Like many of you, I was expecting to wake up on the 4th of July and see that Kevin Durant had re-signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Instead, after I rolled out of bed and grabbed my phone and opened my ESPN app (because the SBS app hasn’t launched yet), I rubbed my eyes and did a double take and saw that Durant actually did sign a two year deal to play for the Golden State Warriors. This came as somewhat of a shock. When the rumors came out during the regular season that the Warriors were the biggest threat to steal Durant from Oklahoma City, it seemed like a pipe dream. But that pipe dream became a pipe reality, and the Warriors pulling off such an unlikely deal left me with several questions…
If it weren’t for two of the most incredible comebacks in NBA playoff history, do the Warriors land Durant?
When the Thunder took a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors, it looked like Oklahoma City had the series sealed up. But the Warriors fought back, winning the next three games to get back to the NBA Finals. All three of those wins were by single-digits. All three came down to the final minutes, with the Thunder having several opportunities to close out the series, in particular in Game 6 when they blew an 8-point fourth quarter lead on their home court. In that fourth quarter, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson combined for seven threes, while Durant and Russell Westbrook gave up six turnovers.
In the Finals, the Warriors got a taste of their own medicine, as the Cavaliers orchestrated an even more shocking comeback after also trailing three game to one, then winning the next three led by unbelievable performances from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to give the city of Cleveland it’s first championship in 52 years.
Much like the Thunder in Western Conference Finals, the Warriors certainly showed they could beat the Cavs, they were just outplayed by a very slim margin over the course of seven games. It’s hard to think that Durant and the Warriors would make such major decisions based on losing by such a slim margin. But it’s even harder to imagine that Kevin Durant would have joined the Warriors if he and the Thunder had just defeated them, or that the Warriors would risk messing with a team that has such great chemistry to spend a ton of money on Durant if they had just won their second straight NBA title. If it weren’t for Splash Brothers shooting the lights out in the 4th quarter of Game 6 in the West Finals, OKC’s turnover-filled collapse in the same game, LeBron’s amazing block and Kyrie’s amazing three in Game 7, along with several other incredible events that led to slim margins of victory, Durant would still be wearing a Thunder uniform next season.
Was Durant move more about hurting Thunder than helping Warriors?
After relying on an amazing comeback to beat the Thunder, then losing to Cleveland in the Finals, Golden State had a reality check: despite breaking the record for most regular season wins, there was one team in each conference that would pose a serious threat to them for many years to come. The Warriors wanted to do everything they could restore the notion that they are lightyears ahead of any other team in the league. The best way to do that was not only to get the best player available in free agency, but take the best player away from their toughest competition in the Western Conference. Sure, this trade made the Golden State much better, but more importantly, it made Oklahoma City much worse.
Does this help or hurt Durant’s legacy?
As a player, Durant has every right to sign with whatever team he wants. As a fan, you have every right to lose respect for him as a player. I personally want to see the top players in the league battle against each other rather than join forces and create nearly unbeatable teams. Kevin Durant is one of the three best players in the league and he is good enough to lead his own team to a championship, rather than joining a team that won a championship without him just one year ago and already has the best roster in the NBA, including the two-time MVP.
Sure, NBA greatness is measured mostly by rings, but many people will see Durant’s potential rings as somewhat tainted by riding the coattails of Curry and the already dominant Golden State squad. Just one championship for Oklahoma City could earn him even more respect than three or four in Golden State, where he will always be viewed as Sideshow Bob instead of Krusty the Clown. Because the Batman and Robin metaphor is just played out… Although Durant never tried to murder anyone, so lets go with Cameron Frye and Ferris Bueller…
How is Durant’s decision different than LeBron’s?
Naturally there’s comparisons to LeBron leaving Cleveland for Miami. While Durant learned from LeBron’s mistake and made his decision quietly, the real difference here is the supporting cast. In LeBron’s first seven seasons in Cleveland, the Cavs best effort in finding his Cameron Frye was bringing in Mo Williams and a washed up Antwan Jamison. That’s not quite Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter.
Oklahoma City improved last year’s roster with a great trade on draft day, sending Ibaka to the Orlando Magic in return for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis, who the Magic took with their first round pick. The deal gave OKC a much needed third scorer and ball-handler in Oladipo and the depth to make up for parting with Ibaka. It was widely expected that the Thunder would trade one of their three very talented big men, but no one saw them getting this big of a haul in return. If Durant had decided to return to Oklahoma City, he would have the supporting cast in place to contend for a championship. The same cannot be said for LeBron when he first left Cleveland.
What are the Warriors risking?
I don’t think they have much to worry about in terms of on-court chemistry. Although they all like to shoot, Curry, Durant, Thompson and Draymond Green are all very unselfish players who don’t seem to be concerned with their numbers taking a minor hit in exchange for winning. The real concern is when the egos start to kick in off the court. The NBA announced today that the projected salary cap for the 2017-18 season is currently $102 million instead of $107 million, which was the previous projection.
The Warriors were counting on using every dollar of that initial $107 million (perhaps even more) when they signed Durant, knowing that Steph Curry will hit the free agent market next summer. Curry will obviously demand a massive contract and Durant will likely decline his player option to maximize his earnings as well. There’s no way the Warriors will let Curry get away, and he probably isn’t interested in leaving a team and city that has been so good to him. This means the Warriors could face the dilemma of either accepting Durant as a 1-2 year rental, or essentially gutting their entire bench and completely letting go of their “strength in numbers” identity to retain their big four. Whether or not they can keep this together long term, the Warriors are riding on the logic that it will be worth it while it lasts.
Can anyone compete with the Warriors?
Probably not. Certainly not in the West, where the Warriors just beheaded the Thunder (I’d throw in a Game of Thrones reference here, but I’m the one guy in America who doesn’t watch the show), the Spurs are getting even older and slower, and the Clippers have done nothing to improve a roster that has already failed to compete with the top teams in the conference. A third straight Finals matchup between the Cavs and Warriors almost seems like a guarantee at this point.
It took unbelievable performances by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to lead Cleveland to their miraculous comeback this year. It could take that and even more next year, which is a lot to ask, even for players of James and Irving’s caliber. For the Cavs to have a serious chance at repeating, they might have to bank on an injury to Curry or Durant, who both have had some injury problems in their careers. Even then, the Warriors still have a good shot at reclaiming their status as NBA Champions. Since we basically already know who will play in the Finals in 2017, it’s pretty hard to get excited about NBA basketball until next June. But that’s only 11 months away…