It took me a solid 48 hours to really process what happened Monday, when Kevin Durant packed up and left Oklahoma like Tom Joad for Golden State. Scanning his Player's Tribune article feverishly, I glanced over the beginning and got the sense he was leaving Oklahoma City, and then I skipped to the end which reads very much like a justification, an apology, a sheepish attempt at ducking what was always going to happen when he decided to wear another jersey.
I had to double back to read the words "Golden State." Then I sat back with jaw ajar and eyes wide for about 20 seconds. Fourth of July was surreal. Fireworks with the kids, cookouts, all while trying to grapple with the fact that the league we all spend so much time writing and reading about had been up-ended in a maelstrom of superpower. The Warriors are the New World Order, the Four Horsemen, the most dominant collection of players in the World. The Cavaliers won the title. The Warriors won Durant, and are set up to be a dynasty.
It took a long time to sort out everything there is to know about it, but here's what I've got, 48 hours removed from Kevin Durant's decision to join the Golden State Warriors.
1. Durant is not who we thought he was ... and that's OK
Let me run you through the reactions to this particular sports transaction:
Then: Some people get outraged because one team just got obscenely unfair to the point where competition does not seem relevant anymore, despite a fairly established history of super teams struggling. (We'll come back here in a minute). Durant's character is questioned, he's called a traitor and a coward, which is absolutely ridiculous because he's not a member of a nation to betray, and he's not a coward because there's no real element of fear here. It's just him taking a risk by getting into a new employment situation.
Then: Immediately the backlash to the backlash comes in. In response to a fairly sizable chunk of people who like to make this into a moral argument, the other side takes up for Durant's rights as a free agent. This means that any criticism of Durant, whatsoever, even the slightest hint of his not being perfectly within the same prism of wonderful support he's enjoyed throughout his career is nothing but rampant disgusting value judgment.
Then: The backlash to the backlash to the backlash.
Then: Repeat, ad infinitum.
Here's the issue with both sides on this:
K.D. IS THE SAME PERSON
You're not a coward for wanting an easier path to championships or wanting to not be the leader anymore, for just wanting to be a really great player on a team that wins multiple championships. You're just not. This isn't morality. It's sports. Here's the biggest element that every fan, pundit, writer, GM and human in the world with an opinion needs to remember about this situation:
EVERYONE STILL GETS PAID
Kevin Durant gets paid. Steph Curry gets paid. Russell Westbrook gets paid. Clay Bennett and Joe Lacob get paid, though very different amounts. Bob Myers and Sam Presti get paid. Everyone gets paid.
The fans don't get paid. And for those in Oklahoma City, this is terrible and awful, and I have sympathy for every single one of them, especially the kids whose parents cruelly recorded their reactions to their favorite player leaving. If you're not used to the fans getting the short end of the stick in these dealings, you should get used to it. That's how this works. It's what happened to Seattle (which does not mean it's OK for what happened to Thunder fans, and if you think that you should reevaluate your sense of empathy). It happened to the Thunder. And eventually, it will happen to the Warriors, if their offense doesn't trigger the apocalypse before that happens.
But this is a business decision that Durant made, and it has no reflection of his character. Durant was up-front and open with the Thunder about the possibility he could leave. They never got his name on an extension. Even if he said he was probably coming back, or likely to come back, or whatever, the Thunder still knew that he was taking meetings. The move to the Warriors was telegraphed for months. Durant is still a guy who gave to tornado victims, who volunteered his time, who committed himself to his community. If his friends consider him a good person, they still consider him so after going to the Dubs.
This is also not about "alpha" which, although there's some evidence in other species, there's a lot of questions about this in the psychology community. It doesn't have to be some macho representation of traditional group dynamics.
Kevin Durant is the same person he was on Sunday.
Who he is as a basketball player, however, is different.
DURANT IS NOT THE SAME BASKETBALL PLAYER
You cannot pretend that this is the same. Your role on a team changes who you are in the minds of players. Ray Allen in Milwaukee was not the same as Ray Allen in Boston who was not the same as Ray Allen in Miami. Kevin Durant in OKC was "the guy." He was, as ESPN reported, the self-described leader.
Durant pushed back against OKC being his team or Westbrook's team. He talked constantly about being "the leader," almost repeating it to a point so that he would believe it himself. He sarcastically texted friends, wondering why the same wasn't asked about Curry and Klay Thompson.
Durant said this in 2010 after LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined up with Dwyane Wade in Miami:
Now everybody wanna play for the heat and the Lakers? Let's go back to being competitive and going at these peoples!— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) July 16, 2010
That was six years ago, Durant was 21. If you're asking "Wait, are we really going to hold a guy to what he said six years ago?" The answer is no. Of course not. If we held people to decisions they made when they were 21 I should be trying to pass the GRE psych exam. Again. You say and do dumb things at that age, your whole world view is different.
Durant is, though, the same person who said this just three years ago:
"I've been second my whole life," Durant says. "I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I've been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I'm tired of being second. I'm not going to settle for that. I'm done with it."
Source: How 'Bout Them Apples?.
You can look at the Warriors like I do and say that Durant is definitely No. 2 now behind Steph Curry, who is the two-time MVP, the last being the first unanimous selection in league history. Durant was among those NBA stars reportedly annoyed at how Curry had "taken his place" in the league hierarchy. Now he's joining Curry's team. The Warriors are Curry. His diminished play due to injury in the NBA playoffs (and his size, plus the defense of teams that rendered him essentially a good shooter and that was it) showed that without Curry making the magic happen, Golden State is not invincible.
Let's be very clear: Durant is joining Curry's team.
But let's say you disagree with that, which is understandable. Let's say that you think he's not No. 2 behind Curry, and that Durant is just another member of the Warriors along with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. He's part of a super team. Thats fine. But that still doesn't make him what he was in Oklahoma City.
No matter what Russell Westbrook did, no matter how well he played or how much he became a distributor later this season, Durant was the guy. The "man" if you prefer a pretty gender-loaded term. Oklahoma City was Durant's team, no matter what. Westbrook may not have been his Robin, but Durant was Batman.
That is not the case. He went from KEVIN DURANT to "Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant." That's it. Maybe the offense will be reconfigured and Durant will have as high or higher of a usage rate as Steph Curry. Maybe this will, as so many have said, "unlock Durant's potential," as if his 2014 MVP season and the other amazing performance he's put on showed he was limited in OKC. But Durant is not going to be what he was in Oklahoma City, a guy who was the face of not just a team but a city, a guy who could have brought a championship and established a kingdom of his own for decades to come. Durant could have gotten a statue outside that arena.
He'll likely win multiple championships, and in the end, that's the standard that we hold players to. But Ray Allen isn't considered the same way as Dirk Nowitzki, and Clyde Drexler is not thought of the same way as Hakeem Olajuwon. That comparison isn't perfect, because Allen and Drexler were never as good as Durant. But Durant said he wanted to be No. 1 and then went and joined up with the No. 1 player (as far as the regular season goes, with apologies to the King) on the No. 1 team, and the one that beat him, just barely, in the Western Conference finals.
It's fine that Durant made the choice to be just another great player on a team of great players in Golden State. There is no right or wrong here. But we talk in sports about how we perceive players, about what they mean to the sport and to the fans. There is a legacy question here, no matter how much you may hate the idea. Durant changed that. He didn't damage it, he didn't ruin it, he didn't poison it. He's the same guy.
He's just a different basketball player in the NBA landscape, and you have to acknowledge that.
2. This is different -- not better or worse -- than LeBron leaving Cleveland
Much of the backlash to the backlash about Durant's decision stems from the wholly unconscionable reaction so many had in 2010 when LeBron James went to the Heat. The poisonous overreaction there was so bad that many were left with a changed perspective on what it means to be a star player in the NBA. Durant has been saved by James in many ways. James validated his career in Miami and then reclaimed his image by going back to Cleveland. He essentially proved that it was the right move to burn his reputation to the ground, and after everyone got so angry at James, there has been a slight regression to the mean attitude of acceptance.
On top of that, strangely, K.D. comes off as better here. James teamed up with his "friends" in Miami, while Durant is joining a "team," despite much of this being because of his relationship formed with Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala on Team USA.
There are two fascinating difference in perception here, though.
A. Somehow, if the Warriors had won the title, this would be different. Several people have noted that if the Warriors win Game 7 of the Finals, then Durant likely does not join the two-time champions. If this is true, it makes no sense. Somehow, Durant joining a best-in-history 73-win Warriors team that was one quarter from winning their second title despite Draymond Green's suspension and injuries to Curry and Andrew Bogut isn't front-running (something Durant said he would never do) and somehow that's better than what James did.
He's "putting them over the top" which is madness because the Warriors were favored to win Games 5, 6 and 7 of the Finals and held the lead going into the final quarter of the series. The Cavaliers won the title and part of what made it such an incredible story was because of its unlikelihood.
This presents a key differential between what James did and what Durant did -- and again, this is not about right or wrong but a question of "qualitative differences vs. quantitative value judgments."
LeBron James left Cleveland because he saw that he could build something special in Miami along with others.
Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City because he saw a special team and wanted to be a part of it.
James created the Triad Heat.
Durant joined the Death Lineup Warriors.
That's a totally reasonable decision, but it is different from what James did.
B. Durant joined the team that beat him. This situation would be congruous to what James did if he left the Cavaliers and joined the Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics. Right down to the fact that the 2010 Celtics had a series lead in the Finals and lost it to the Los Angeles Lakers. Durant joined a team that he had a 3-1 series lead on, and who he had pretty bad blood with.
If you want to talk about the competition angle, Durant did the most competitive thing he could, took less money to join the team that gave him the best chance at being on the best team. But he also did not decide to beat the best team and instead decide to just join them. James decided to create the best team, which he did, until the Mavericks came along and busted the party before the Heat figured it out.
But to say that this is just like what James did ignores the very real competitive nature of the basketball side. Yes, both players made an employment decision based on what they thought was best for them. That does not mean that the situations are exactly the same, because you have to consider the narrative of the sport.
3. Mourn the Thunder
I wrote about all the logistics of their precarious situation here. In short, they are in huge trouble and need to start looking at trading Russell Westbrook immediately.
In a bigger sense, though, we should mourn what I came to call the Starship Thunder. They were like this big crazy, sci-fi machine, all freakishly long arms and insane athleticism, wrapped in unbelievable skill. This team was awesome, and a lot of fun to watch for years. They weren't perfect, but that's kind of what made them so compelling. They'd have these stretches where they'd figure it out and play amazing basketball, then fall back into bad habits and fall apart.
(Of note, by the way, everyone who has jumped up for an opportunity to crush OKC's team-building is nuts. For starters, they made the Western Conference finals four times out of six years with the other two times being injury-riddled non-competes. They reconfigured young talent when the veterans couldn't cut it in 2014, and they put K.D. in a position to win MVP and for he and Westbrook to both be top-five players in the league. On top of all that, much of the late-game problems with Durant came down to his inability to establish position on catches, something that limited him all the way through this season. Durant is not inculpable for the fact that the Thunder did not win a title, just as he is not solely responsible for their failures).
The Warriors will be something we've never seen before, but the Thunder were organic, crazy and fun. They grew up together. They went from being naive optimistic youngsters trying to tear down the championship Lakers in 2010 to the dominant team that was always a Finals contender a must-watch any night of the week.
Durant and Westbrook, their two contrasting styles, was like a punk show. Fast, intense and never meant to last. They could have been the Malone-Stockton of this era with a techno-organic beat. Instead they're just another combo for us to remember fondly and lament what could have been.
4. Praise the Warriors
Yes, it took a perfect combination of events that led to this, from the James Harden trade to the cap influx, to the Warriors losing the Finals (apparently). But the Warriors closed the deal. They got the best player in the free-agent market, one of the three best players in the league, to join their 73-win juggernaut. They managed the cap and handled the egos and landed this super-team.
You're supposed to build the best team you can. They built what may be the best team in NBA history, and is, at least on paper. Joe Lacob had the foresight to hire Steve Kerr and build a system that lured Durant. Lacob had the foresight to keep Curry and not trade him instead of Monta Ellis. Lacob had the foresight to hire Bob Myers and to bring in Jerry West, whose pitch to Durant Sunday reportedly sealed the deal.
Lacob's "light-years ahead" comment was brash, uncouth, unnecessary and disrespectful. The Warriors and the fans have the same kind of "what are you going to do about it" attitude. Here's the thing: they backed it up. Lacob said the team would be aggressive in free agency, and that is definitely this. The Warriors are not obligated to try and make things competitive for the rest of the league. Their obligation is to build the best team. They did. They deserve credit.
5. Other super-teams are not comparable here
A lot of super-squads have failed, especially out of the gate. The 2011 Heat, the 2008 Lakers, the 2014 Nets, the 2013 Lakers and the 2012 Clippers (if we're defining a title as the only success) all struggled.
The Warriors are not like that. They added Durant, as said above. They're not reconfiguring much. Yes, the bench is different, yes, Andrew Bogut is gone. But the way they play, the system, was part of what got Durant to bite on taking himself out of his comfort zone in Oklahoma City. The Warriors are still the Warriors: fast, high-passing, great movement, best-shooting. They just added a massive upgrade at their forward spot. The Warriors this year will be different but there won't be as much figuring out as say, the Cavaliers in 2015, or the Nash-Howard-Kobe-Pau Lakers. This all fits together.
They're also better. When Curry and Durant re-sign next summer, the Warriors will have four max, or near-max, players on the same roster, along with two MVPs. Zaza Pachulia and David West are long-time veterans with play left in the tank, and they're bit role players on cheap contracts. This team isn't a circus. It's an air show, complete with the latest in air force technology.
If they struggle, it will show something much more complicated about how team dynamics work, and about the nature of talent on one team.
Also, just so we're clear, if this team doesn't win the NBA championship in its first season, it's a failure. There is no other acceptable outcome here. You make this kind of move, you should win the NBA championship and set all sorts of records the Warriors already set.
6. The Warriors will be incredible
Durant running the pick and roll with Green and then if you help from the corner you're helping off Curry or Thompson. Curry and Green in the pick and roll and if you blitz Curry, there's Durant spotting up. Durant post-ups with Thompson slipping backdoor. Curry, Durant, Thompson combining for 50 in a quarter.
A defense that can blitz any ball-handler with Durant and Iguodala, who can throw Iguodala on LeBron James for half their possessions and Durant on him for the other. Durant's blocks inside triggering the fastbreak with Curry and Thompson running the floor and spotting up while Durant dives to the rim (or spots-up).
This should not be difficult. The NBA has always been difficult. Part of what made Michael Jordan and those Bulls so incredible was how difficult everything was in that era, how much you had to struggle to create, and find, shots. Defense in the playoffs is a nightmare for most teams trying to guard all the athleticism and shooting.
Instead, the Warriors should make this look like a breeze. Each player's skill, athleticism and ability covers for any weaknesses of the other. Draymond Green is undersized? Durant is incredibly long. Durant struggles to establish position and can be limited by double-teams? He may never see one again. Thompson can't create off the dribble as well as Curry? Durant can.
Sports surprise us, and the struggle is always there. Every team goes through dips. But when you look at not just the talent, but this specific combination of talent and its fit, it's a fire-breathing dragon that can breathe underwater and fly into space, which also can control the weather.
This isn't hyperbole, this is how good they should be.
7. Nothing will be the same
The NBA owners were working on a labor agreement to avoid a lockout next summer. The Warriors may have scuttled that. Owners wanted a hard cap in the 2011 CBA. They were drawn out of it by David Stern who knew how long it would take to squeeze that blood from the union's stone. Now seeing what the Warriors pulled, this could drive those owners to say there can be no other option, that this can never happen again.
The NBPA benefitted from the spike in salary, players are making ridiculous amounts of money. But Durant has also tipped the scales to a point where no teams except the Warriors and Cavaliers can feel confident in their title chances. The Spurs may be great ... they are very unlikely to beat the Warriors. And that team won 67 games last year.
If you're not the Warriors or Cavaliers, you're going into the next year, and many years after that, saying "We just hope we can have the best season we can." Yes, sports surprise us, like the Cavaliers winning the title, but sports ideas about performance and quality are based on percentages. The Warriors' chances of success are somewhere between "the best we've ever seen" and "not calculable with that high of a ceiling"
The Warriors had changed so much about the league already. Durant's decision has changed sports itself. For better or worse, July 4 marked the birth of an entirely new universe for the NBA.