Why Kevin Durant made the right decision by joining the Warriors

Either you win championships, or you’re an afterthought.

Those are the rules for modern superstars as laid out by us, the sports fans. Simple enough, right? But there’s an asterisk. Buried deep in the fine print at the bottom of the fan-superstar social contract is the following clause:

"Don’t actually do everything in your power to win championships. You have to win them organically. You have to hope your front office is good enough to put the right players around you. You have to hope your coach is worth a damn. You have to hope your teammates don’t get distracted on their own paths to greatness — because if they do, you will be blamed. Any failures will rest on your shoulders; any successes are expected and will not be glorified until you win a championship. To reiterate: DO NOT EXERCISE YOUR FREEDOM. What do you think this is, America?"

By teaming up with the Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant just revealed that glaring hypocrisy in one fell swoop. Like us, Durant cares more about rings than anything else. Unlike us, KD’s not weighed down by absurd notions of who "deserves" to win and who hasn’t "earned" their titles through sheer cosmic chance. That kind of talk is for those without the fortitude to take things into their own hands.

Such a leap of faith is what it takes to win rings in today’s NBA, where the elite teams are the best we’ve ever seen. Sorry, nostalgia-tinted fan of yesteryear, but it’s true. The players are faster, more talented, stronger, smarter, and they push the bounds of the rules in ways Oscar Robertson & Co. never would have considered. The coaches are more experienced; their defenses are infinitely more complex, thanks to changes in the rules. Oh, and there’s no expansion every few years to artificially dilute the talent pool and make accomplishments seem more impressive than they are. (Why we never talk about the fact that the NBA added two new teams during the Bulls’ 72-win season is beyond me, but I digress.)

Add it all up, and it’s no longer sufficient for a superstar to trust in outside forces. It might seem noble to stay with the team that drafted you and lead your teammates to glory for the same team over the entirety of your career; on the other hand, perhaps "insanity" is a better word for such unflinching loyalty in the face of repeated defeat. Or have we already forgotten that the Warriors, that organic team from the West Coast with its homegrown heroes and second-round-pick-turned-top-10-player, were defeated in such embarrassing fashion by LeBron James’ handpicked team in this year’s Finals? 

Speaking of James: Until he brought that title home to Cleveland, we endlessly criticized LeBron. And now, KD will take the full brunt of that same derision, as he follows in the King’s footsteps in forming a superteam. How can you blame KD, however, for playing by the same rules as LeBron when he saw how well things worked? Not in Cleveland, of course; if Durant wanted that kind of reaction, he needed to stay in Oklahoma City.

Staying in OKC, however, made less and less sense for Durant as time wore on. While he and the Warriors have certainly cemented their status as the ultimate villain, Golden State’s 2016 Finals loss gave KD some cover to come west. At least he’s not joining the back-to-back defending champion; instead, this is a team that needs his help to overcome LeBron, who has regained his universe-devouring form as the world’s best player.

Durant and Russell Westbrook were a fantastic tandem who took the Warriors to the brink themselves. Unfortunately, the rest of the supporting cast wasn’t up to the task. That’s a tough thing to say after the Thunder gained a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals, yet Durant’s decision is the clearest indictment of Oklahoma City’s roster. He very obviously understood that this year’s postseason was a matter of the Thunder overachieving — and that’s before we even get to the trade of Serge Ibaka to the Magic.

Like James, then, Durant left. Now, he’ll hope to follow a similar path as LeBron, who first tempered the hot takes in Miami. That initial title (claimed over Durant’s Thunder in 2012, naturally) was the springboard for everything that followed for LeBron. Duran’t looking for something similar — and in a better situation than James found with the Heat. When LeBron joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, there were still questions to be answered. Could the three make it work on the court? Which of the two "alpha" wings would take the lead? Was Erik Spoelstra the right guy to lead Miami to a title, or did Pat Riley need to take over?

There’s none of that with the Warriors. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and KD will make up arguably the most talented core in NBA history. This is a team that will and should expect to win titles (plural) right away. 

That’s what matters to Durant. Not any potential backlash, ridiculous as it will be. Not questions of legacy, or whose team this is. KD has seen the way we treat the likes of Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and the other ringless legends. He’s also seen the forgiveness we can grant someone like LeBron despite whatever vitriol came before.

Durant’s playing by the rules we set up. For the NBA’s newest superteam, it’s game on.