Kevin Durant has an extraordinarily bright future ahead of him with the Golden State Warriors. So why can't he take his eyes off of the rear-view mirror?
When it comes to the Oklahoma City Thunder, it's about time for KD to stop taking the bait. The latest thinly-veiled shot from Durant comes courtesy of a long profile in Rolling Stone:
Six years ago, he spurned free agency to re-sign on the very day LeBron James abandoned Cleveland. While James was nationally broadcasting his departure, Durant blessed his fans in a tweet: “I love yall man forreal.” He was the semper fi soldier two years later when management traded away James Harden, his friend and co-superstar. And he held his tongue when, summer after summer, the Thunder declined to add a proven third option – think Ray Allen in Boston, or Love in Cleveland. “Where other teams went out and got that veteran guy, we kept getting younger,” he says with a sigh, pushing around a sausage link with his fork. Apparently it's exhausting, even in memory, to carry a team on your back.
Though he's too shrewd to say it, that series of betrayals eventually broke his heart. “For nine years, he refused to speak a word against that team – he loved those guys and that city,” says his mom, Wanda Durant, who's been his best friend and confidante since he started his b-ball journey at the age of eight. “But this summer he said, 'Mama, I can't do it anymore. They're not in this thing with me, we're not together like we were – I feel like I need something different.' ”
To be fair, this isn't entirely Durant's fault. The former MVP is merely answering the questions posed to him by reporters. If KD needed a change of scenery, fine. If he felt like his team was no longer his team, then so be it. He obviously has a much better feel for what's going on in the locker room than any of us might. I am not here to tell Durant he needed to stay in Oklahoma City, mired in the misery of Western Conference finals appearances and the obscurity that comes with nearly conquering the 73-win Warriors. Truly, that is an awful situation that no man should suffer through.
But why didn't Durant save himself sooner? If KD wanted the Thunder to build a championship contender year-in, and year-out, why didn't he make OKC bite that financial bullet? In reality, he bears as much blame for how things went in Oklahoma City as anyone, Russell Westbrook included. And it has very little to do with the peculiarities of their on-court relationship.
At this point, the Thunder's offensive stagnation has been dissected from every possible angle. Despite a vanilla scheme and a “your turn, my turn” approach from the team's two superstars, Oklahoma City consistently boasted one of the NBA's elite offenses. The criticism, of course, was that a top-five unit could have been one of the best in history had Durant and Westbrook figured out how to make things work at optimal efficiency.
Whatever; this conversation is as boring as an OKC offensive set. Infinitely more interesting is why Durant didn't exercise his earth-shattering power as one of the game's best players.
Gone are the days when teams controlled the league, after all. We've seen time and again that the NBA's superstars are the real decision-makers. Only they can shift the balance of power by taking their talents elsewhere. Yet KD never did. When the Thunder traded Harden, Durant was the good soldier, by his own admission. When his first stint in free agency rolled around, he never let Oklahoma City sweat. He was loyal. He was the man who put his city on the map.
It's a noble approach, to be sure. The NBA, however, is not noble. It is a business. And in business, those who fail to use their leverage can only blame themselves. If Durant wanted his front office to make decisions for the here and now, rather than down the road, he needed to force their hand. It's never a good look for a player, but the criticism fades when you win championships.
Just ask LeBron James, who did it twice.
Or better yet, ask Kobe Bryant. At the most important inflection points in his career, Kobe made his displeasure known publicly. He held the Lakers' feet to the fire. As a result, Los Angeles built a championship contender once more, adding two more titles to Bryant's legacy. Had he toed the company line, his career would have been very different.
Nine years into his NBA career, Durant realized the cold, hard truth. To get what you want in professional basketball, you have to take matters into your own hands. But you know what, KD? If you're going to embrace your NBA heel turn, I appreciate that you decided to go full-WWE with it:
The real stunner will be when the Warriors fail to win the title this year. But that's a story for another time.