Kevin Durant just shook up the NBA, While We're Waiting

Kevin Durant decided to join the Golden State Warriors in free agency, setting off a wild weekend of reactions and overreactions. But what does Durant's move really mean to the league, and in particular, to the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

I hope everyone enjoyed their weekend of sun, fun, fireworks, beverages of choice, food cooked outdoors on a grill, and of course, relentlessly refreshing The Player’s Tribune to find out where Kevin Durant was going to choose to sign. 

I don’t know how Durant ranked his choices, but as a fan, my preferences for Durant really boiled down to two options:

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder
  2. Anywhere but the Golden State Warriors

As I’m sure everyone knows by now, Durant didn’t choose either of those options. Instead he went with the Warriors and raised more eyebrows across the NBA universe than anyone has since LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade decided to team up in Miami. 

While I didn’t want Durant to sign with the Warriors (reasons coming in a minute), I have thought all along that Durant would probably sign with the Warriors. My reason for thinking that? LeBron gave him the blueprint on how this can work. Some people are upset today about Durant choosing to go to the team that beat him so he can ride Steph Curry’s gravy train to a championship. They said the same thing about LeBron when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join Wade in Miami. 

But here’s the thing … as soon as Durant wins a championship in Oakland, everyone will love him again. LeBron’s imaginary approval rating was at an all-time low in 2011. Coming off the buffoonish “not one, now two….” premature celebration parade in Miami, the Heat lost to the Mavericks in the Finals and LeBron played the worst playoff series of his life against Dallas. The takes were coming in fast and piping hot. LeBron was a loser, he could never win, even Wade and Bosh weren’t enough to help LeBron prove he wasn’t a fraud. Etc., etc., etc. 

But then the next season LeBron rediscovered himself and his greatness and he carried the Heat to an NBA Championship over Durant and the Thunder, winning Finals MVP along the way. And suddenly LeBron was revered again. The narratives melted away and LeBron was back to being the greatest and everyone outside of Cleveland and Oklahoma loved LeBron again. 

So no, I don’t begrudge Kevin Durant choosing the Warriors. It’s the smartest basketball decision he possibly could have made. If the Warriors are successful and win multiple championships with Durant, everyone will love Kevin again and his legacy will be that of a Champion, not as a traitor or as a coward or a sellout. If I were in Durant’s shoes, I would have made the same choice. In basketball more than any other sport (other than perhaps QBs in football) superstars are defined by the championships they win (or don’t win). Charles Barkley will be remembered as an all-time great, but an all-time great who never won. Same with Karl Malone. 

Sure, Durant might have won a title eventually with the Thunder. But his odds are a lot better today playing with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green than they were last week when his teammates were Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams, and Victor Oladipo. I think the real reason there is so much angst over Durant joining the Warriors is that everyone is scared of what this means for their teams. The Warriors look like massive favorites for the foreseeable future. “Thank goodness the Cavaliers got their ring this year” was a common sentiment yesterday. 

But here’s the thing. When Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett teamed up in Boston (along with the likes of Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, and Eddie House), there was a feeling that the Celtics were going to go on a run of championships and would be unstoppable for the near future. They won one title.

When LeBron went to Miami, they famously gloated about how many championships they were going to win. How could this juggernaut be stopped? Surely they would win every Championship. They won two titles and were a crazy Ray Allen miracle shot away from only winning one. 

So let’s not write the Warriors name down in the record books as future champs just yet. There’s a lot that remains to be seen about this fit and how the Warriors play. Every shot Durant takes is a shot he’s taking away from Steph Curry or Klay Thompson, and vice versa. We can’t just take Durant’s 30 points per game and add it to the Warriors’ average points per game. There’s no doubt the Warriors are a frightening team now, but we just saw Kyrie Irving outplay Steph Curry in a Finals series, and we’ve seen LeBron James outplay Durant head to head time and time again. Part of what made the Warriors such a juggernaut this season was their insane depth. They now have to sacrifice a little bit of that depth to make this work. 

I’m not saying the Warriors shouldn’t be the favorites. I’m not denying how good they will probably be. But what I am saying is that I’m not ready to forfeit and just say “well, that’s it….glad we got our championship”. Things change so fast in the NBA and budding dynasties crumble faster than they can even win sometimes. The Cavaliers have such a good core in LeBron, Kyrie, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson. I don’t think the Cavaliers are in a situation where they can’t compete with this Warriors team. 

Having said all of this, though, Durant leaving the Thunder does make me sad as just a general fan of the NBA. While I think Durant made the best move for his career and his legacy, it doesn’t mean I have to like it. I hate what this does to the Thunder. That Western Conference Finals series was amazing. I want more matchups of the Thunder and Warriors. Now, we’ve lost that.

When LeBron went to Miami, I wrote at the time that one of the things I was the saddest about was the loss of the LeBron vs Wade matchups. It can be hard to remember now, but in their primes when LeBron and Wade went head to head they gave us some of the most fun games ever.

The NBA as a whole is not better today, in my opinion, than it was before the weekend. I don’t understand NBA scribes and analysts who are applauding this and talking about how amazing it’s going to be watching this Warriors team. I don’t understand how people who love the NBA would rather just watch one team as opposed to watching epic matchups of superstars going head to head. Injuries aside, are you willing to bet a meaningful amount of money on any team other than Cleveland or Golden State to win the championship next season? This doesn’t seem healthy for the sport to me. 

So my anger is not with Kevin Durant or the Warriors. They are doing what they have to do in this system to win as many titles as they can. If I’m frustrated today, my frustration is with the NBA itself for putting this system in place. It’s a system where fringe players are being paid like stars, while the superstars are heavily capped. 

Think about this, Matthew Dellavedova is about to make $9.5 million per year, while Durant will make $26.5 million this season. Are we willing to accept that Kevin Durant is only worth 2.7 times what Delly is worth? This system really doesn’t make a lot of sense. One could argue that nobody saw this coming, that the TV revenue is so much greater than anyone predicted. And yeah, that’s true. While everyone knew there would be a big jump in the cap these seasons, the cap jumps are bigger than even the most aggressive predictions. Yet even with that, there were debates ahead of the fact about whether the league would implement a “smoothing” mechanic into the CBA to make sure these kind of jumps wouldn’t lead to what we see happening today. 

I can’t help but wonder if superstars were allowed to be paid closer to what they are actually worth if some of this movement of superstars wouldn’t be more stifled. If Durant was allowed to make $50 million this year with the Thunder, would he still be signing with the Warriors when they had their own $50 million players in Curry and Thompson? 

To be clear, I want players to make as much money as possible and I do want them to be able to have control over their own decisions. I don’t want a franchise tag system like we see in the NFL. I just wonder if we can’t figure out a system where it’s mutually beneficial for stars to stay with the franchises they grew up in and helped build. Or if we can foster an NBA where going into a season we can point to eight to ten teams with a realistic chance of winning. 

I’m sad today for the fans of the Thunder. We as Cavs fans can relate more than most NBA fans can. We know what they’re feeling today. I won’t judge them based on the few who burned Durant jerseys (although I wish Cavs fans got the same benefit of the doubt). It’s a painful thing to lose a player as important to a region as Durant was to Oklahoma City. I don’t like seeing it happen. I just don’t blame Durant for doing what he felt like he had to do. After all, he saw how well it worked for LeBron, and now he’s hoping he can replicate the results. And who knows, maybe in a few years Durant will be back in OKC trying to finish what he started. There’s always hope. 

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