The choice was always the Golden State Warriors for superstar Kevin Durant.
Sure, it took 82 games, a thrilling (albeit disappointing) postseason run that saw his Oklahoma City Thunder squander a 3-1 series lead to the Dubs, but Golden State was always the obvious choice, given that it gave him the best chance to unlock all of his considerable gifts as one of the premier players in the league.
In The Players Tribune letter outlining his decision, he stated as much:
“The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player — as that has always steered me in the right direction. But I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth. With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.”
And just like that’s, he will sign a two-year contract, worth $54.3 million to play for the Dubs.
Durant’s defection became relatively clear when he offered that his free-agent decision was going to be about “basketball reasons” and nothing more.
Perhaps it was that line in passing that prompted OKC general manager Sam Presti to jettison Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic in a trade that brought Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the rights to power forward Domantas Sabonis, who was taken in the NBA draft with the 11th pick.
The Thunder improved and got younger with the transaction, which more than likely appealed to Durant. These new pieces were meant to open up the floor and allow the likes of Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams and Durant to wreak havoc against opposing defenses.
Considering that OKC was merely a win away from a Finals berth, it made all the sense in the world to retool just a tad, give the Westbrook-Durant duo at least another run at it (Westbrook is set to become a free agent in summer 2017) and hope the OKC culture wins out.
It all made sense…in theory.
Heck, in practical terms, OKC was perfectly set up for championship contention provided it kept the twosome together; and perhaps that’s where things became a little complicated.
Durant’s return to OKC required a level of loyalty he wasn’t prepare to exhibit. From a pure basketball perspective, the team was more than capable of giving him a shot at a ring, but the window might only extend into this upcoming season given the uncertainty of Westbrook’s future.
Sure, KD could have re-signed with OKC on a two-year deal with an opt-out clause after the conclusion of the 2016-17 campaign, but it would have put him right back into a similar situation in the following offseason with Golden State possibly capped out after re-signing restricted free agent Harrison Barnes (he will reportedly sign a maximum offer sheet with the Dallas Mavericks once the July moratorium ends).
Durant looked at both situations and ultimately chose the most prudent one.
After all, the Warriors are fresh off back-to-back Finals appearances with a core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
Curry becomes a free agent at the same time as Westbrook, but Steph is widely expected to re-sign with a long-term deal in an effort to continue chasing championship hardware. What’s more, the two-time league MVP will be flanked for the long haul by Thompson and Green, whose deals expire respectively in 2019 and 2020, per Spotrac.
Moreover, the ascent of the trio suggests that the Warriors will do everything in their power to keep it together beyond the length of their current contracts; a detail that likely placated Durant’s ambitions. It gave KD the certainty that he would consistently compete for titles.
In meeting, Bob Myers told Durant: Without you, we can another title or two. Without us, you might win too. Together? We’ll win a bunch.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) July 4, 2016
For someone that famously stated he was tired of finishing second, it’s easy to understand the rationale behind his decision.
Durant recognized that his basketball immortality will be defined by team accomplishments, and his best shot at both short and long-term success is in the Bay Area.
It must be stated unequivocally: Kevin Durant has completely shifted the NBA’s balance of power.
By signing with the Dubs, it’s entirely plausible that he vaulted a unit fresh of a record 73-win season into another stratosphere.
Curry may have won the scoring title this past season, but as the Finals showed, once his jumper betrayed him, he became a fairly pedestrian player by his own lofty standards, a fate that Thompson shared as well.
Durant, however, is not contained as easily.
At 6-foot-9, his combination of size, ball-handling, and shooting make him a nightmare as two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard can attest.
“He’s a great one-on-one player,” said Leonard during the Thunder-Spurs second-round series, per MySanAntonio’s Nick Moyle. “He knows how to get his shots and make them.”
Durant lit up San Antonio to the tune of 28.5 points per game on 50.5 percent shooting and even made his scoring and playmaking look effortless at times against the league’s best defensive club.
While most players have sweet spots on the floor, the Slim Reaper owns the entire court. He’s evolved to the point where he can operate consistently out of the pick-and-roll as both a ball-handler and screener, a detail that should truly scare the rest of the league given that these will now take place with either Curry or Green.
What’s more, Durant will no longer play the role of spectator when he’s not directly involved in plays, which was often the case in OKC. Indeed, Golden State’s ball movement coupled with the way its players navigate screens – best in the business – will routinely result in KD getting open looks both from long range and near the basket.
This all sounds great in theory, and it certainly gains greater traction when a Hall of Fame guard and top talent evaluator such as Jerry West opines on the matter. West, a Warriors executive board member, pitched Durant on Golden State during a phone conversation according to ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard:
“West also told Durant that playing alongside the Warriors’ star trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green would make it much easier on him. West opined that in Oklahoma City, most of Durant’s shot attempts are difficult and contested. He told Durant, a career 27.4 point scorer, that his points would come much easier in Golden State and suggested it would take fewer shots to score the same amount of points.”
The lone defensive mechanism in place to potentially nullify the Dubs’ beautiful basketball symmetry is to switch on almost every screen – a tactic used by both the Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers during the playoffs – and that strategy would result in KD potentially getting matched up with point guards and centers.
There isn’t a team currently constructed to potentially successfully defend this iteration of Golden State, and that’s even when accounting for the fact the Dubs will likely lose Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Harrison Barnes in order to create the requisite cap space to sign Durant.
Interestingly enough, the loss of solid defenders will put a bit of a spotlight on KD’s ability to provide some resistance both on the perimeter and at the rim, and it’s a task he’s more than ready for.
During the Western Conference Finals, Durant finally unleashed his defensive potential against the Warriors as a small-ball center and power forward. He was tasked with guarding Green, switching onto Curry and anchoring the paint; all of which he executed at a high level.
Thus, one might be inclined to believe that a revamped Death Lineup headlined by Curry and Durant will smoke the rest of the league.
Ultimately, Durant considered all of these factors and picked the situation he believed worked best for him, at the expense of Oklahoma City.
Losing a generational player such as Durant is an incredibly tough proposition. Some franchises and fan bases never recover. With the Thunder’s core, I doubt it will be the case given the youth and talent on the roster, but the days of competing for the west crown might be over in the immediate future.
While one championship contender takes a step back, another one takes a huge step forward.
Ball’s in your court Kevin, and perhaps the Larry O’Brien trophy as well….