On the 4th of July 2016, a hundred thousand Thunder hearts sank as they read the Players Tribune. Their homegrown star, Kevin Durant had chosen to move to new pastures in the Bay Area and leave the Thunder.
At the time, it was a gut punch. The bedrock of Thunder basketball was built on three core players. You had the scowling defiance of Russell Westbrook, the ferocious defense played by Serge Ibaka and Kevin Durant’s reliable, efficient scoring. Durant came in at ground zero for Oklahoma City and helped build a fanbase.
It is impossible to overstate what KD meant for Thunder fans in those days which was why his departure was so hard to take. It felt like Kevin had rejected the Thunder and callously left the team to rot while he joined the champion-elect, Warriors.
Time has been beneficial to healing a scarred fanbase. Over the last seven years, Durant and the Thunder have made peace and the relationship is a lot more cordial. As a fan, our worst fear is that the star player wants to go and that the Thunder will receive nothing from their departure.
Those fears have since been allayed, Westbrook choosing Oklahoma City over Los Angeles or another big market team was a feather in the cap. Here was a star planting his flag in the ground and choosing to stay when things got difficult.
The same can be said for Paul George choosing to re-sign with the Thunder. PG’s documentary about the free agency process with ESPN worried a lot of fans. You do not choose to film an item like that without a massive, juicy decision at the end of the period.
The worry that the Thunder had traded the farm for a star who could simply walk out of the door and join the Lakers was horrible. It was a pit in the stomach that gnawed every time an update on PG’s free agency came about.
It was a massive relief when George’s documentary concluded with a party and his commitment to stay with the Thunder. It felt like validation, well-run small market organisations could overcome obstacles and hold onto their stars.
The final nail in the coffin for that worry was Chris Paul’s goodbye message after the Thunder were knocked out by the Rockets in Round 1 of the Bubble. Chris genuinely loved playing in Oklahoma and it was amazing to hear the love being reciprocated by the players.
Time has also been valuable in allowing us to be more objective about Durant’s choice to leave. The emotional response in 2016 was one of betrayal and spite, we felt abandoned by a star who had received nothing but support and love in Oklahoma City.
In 2023, you can see the decision from Kevin’s perspective more easily. He needed to go and play basketball outside of the Thunder’s walls to take the next step in his development as a pro.
You can also understand the pressure that sat on Durant’s shoulders. From the first day of his professional career, the expectation of winning a championship weighed on his shoulders. That weight has only grown with how discourse around the game has changed; rings are what determines a player’s legacy, not their ability nor their ability to make magical moments.
Choosing to join Golden State at that moment in time provided Durant with the best opportunity to secure his legacy and learn in an excellent, good-natured environment. It is a reasonable and understandable decision once you take the emotions out of the matter.
Personally, I feel different about Durant’s decision now than I did back then. I find it a lot harder to be angry at his decision and I can sympathise with the fact that he was trapped between a rock and a hard place. Going to the Warriors guaranteed a ring but it created a ton of discourse about how a championship looks on a player’s resume.
Durant’s two championships in the Bay Area are seen are less than Dirk’s miracle run in 2011. Nowitzki’s unbending loyalty to the Mavericks and desire to win where he began his career elevates his achievements up the ranks. Dirk did it the hard way and he is widely respected for his journey to the trophy.
LeBron James had a similar sort of issue before he won a championship in Cleveland and broke the city’s curse. James won two rings in Miami and earned the begrudging respect of the media and fans. With that being said, being on the ‘Heatles’ somewhat devalued that achievement. Winning a championship with two other top-15 players on the roster was seen as easy.
It is only when James returned to Cleveland and led his team to an awe-inspiring, unforgettable comeback against the Golden State Warriors that he elevated himself into the pantheon of greats.
Durant’s career is still waiting for that moment. He has two championships, an MVP trophy and three Olympic gold medals in the cabinet but his case currently lacks the legacy play that goes deeper than just gold.
His career in Brooklyn has been impressive on an individual level but this whole era of Nets’ basketball is tinged with regret. Sean Marks put together a winning roster every single season and they did not deliver on that goal.
For the Warriors, Durant is regarded as a crucial contributor to two of their championships but he is not seen to be the lead guy. Golden State won a ring in 2015 behind Stephen Curry's elite play from the point guard. Their previous success is why Curry, Green and Thompson are so beloved; these three players cured a lot of heartache for Warriors’ fans.
Durant was an amazing player for the Thunder and he had some awesome, season-defining playoff moments. His MVP season in 2013-14 where he put the Thunder on his back and carried the team to the playoffs is the stuff of legends.
Personally, I do not like to remember these moments as it is a reminder of what we lost.
A return to the Thunder would provide Durant with an opportunity to write a fulfilling coda to his career. Winning where he started with a cast of young players who have not won a ring would be the sort of legacy play that is discussed for years.
Three good years in Oklahoma City would do so much for his career and it is difficult to think of a situation better than the Thunder. Oklahoma City are a stable, well-run organisation and a far sight from the dysfunction that exists in Brooklyn.
KD would have a roster of young, precocious talents who will only get better with time rather than a team of vets who have a finite window of effectiveness. He could oversee that as the savvy, experienced veteran guiding youth to victory. Durant could be what he always wanted in Oklahoma City, a leader in the locker room.
Coming back to Oklahoma City would be the ideal way for Durant to improve his legacy and place among the greats. Going to a team like Phoenix or Boston may mean another a championship but whether that impacts his legacy in the same way remains to be seen.