Kevin Durant sat down at the podium. With Russell Westbrook sitting to his left, the drawstrings on Durant’s white hooded sweatshirt appeared to be choking the life out of him. Glossy eyed and visibly shaken, Durant took his seat and his eyes circled the room. He stroked his goatee, anxiously tapped his fingers on the table, clenched his lips, swallowed and audibly exhaled.
“It hurts losing. It hurts losing, especially being up 3-1,” Durant said after his Oklahoma City Thunder lost Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the Golden State Warriors.
Before the assembled press, as he shrugged his shoulders, he probably replayed each one of the 11 three-pointers that Klay Thompson converted during Game 6.
“Everybody fought hard every single minute they were on the court,” Durant said.
Apparently, though, after nine years, even he was tired of fighting.
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As he marched into the Boys and Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, LeBron James told the world of his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. James was ridiculed for taking the easy way out, but was joining a team in Miami that was a blank slate. The HEAT hadn’t won their conference two years in a row, hadn’t won a championship the year prior and hadn’t approached 73 wins in a season. The HEAT didn’t have the NBA’s Coach of the Year or the first unanimous MVP in league history.
So no, comparing Durant’s fleeing to Oakland is not at all like James and his decision to go to Miami. Comparing the two is almost like comparing Deron Williams to Chris Paul.
Durant will be labeled soft, he will be called a quitter. He will be ridiculed and he will be chastised by a great many people. But in the end, true to himself, Durant only cared about winning. And the truth of the matter is that he only cared about winning because that’s all we care about, too.
In the NBA today, we are witnessing the coming of age of an entire generation that grew up watching Reggie Miller, Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson and Vince Carter. Each was an all-time great in their own right, but for years, we collectively overlooked their contributions and ultimately boiled their legacies and legitimacy down into one question.
“How many rings did he win?”
Almost overnight, by virtue of leading his Cavaliers to the championship, we went from calling LeBron James a choke artist to declaring him one of the top five players of all-time. It was as if his 13-year body of work transformed by virtue of him putting together three of the most valiant NBA Finals performances we have even seen.
So as we continue on in the modern NBA’s talent arms race—as we see Durant decide to form a super team with the Warriors—ask yourself whether you would have truly appreciated him and his contributions to the game of basketball had he never won a championship as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Ask yourself: if you were Durant, what would you have done had you been put in the same predicament?
And then ask yourself whether you would have been willing to recommit to the Thunder without knowing what the future would hold for Russell Westbrook.
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Drafted just one year apart, Durant and Westbrook have been virtually inseparable over the course of their eight years as teammates.
Next summer, Westbrook is likely to be the most coveted free agent on the market and will likely have the opportunity to supplant Mike Conley as the owner of the league’s richest contract.
Had Durant returned to the Thunder this season, even on a two-year contract with an option for the second season, he would have re-entered an unstable situation. Another year of questions would have ensued and, even worse, they would have impacted both Westbrook and Durant.
One year from now, had Durant returned to Oklahoma City and Westbrook opted to return home to Los Angeles as a member of the Lakers—a scenario many feel is plausible—what then? Would Durant have also decided to join his friend in Los Angeles? Would he have remained in Oklahoma City? Would he have scoured the market and joined different situation? Would the new situation have put him in a better position to win a championship than the one he is joining in Oakland?
Maybe. Maybe not. It was a great unknown that—love him or hate him—Durant was somewhat wise to avoid.
In professional sports, there is no such thing as a guarantee, but from where Durant sat, he probably looked around and realized that his future and his legacy were tied to a franchise in Oklahoma City that has mostly only proven that it is capable of trading quarters for dimes and to a running mate in Russell Westbrook whose own uncertain future put Durant in an unenviable predicament.
We will probably never know what conversations Durant and Westbrook had in the days and weeks leading to his departure, but if you were Durant, you probably would have had a vested interest in which way your running mate was leaning. It’s quite unlikely that the two didn’t speak and although we may never know the contents of their conversation, it’s probably safe to assume that Westbrook left room for doubt in the mind of Durant.
In no walk of life is uncertainty welcomed. That’s exactly why players are encouraged to take the longest contract possible for the most money they can get. The unknown makes us uncomfortable. Control is divine. And it sure is comforting.
Here and now, perhaps for the only time in his career, Durant was presented with a monumental opportunity, and in the face of an uncertain future, he opted for the road that appears to be more lavish with rewards. By making his own decision and joining the Warriors, if nothing else, Durant decided not to gamble on anyone else. He took the bull by the horns, made his own decision and is, no doubt, welcoming the ire and expectations that come with it.
Has Durant taken the easy way out? Sure.
But if put in his predicament, I’m not sure I would have made a different choice.
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Kevin Garnett sat at the podium. His soft spoken nature before the media belies the fiery competitiveness he displayed on the court. And in one of his most humane and honest moments, back in 2010, Garnett said it best when asked whether he would offer any advice to the still toiling LeBron James.
“Loyalty is something that hurts you at times, because you can’t get youth back,” Garnett said. Facing his free agency decision, back in 2010, James was faced with the decision of remaining in Cleveland and fighting to deliver a championship to his fans, or seeker greener pastures elsewhere.
“I can honestly say that if I could go back and do my situation over, knowing what I know now with this organization, I’d have done it a little sooner,” Garnett said.
It wasn’t until after he won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008 that Garnett received the adulation and and reverence that his basketball career and contributions warranted. Now, as his career draws to a close, his retiring with only one championship remains one of the cruelest tricks that the basketball gods have ever played.
A few weeks after Garnett’s comments, James relocated to Miami and has played in the NBA Finals each year since then.
Sure, winning the 2016 Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers put James in a new stratosphere, but by virtue of his success as a member of the Miami HEAT, the educated observer already anointed him as an all-time great.
In contemporary sports culture, we aren’t taught that winning is everything; we’re taught that winning is the only thing. In subscribing to that line of thinking, Durant is merely a victim of a generation that has no concept of history and no respect for the pursuit of greatness. The result is more important than the fight.
As the final press conference of his Oklahoma City Thunder career came to an end. Durant looked around the room one last time. He slowly rose up from the table and exhaled one more time before exiting the interview room at Oracle Arena.
We all knew that this wouldn’t be the last time that Durant would be here in the Western Conference Finals. We just didn’t expect that the next time we saw him in Oracle Arena, that he’d be a member of the home team.
Indeed, in a world where the rich keep getting richer, it’s a dark day for competitive balance in the NBA. For Durant personally, though, after nine long years of fighting and chasing something that seemed too difficult to obtain, he gave up the fight.
In the end, he simply couldn’t risk being grouped with the other greats who were never able to win it all.
And in the end, where one is taught to win at all costs and to pursue the ultimate goal, all things considered, I simply can’t blame him.
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