When LeBron James left Cleveland as a free agent in 2010 and took his talents to South Beach, I had two strong opinions regarding the situation. On one hand, I argued that LeBron had every right to leave Cleveland when he did. He had spent seven years giving it his all while the organization constantly failed to put the necessary pieces around him to realistically compete for a championship. He was a free agent, and had earned the right, just like thousands of other players throughout the sports world, to decide where he wanted to play.
I also believed that in joining forces with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, arguably two of the top 10 players in the NBA at the time, he would forever tarnish his legacy. Dwyane Wade had already won a championship in Miami. Regardless of how many rings the second incarnation of the “Big Three” would win in Miami, Dwyane Wade would always have one more than LeBron.
No one could have foreseen that Dwyane Wade would go from a top 5 NBA player to injury prone and relatively average during those years. After the Heat lost to the Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, Wade ceased control to LeBron. He gave him the keys to the convertible and they went on to win two of the next three championships. LeBron was unquestionably the best player on that team. He was the alpha male and the leader, and his two MVPs in 2012 and 2013 support that. NBA fans saw that LeBron was carrying the Heat much like he did in Cleveland. Because of that, LeBron’s legacy didn’t take nearly the hit that many assumed.
Six years later, and my feelings on Kevin Durant’s move to Golden State are quite similar, although there are some key differences in the moves.
First and foremost, just as LeBron had every right to leave in 2010, so too did Kevin Durant. Kevin Durant didn’t pick Oklahoma City. The then Seattle SuperSonics drafted him, and Durant spent nine years giving the franchise everything he had. He never got in trouble off the court, never caused any controversy, and he blossomed into one of the best players on one of the best teams in the NBA. Durant took the Thunder to four conference finals appearances and one NBA Finals appearance during his nine years.
Kevin Durant did everything he could for that city and franchise. He should be able to choose where he wants to play, and where he wants to raise his family, without being vilified. He’s earned that right. Free agents are free agents for a reason, and he certainly didn’t owe Oklahoma City anything more than he’s already given them.
But Golden State?
The team that just beat his Thunder in the conference finals after being down 3-1, in large part due to Kevin Durant’s abysmal second half in Game 6 of the series?
The team that won the NBA Championship in 2015 and followed that up with winning more games than any team in NBA history the following season, only bowing out in the final minute of the final game of the NBA Finals?
LeBron James, along with two of his best friends, created a super team. Kevin Durant, on the other hand, simply joined one.
When you’re a top 3 player in the NBA, you are judged differently. You are held to higher standards. Chris Bosh, who was perhaps the 12th best player in the NBA in 2010 when he joined forces with Wade and James, is allowed to team up and get help. But when you’re arguably the second or third best player in the game, I agree with Stephen A. Smith’s take that from a competitive standpoint, it’s a weak move.
While I am not nearly as high on Steph Curry as most of the world, it’s highly unlikely that he will fall as quickly as Wade dropped during LeBron’s years in Miami. Barring injury, Steph Curry is still going to be a top 5 player for the next several years. Klay Thompson will continue to improve and will be in the top 10 conversation, and Draymond Green is a max player who 29 franchises would love to have.
Even if Golden State goes on to win three of the next five NBA championships, can that success realistically be attributed to Kevin Durant? Will he even be considered the best player on the team?
He could have stayed in Oklahoma City and continued his legacy there. Had he won one championship there, his legacy would have been completely secure. And let’s not forget, this isn’t a situation comparable to LeBron’s first tenure in Cleveland where management didn’t surround him with the tools necessary to succeed. With Durant, the Thunder were clearly a Top 3-4 team in the NBA, and many pundits predicted them to overtake the Warriors in 2016 as they made great strides under first year head coach Billy Donovan in the playoffs. Had Oklahoma City finished off their 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals, they would have been favored to defeat the eventual champion Cavaliers.
If Durant decided that he needed a bigger market to grow, he could have went to Boston, one of the best sports cities in the world, and been the alpha dog there. Boston would have instantly been on an even playing field with the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, and the assets that the Celtics have going forward cannot be matched by any team in basketball.
He could have went to Los Angeles and joined the Clippers, where the core of DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul is in desperate need for a player like Durant to close out high stakes games as opposed to the undersized and pass-first Paul. Durant would have made the Clippers instant favorites in the West, where they have failed to get past the second round for the past five years of this current era.
For purely basketball reasons, he could have went to San Antonio and teamed up with Kawhi Leonard, arguably a top 5 player, and LaMarcus Aldridge while playing for the undisputed best basketball coach in the world in Gregg Popovich. The Spurs bowed out in the first round two years ago, and the second round last year. They need another piece to get back on top in this new, top heavy NBA.
Instead, Durant hopped on a bandwagon that was running perfectly fine without him.
I understand the move. He’s going to California, playing for the coolest coach and general manager in the game, for an owner who wants to win at all costs. The Warriors will soon be moving into a brand new arena in San Francisco, and due to Steph Curry’s current below market deal, the Warriors will have the ability to keep their mid-20’s core of Durant, Curry, Thompson, and Green together for longer into the future than any of us can see.
On the court, it makes perfect sense. Off the court, perhaps it makes even more sense.
But twenty years from now, when Durant is long gone from the NBA scene, how will he be remembered?
As a great player who couldn’t get it done on his own, who helped the already two-time MVP Steph Curry get enough rings to fill one of his hands? Or will he be defined as THE reason that the Warriors win those rings?
The latter is extremely unlikely.
Kevin Durant wants to go have fun, win a bunch of rings, and chill on the California beaches. By all means, he has the right to do that.
But again, to be an all time great, you must adhere to a different set of standards. You must will teams to win. Better yet, you must will YOUR team to win.
Golden State isn’t Kevin Durant’s team. It never will be.
Because of that, Kevin Durant, as of July 4, 2016, passed off any chance he ever had to be considered one of the best NBA players to ever play the game.
His legacy as an all time great is forever diminished, regardless of the number of rings he goes on to win in Golden State.