Kevin Durant made a move that changed the landscape of the NBA for years to come in choosing to sign with the Golden State Warriors, and the torches from the public are out.
How dare someone choose to live in the Bay Area as opposed to Oklahoma City? How dare someone exercise his right as a free agent to make the best basketball decision for himself?!
How dare Durant leave loyal Oklahoma City for a better situation?
(Except, isn’t that how Oklahoma City got a team in the first place, leaving loyal Seattle for a better situation? But let’s digress.)
Nine years is a lifetime in the NBA, and Durant likely saw his basketball mortality flash before his eyes with the events of the last two years. This time last summer, he was at a USA basketball camp in Las Vegas, telling reporters how thankful he was to be able to walk again let alone play basketball at a high level.
Coming into the season, people wondered if a 7-footer with foot issues would go down the same road as a Bill Walton or Sam Bowie—players who were unable to fulfill their potential due to things out of their control.
One would think it makes a player value the aspects of his life and career that are completely in his hands, only for him to decide, especially with their being no guarantees on his body and feet.
Then a few weeks ago, a 3-1 series lead disintegrated at the hands of the team he’s now joined. He saw up close the resilience of the Warriors, along with their confidence, structure and style of play.
He saw something in that series, something that may have shaken his belief in his co-stars, the coaching or front office. He saw a team in his way that would only get better in the immediate future compared to perhaps, a team in his locker room that had a very high but hard ceiling.
What if he made the decision based on information we don’t yet know, like the ever-so-obvious appearance that Russell Westbrook isn’t long for Oklahoma City, that he’s eyeing Los Angeles or New York when his free agency is up next year?
So he was supposed to put his fate for the long-term in the hands of someone who could be unpredictable next season and summer? Durant has no room to waste any more precious years in his career, with mortality staring him square in the face in the form of Jerry West.
West, a Warriors consultant with a strong voice in the room, likely gave Durant the “don’t be noble, I went 1-8 in the NBA Finals and it’s tortured me to the point I can’t enjoy anything in life since...” speech.
If that doesn’t shake something inside you, Durant might have been considered lifeless.
And if Durant made the decision to leave Oklahoma City, where else should he have gone, given the options?
The Clippers had no money to offer Durant and the Lakers have no direction. He could have picked the Spurs, but they have serious questions at point guard and issues beyond Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge (and Lord knows we would never, ever criticize Durant or the almighty Spurs for such a move).
The Celtics don’t have enough to truly compete for a title and honestly, there’s no other suitable contender with the chance to win Golden State offers. Don’t blame Durant for picking Golden State; he picked the best place to work and best place to win—two things that should identify with our own expectations of self and very defined expectations for NBA players, a book titled “You’d better win.”
Our revisionist history is at work, yet again, as we opine for the days of yesteryear—days when the players virtually had zero rights to decide where they wanted to play, where their legacies were in the hands of coaches and executives who could be so powerful yet so anonymous at the same time.
The public remembers so vividly when the stars weren’t clustered together and the NBA Finals had numerous realistic contenders in the 80s—except that’s exactly what happened in the 1980s, the decade that brought the league on the same scale as the MLB and NFL nationally.
It wasn’t just Magic and Kareem, Larry, Michael, Isiah and Julius; It was players like McHale, Worthy, Moses and Dumars that gave those teams their texture, their character and by proxy, gave the league increased interest and visibility.
The Lakers had arguably the greatest point guard of all-time and greatest center for almost an entire decade, along with one of the top open-floor performers (Worthy). The Celtics employed the best frontcourt of all-time and arguably most potent starting five post-merger and somehow, the league survived on a diet of the haves and have-nots.
Somehow, the NBA thrived when the Lakers and Celtics marched virtually unscathed to the Finals, not getting truly challenged until later in the decade. Five teams made the NBA Finals in the 1980’s, meaning it was a foregone conclusion as to who we would watch in June.
We still watched. We still loved it.
Somehow the NBA started becoming this worldwide commodity because these great players had great players around them. It produced compelling theatre and a nostalgia we refuse to let go of, although we conveniently scramble the details surrounding the rosters of those teams.
It’s disingenuous on our part to compare Durant to Bird or Magic or even Jordan. Magic and Bird won titles in their first and second year, respectively, tasting ultimate success even before their individual games became a finished product.
Jordan won in Year 7, when he faced a Pistons team that got old. Durant is two years past that, and was looking up at a juggernaut that wasn’t going anywhere—and needed him as much as he needed them.
What the NBA is learning is that business booming for the enterprise means the business should be the same for its players as well. Golden State, no matter how one looks at it, put itself in a prime position with smart drafting, long-term planning and a little luck.
The perfect storm arrived for Durant in the form of new TV money and free agency coming at just the right time—and nobody should take issue with that.
The public’s rose-colored glasses and false expectations of someone like Durant came back to bite “us” square in the behind one more time, as if we haven’t learned this game is more a business than a game.
Durant was billed as the “Anti-LeBron,” the player who quietly announced his contract extension with the Thunder on the same day as James’ “Decision” in July 2010—never minding the fact Durant was a restricted free agent and there was no chance he would play anywhere else.
James was billed as the “Anti-Kobe,” the unselfish player who wasn’t obsessed with running 300-pound teammates away from Los Angeles in order to have the spotlight for himself.
In other words, a collective hate for one athlete or another spawns a twisted sort of love for the next guy—leading to the disappointment, anger and twisted behavior when said athlete doesn’t fit into the box he never asked the public to put him in.
Unfortunately, the cycle doesn’t appear to be nearing an end anytime soon, as we simply change the criteria for what we want out of our stars—except as the athletes evolve to their maturity wrapped around our expectations, we simply move the goalposts back even farther.
So to some degree, it’s not surprising for Durant to choose Golden State—and it’s certainly not surprising to hear and read the half-assed takes in the meantime.
Because if it’s one thing we know for sure, we’ll change the rules and our expectations at a moment’s notice, expecting these guys to just roll with it like they’ve existed all along.
Durant just turned the tables, although it wasn’t as Machiavellian as it seems.
How’s that mirror looking?
Take a long look at it, because in November, you'll be watching Golden State all season long--to record numbers, as it'll be compelling no matter how predictable you think the result will be.