When Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City in 2016, reaction from the only franchise he had known was petty and short-sighted. The Thunder deemed the best player in their brief history unworthy of a video tribune upon his return and, one year later, issued KD’s No. 35 to a rookie on a two-way contract.
That stung Durant. Moreover, players around the NBA took note of OKC’s flagrant disrespect toward someone who represented the franchise so well for nine seasons.
Six years earlier, in Cleveland, there was an even more display of sheer immaturity by Cavaliers chairman Dan Gilbert, who upon LeBron James’ decision to head to Miami wrote a screed to Cavaliers fans in which he described James as a narcissistic, cowardly deserter.
That, too, got around the league – as if it weren’t hard enough to sell NBA players on the merits of Cleveland and OKC.
The Warriors, it seems, are determined to avoid such self-defeating behavior.
Durant announced he was leaving the Warriors for the Nets on June 30. Roughly 24 hours later, Warriors CEO Joe Lacob issued a statement praising KD, concluding with this line: “As long as I am co-chairman of this team, no player will ever wear #35 for the Warriors again.”
This elicited more than a few eye rolls and looks of confusion, folks wondering why such a grand gesture for someone, no doubt great, who was a Warrior for only three seasons.
Lacob is ahead of such people. Maybe not light years ahead, but far enough to see the benefits that may be derived.
In the nine years since Lacob, Peter Guber and friends purchased the Warriors, the franchise has been committed to deep analysis, routinely soliciting a variety of opinions, occasionally resulting in conflict, before proceeding.
Every decision considers not only the next year or two but also the next 10 or 20. The goal is to become the world’s No. 1 franchise, transcending the NBA and sports.
The decision to trumpet the intention to retire Durant’s number was, to some degree, about honoring KD for his contributions. To a greater degree, it was about recruiting for the future.
The message to all future big-name free agents is this: If you come to our team and play an important role in its success, you will receive the highest honor we can give a player.
When the Warriors announced they were trading Andre Iguodala to Memphis on July 7, Lacob was even quicker with his recruiting pitch. The second paragraph of the press release is a statement in which the CEO thanks Iguodala “for all of his contributions and look forward to seeing his number in the rafters at Chase Center.”
Great players on the free-agent market are looking for more than money, minutes and a chance to win. They’ll get at least two of those. They also place value on how a franchise treats its employees. They’ve already canvassed prospective new teammates and wouldn’t be meeting if they didn’t like what they heard. But they also want to hear what those at the top of the business have to say.
There is not a player on earth who wouldn’t be moved by the idea of having, as I can imagine Guber saying, a visual monument to your greatness that will stand forever. Retired numbers have such status, as do statues.
Dangling easily visualized possibilities is perfectly legal as a recruiting tool, part of the routine for college coaches at powerhouse basketball and football programs. There’s a chance Zion Williamson was impressed when Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski pointed to retired jerseys -- Grant Hill and J.J. Redick to name two -- hanging in the rafters at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
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Durant and Iguodala earned their way to such distinction at Chase Center, even if neither plays a game in the building as a Warrior. It’s gracious of Lacob to state his intention to thank each man with more than a handshake.
But that’s not the only reason for making such firm statements, which can’t be reconsidered without severe backlash.
Lacob understands the value of image and that a positive one can be profitable. Shows of appreciation make their way around the league. No matter how he may feel about a player leaving, he wouldn’t convey pettiness or bile. He’s looking beyond the moment. Far beyond it.