He's gone. As of July 7th it became official, as Kevin Durant put pen to paper on his contract with the Golden State Warriors and was presented to the world alongside new general manager Bob Meyers and coach Steve Kerr. It was a weird sight for the entire NBA as Durant made his switch official.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's greatest ever player is no longer associated with the franchise, and with that the Warriors have beheaded their greatest long term rival in the Western Conference. Durant, Westbrook and the Thunder offered by far the scariest proposition to the Warriors ongoing dominance, but with one swift move the team from the Bay Area has turned a contender into a potential rebuilder.
It is unlike anything seen in the NBA, certainly in recent history. Even the Miami Heat's big three of 2010 has been surpassed. This has severely altered the NBA landscape, as the Warriors have positioned themselves to dominate the next few seasons. Barring significant roster changes amongst rivals, the Warriors are now likely to spend next season's NBA Finals battling current Champions Cleveland Cavaliers. Who else can realistically expect to challenge them?
Sadly bad fortune has cost the Thunder at the wrong time. When fear of the luxury tax and therefore the repeater tax cost them James Harden via trade in 2012, the years that followed were shattered by injuries to Russell Westbrook (2013), Serge Ibaka (2014) and Kevin Durant (2015).
In 2016 they finally entered the postseason fully healthy, but it was the Warriors who cast them out, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate them in a heartbreaking game seven in Oakland. That collapse from 2 games up may have been what convinced Durant that it was time for a change.
The incredible cap spike over this summer and next has created cap space for the majority of NBA franchises, including Golden State. This allowed them to be the only contender besides Boston who could offer Durant the opportunity to join without gutting the current roster in the process. However there's a vast difference between the roster in Oakland compared to the team Danny Ainge is trying to build for the Celtics.
Fortunately for the Warriors as bad luck struck the Thunder it was good luck for the Bay Area. James Harden was traded October 28th, but a mere 3 days later Steph Curry signed a 4-year, $44 million extension with the Warriors that is now looked back on as the bargain contract of the entire league. It's that deal that helped them land Durant four years later.
It meant that instead of having to lose Shaun Livingston or Andre Iguodala to acquire Durant, they were able to keep both. Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights have all found new teams this week. In their place stand Durant, Zaza Pachulia and David West, with others to arrive on minimum contracts. If you had to choose between either group, it's clear that the second is the group you choose.
So things broke right for the Warriors and horribly for the Thunder, as it has seemed to since Harden was shipped out of town. This is what helped the Warriors (if they needed any more luck) making such a successful pitch to Durant, and what led to his now controversial letter in the Players Tribune on Independence Day.
Now questions and criticism have come as fiercely as we have ever experienced in the social media age. That was to be expected. Here are a few of the key arguments floating about since Durant's "decision":
- Durant owed Oklahoma City, the team who drafted him and betrayed the whole of Oklahoma by leaving
- How could Durant leave after the Thunder came so close against the Warriors?
- How could Durant join the Thunder's biggest rival, the team who knocked them out?
- Durant has ruined his legacy, not only in Oklahoma City but his career as a whole
- Durant's move to Golden State was "weak"
- Why hasn't he said more about his departure, was a 300 word letter enough?
The former Thunder franchise cornerstone's decision is a tough pill to swallow for the organization, it's fans and frankly those who wanted parity in the league or quite simply didn't want to see one of the league's best players strengthen the NBA's greatest regular season team of all time.
There's the belief in some circles that Durant owes Oklahoma City, as they (or the Sonics) drafted him second overall and he has been with them his entire career. That is a valid way to feel. There is also the argument however that Durant did not choose to be drafted where he went, and that comes down entirely to lottery luck. The Sonics could have just as easily ended up with Greg Oden if Portland had chosen differently with the number one pick.
The term "owed" is also a strange one. If the Thunder decided in another situation that they were done with Durant (which would never happen obviously), they could and would just as easily cast him off and move on from him. Basketball is also a business, and sometimes there is no room for sentimentality or emotion when making a decision like this one.
No free agency decision or any decision of this magnitude is simple. Nothing this complex can be black and white. Free agency means the player entering it is under no obligation to do anything but what is best for them. Durant assessed his options and decided Golden State offered the best situation, so what is wrong with that?
Yes, Durant is leaving the team who was only 1 game away from the NBA Finals. Heading into the fourth quarter of game six, Golden State had a 4 percent chance of winning. That is how close they were and that is how much Durant and the Thunder blew it. However, it is the monumental size of the collapse from 3-1 up that has seemed to play a factor.
Whilst the argument stands of how close the Thunder were and that they could have beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers (though that is no guarantee), there's also the argument that Oklahoma City peaked and plateaued in that series. Their displays in game three and four not withstanding, their flaws remained throughout the series. They didn't have the shooting to hurt the Warriors from deep, their late game struggles continued and it just wasn't enough.
This is what helped make up Durant's mind, but it also helped the Warriors pitch to him. Friends of his, Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson were very clear; we can win without you, and you could win without us. But imagine what we can do together. Bob Meyers message was the same, put yourself in Durant shoes and deny that it wouldn't get your attention.
Durant has longed to play in a more fluid system that encourages ball movement and creates better shots. That's what he will get in Oakland. The struggles that hampered him in the Playoffs, the double teams, the contested shots, the breakdowns; of course they'll happen in Oakland but not to the same extent.
As he stated in his farewell letter, Durant felt it was best at this stage in his career for his evolution as a player. Jerry West said to him his all-round game would be more appreciated. In Oklahoma City it certainly was, but the burden on Durant to exert himself at both ends took it's toll. Under Ron Adams guidance, Durant can become a defensive force. However he will have Green, Iguodala and Thompson to take the burden off him so he can flourish offensively.
None of this is a knock on Oklahoma City, it's simply what was presented to Durant in his free agency meetings and what has transpired over time. The disintegration of rivalries (at least off the court) has allowed for these switches of allegiances to happen. True rivalries in the NBA are becoming a thing of the past. There are teams that still despise each other (look at the Warriors and Clippers), but rivalries are not what they were.
Despite Durant claiming he was moving to a place where he didn't know anybody, he will be moving to a team with four players he is very close with. How can that not make an impact on his decision? The question of how he could join a rival of the Thunder's is only a question he can answer however, though he touched on how it might affect his relationship with Russell Westbrook going forward.
Over time hopefully for the sake of closure for Thunder fans Durant will touch more on his decision, or Durant will speak out on social media or publicly about his exit (such as a goodbye letter longer than 300 words) that'll help ease the pain. As to why he hasn't said more, we can only speculate but perhaps he is waiting until some of the criticism has died down and both he and the league have had time to digest it. Especially considering the initial backlash.
The concept that this was also a weak decision does not make a heap sense. It's certainly made his path to the NBA Finals easier. Durant has weakened the team posing the most danger to the Warriors in their own conference, whilst strengthening their bid to overcome the Cavaliers if they meet again in the NBA Finals in 2017.
Durant has made a decision he will be heavily ridiculed for, and that ridicule will likely last until he becomes an NBA Champion. If he doesn't, or if the Warriors fail to win the title he becomes the scapegoat for that failure. That is not weak, that is a risk. Just like staying in Oklahoma City would have been.
Why a risk to stay some might wonder. Durant is heading into his tenth year in the NBA, and he is yet to win an NBA title. He's only been to the NBA Finals once. Sure, he is an MVP, multiple All-NBA and All-Star selection as well as possession four scoring titles. He is still chasing that elusive first ring.
If he hypothetically never wins one, he will always be associated alongside those who didn't; Carmelo Anthony (likely), Adrian Dantley, Dominique Wilkins, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, John Stockton etc. Players on the brink of true greatness that can't be properly considered in the pantheon of NBA players because of their failure on the league's biggest stage.
How can Durant not consider that in his decision? Players care about their legacy, and they should. Detractors will claim that leaving Oklahoma City hurts his legacy, and they are right. If he fails to win after leaving it is how he will be remembered. Critics felt the same about LeBron James when he fled Cleveland for Miami, until he won. Then everything changed. If Durant wins one, two, three titles, that is what will people will remember most about Durant.
More will be made clear over time, but Durant did not hate Oklahoma. He loves the city, it was his home and he was an actively huge part of the community. People will remember this when the hurt subsides, but as a free agent, as a man and as a basketball player Durant made a business decision and basketball decision he felt best served his career going forward.
The Warriors could potentially establish the greatest team of all time, and that is a hard opportunity to pass up. Fans and analysts are not forced to like this decision, they don't have to understand it either. It must be respected though that the situation was not black and white, it was not simple and he did not do it to hurt anyone. He
Because realistically when all is said and done, how do you know you wouldn't do any differently?