It wasn't until the latter half of the 1990's and the early 2000's that we saw free agency really become something that consistently reshaped the talent landscape of the NBA. It was really galvanized by Shaquille O'Neal leaving the Orlando Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996. Then in the summer of 2000, we nearly had our first big team-up in Florida a decade before LeBron James and Chris Bosh took their talents to South Beach.
Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill joined forces on the Orlando Magic. And for a while, it looked like they were going to be able to convince Tim Duncan to sign there as well. That would have changed NBA history forever. Instead, Duncan stayed on the San Antonio Spurs and Hill's ankles kept him from forming a dynamic duo with McGrady in Orlando. It was a move that was supposed to guarantee Orlando a title and it ended up never yielding a second-round appearance in the postseason.
Is this why McGrady was disappointed Kevin Durant chose the Golden State Warriors this summer? It's a different situation because the Toronto Raptors were not on the brink of playing for a championship the year before McGrady left. But McGrady cites Russell Westbrook as a reason for hoping Durant stayed when Vince Carter -- McGrady's cousin and one of the rising stars in the NBA at the time -- was on the team T-Mac left for what should have been greener pastures. From Complex:
And speaking of the Warriors, obviously the biggest news of the offseason is is that Kevin Durant left to join them. What were your thoughts on that and more generally, what are your thoughts on players leaving their old teams to form superteams? I was disappointed in the move to Golden State. I wasn't disappointed that he left, I mean he's a free agent, he's able to go wherever he wants. But I just think having a team now coming off a championship run and you have the champs down 3-1, and they come back and defeat you. I just think as a competitor, you would come back and try to dethrone them with the same team.
You're playing with a top-five point guard in Russell Westbrook. I mean to me, I think OKC is a championship-caliber team. They displayed that; they just had a major collapse in the Western Conference Finals against Golden State. But I was highly disappointed that he chose Golden State to go and play for the other team. I wanted him to stay in OKC.
I'm not sure I buy the "as a competitor" angle of McGrady's reasoning. It's not wrong to have wanted Durant to stay in Oklahoma City or to go to a team that isn't the Warriors. But as a competitor, you're supposed to want to win championships and the decision Durant made in free agency gives him the best chance of doing just that. Is it the hardest road to a title? No, it doesn't appear to be. But you don't get an extra ring for carrying a team to a championship through a much tougher road than someone in the past. They don't give your franchise extra trophies for it.
A Finals victory is a Finals victory, and the landscape is even much different now in how the league is run, how players protect their own legacies in the latest media landscape, and the romancing of victories now compared to in the past. The idea that a star has to carry a team on their own to truly earn a championship is a load of crap. We discuss sacrificing individual moments and accomplishments in order to have the right championship-winning mentality and then if a player does that (i.e. - LeBron, Durant, Dion Waiters), we kill them for not wanting to go it alone.
Durant had an amazing situation with the Thunder. They're a smart organization top to bottom. They have Westbrook, who is a top 5-7 player in this league depending on how you want to rank him. They have depth. They appear to have a smart coach in Billy Donovan, who was excellent in the postseason with his strategy. But they couldn't close out the Warriors and it's possible Durant looked at that moment as the best OKC could muster against the class of the West and thought it can't get better than that. It's possible he just wanted to live in the Bay Area. It's possible he just thinks the Warriors have cool uniforms and that's how he wants to look next season.
Whatever the ultimate deciding factor was, it doesn't have to do with not being a competitor or as much of a competitor as we want him to be. That stuff is for Disney movies. Durant made his decision and he'll have to sacrifice personal glory (scoring, likely some accolades, as well) in order to make it work. And there's no guarantee that it will. Just because we assume it will yield titles, doesn't mean the work to be a champion is over.