By: Dan Grant
On July 4th, Kevin Durant irrevocably altered the course of NBA history. Even if the newest version of the Golden State Warriors doesn’t work well together (unlikely) or if he changes his mind before the moratorium ends and goes somewhere else (unlikelier still, but let us never forget DeAndre), the debate his defection to the Dubs has sparked rivals only the kind of frothing rhetoric spewed following LeBron James’ infamous ‘The Decision’.
While that comparison is low hanging fruit, it’s not really a fitting one. LeBron’s decision wasn’t just to leave his franchise, it was to leave his home. And when he left for South Beach, he left a smoking crater in his wake — Cleveland instantly became one of the worst teams in the league. Durant is leaving behind a franchise that still has a top 10 player in Russell Westbrook, talented big men in Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, an intriguing newcomer in Victor Oladipo and various other pieces that had the Thunder only one game away from reaching the NBA Finals this past season.
Durant’s decision feels different, and that’s because it is. Not just because he’s a different player in a different situation, but because we’re different as fans now too. It’s a post-Decision world, and we’re just living in it. These are the kind of big changes we’ve grown to expect in the modern sports landscape.
Or at least, some of us have. Thunder fans, you’re exempt from this next part of the discussion because you’re hurting and you have every right to be– as a Raptors fan, I can fully understand how painful it is to have a franchise player walk away. But the rest of you? The ones who have called KD a coward, who have suggested the league is now a joke, who think the other owners should refuse to trade with Golden State or that measures should be put in place to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen? You’re the ones I’m talking to.
How’s the view from your high horse? Is it a clear day? Can you see for miles? Come down for a moment, if you would, so we can talk about a few things.
First, what is it you’re actually mad about? If you’re not a Thunder fan, are you mad because KD didn’t come to your team? Well, most franchises in the NBA aren’t going to land a player of his ilk on the open market, so get used to it. However, I think most fans know this, unless they cheer for the Knicks.
Or maybe you’re mad because KD broke some kind of unwritten rule? You think that he wasn’t loyal to his franchise? That he shied away from taking on the Warriors again next year, after his team completed an epic collapse in the Western Conference Finals this year? Well that I can understand that reaction on its face, but I’m here to tell you that it’s complete bullshit in reality.
Kevin Durant played for the Oklahoma City franchise (including one year in Seattle) for the first nine seasons of his career. He already signed one 5-year extension with the team. He led them to the NBA Finals in 2012, and was one win away last year. He’s a 27 year old four-time scoring champion, still in his absolute prime and he has every right to do whatever the hell he wants with his career. He’s not from Oklahoma City. We have no idea what his relationship is like with Russell Westbrook or head coach Billy Donovan. We do know that when he went down to a foot injury last season, a perennial Western Conference contender missed the playoffs. We also know that Westbrook himself is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2016-17 season. What if Russ told him ‘Hey man, cool knowing you, but after this year, I’m out’. Would you still be mad at him then? I mean, he still could have signed the 1+1 style deal he’s agreed to with Golden State and given it one more shot, but what if Golden State told him they weren’t going to wait another year? They’re about to give Steph Curry a contract that could sniff the 200 million dollar mark when the cap goes up again next off-season, which would make it exponentially harder for them to add a player at KD’s salary. So he should put his entire future at risk just because the Thunder happened to draft him nine years ago? Why? To satisfy the arbitrary expectations of everybody but himself?
So many people are caught up in calling Durant a coward that they fail to realize he’s done nothing but make his own basketball career more challenging. He was around for The Decision. He saw how much heat LeBron took (pun intended). He knew he’d get raked over the coals for the whole exercise — stringing the Thunder along, hosting the meetings in the Hamptons, the works. He did it anyway, presumably because winning means that much to him. Think about it: this is a team that won the title in 2014-15 and followed it up by breaking the all-time wins record last season, and was one win away from back to back championships. Anything less than a title for Golden State in 2016-17 is now going to be viewed as an abject failure, if that wasn’t already the case. Durant knew this too. He could have taken the easy road, gone back to OKC for one last kick at the can, or gone to Miami for the weather, or gone home to the Wizards where he’d have had minimal pressure to succeed right away. He did none of those things. There’s no safety net. He’s taken the hardest road possible, not the easy one.
Yes, he’s teamed up with other superstars. So what? People are acting like this is some shock, but teams have been doing this since the NBA’s inception. It’s just more blatant now because free agency has become such an event. It’s how you win. We remember the recent Heat teams, but the Lakers have done this since the beginning of time. They added Wilt to complement Baylor and West when they couldn’t beat the Celtics. They somehow got the number one overall pick (James Worthy) when they already had Magic and Kareem. They signed Shaq to pair with Kobe, and later added Payton and Malone, to say nothing of Pau, Dwight and Nash. Don’t laugh Celtics fans — you guys have been doing the same thing, ever since you swindled the Warriors out of Parish and McHale, and later added DJ when you couldn’t beat the Sixers (who had Doc and Moses themselves). Or how about when you snaked Ray Allen for Jeff Green and brought in KG? That was OK, but this is somehow an affront? Cavs fans, you’ve dealt with enough in your lives, but your current roster belongs in this conversation too. Rockets fans will remember their team pairing Drexler with Olajuwon, and later doubling down with Barkley and Pippen. Spurs fans remember tanking for Duncan when they already had Robinson — I could go on, but whoops, I’m just about out of teams that have ever won the NBA title. Even the revered Bulls took advantage of having multiple superstars, locking up Jordan and Pippen to long-term deals right before the NBA’s revenue exploded in the early 90’s.
It’s all a matter of perception. When the Spurs add a huge free agent in LaMarcus Aldridge, that’s a savvy move, because the Spurs are a savvy franchise. When the Lakers add star after star, that’s OK because it’s LA and that’s what LA does. When Michael Jordan threatens to leave the Bulls for the Knicks every off-season, that’s just smart business, because he doesn’t actually do it (he just retires again, and then plays for the goddamned Wizards). I could go on. The point is, because Durant’s decision doesn’t fit any of your carefully constructed expectations, you deride it as an error in judgement, or a flaw in character. It’s neither.
In this social media driven NBA universe, we put expectations on players that we’d never actually impose on ourselves. Think about your own life. Imagine you reached the upper echelon of your career, whatever it is. The only downside is you have to live a city where there isn’t that much to do. It’s fine, but you know there’s better out there, a place that you’d enjoy more. Now imagine somebody offered you exactly the same exorbitant salary, except told you that you could move to the city of your dreams and that you’d get to work with a bunch of other people as talented as yourself, all of whom have the same goals as you and want to help you achieve yours. Not only that, but you’d get to make a ton of extra cash on the side, because this new city offers far more opportunity not just for you, but for your family. You’d be personally fulfilled and professionally challenged to the fullest. Wouldn’t you do it?
So why are you mad at Kevin Durant again?