask yourself this: If Thompson or Looney or Curry or Green or Andre Iguodala had this injury 30 days ago, would the Warriors still be waiting for them?

Injuries are different for everyone, and there’s no reason to believe Durant isn’t working to come back. What’s worth noting is that Kawakami wouldn’t write it if it wasn’t a view shared, to some degree, in the Warriors locker room. Sam Amick of The Athletic went even furthere than Kawakami, fleshing out some of the tension that informed Kawakami’s column:

At the very least, Durant’s absence that began back on May 8 is causing a mixture of confusion and angst among several of his teammates that simply can’t be helpful to their overall cause. Sources say there was a very real hope that Durant would be able to play in Game 4, to push through in much the same way that Thompson, Cousins, Iguodala and Looney have done of late. When that didn’t happen, and when they saw their season compromised more than ever without him after they’d grown hopeful of his return after seeing him on the court, the irritation grew in large part because they simply didn’t understand why he wasn’t there.

Will he lift those same teammates in an epic comeback? Will he be rusty and tentative on a leg that’s kept him out for almost a month? We’re just two days removed from Brian Windhorst of ESPN reporting that neither the trainers for Golden State nor Durant himself believe he’s ready to go.

If Kevin Durant can step outside of himself and look at the situation, he’ll realize he holds the best cards he’s ever had. His teammates criticizing him reflects poorly on them. They’re making it abundantly clear, if the on-court results weren’t doing it already, that they need him. We’re just a few months removed from Green challenging Durant to leave in free agency. Now they appear upset he’s not available to them due to injury.

What do you do if you’re an impending free agent with multiple rings, nothing to prove, and owe nothing to anyone within your current organization?

Whatever you want.