There have only been a handful of instances in the NBA that have completely changed the landscape of the entire league. The most recent one being, two years ago when LeBron James returned to “The Land” to reunite with his hometown Cavaliers. Before that, we had The Decision, where the aforementioned James decided to take his talents to South Beach. Even farther back, during the summer of 2007, there was the instance when the Boston Celtics added the best shooter ever and a top 3 power forward of all time to a 24 win team. Then we had Shaquille O’Neal being traded Miami in ’04 where he and Dwyane Wade would combine for a title in 2006. Lastly, almost twenty years to the day, Shaq bolted Orlando to join up with Kobe and the Lakers in ’96 where the tandem would raise three banners to the rafters of the Staples Center.
The common theme with these league altering player movements is that each of these teams went on to win a single, or multiple championships. The 2014 MVP and 4-time scoring champion, Kevin Durant, decided to not re-sign with the team he’s been with for nine years and sign a two year contract with a player option after year one with the Golden State Warriors (who just won an NBA record 73 games). Whether or not you like this move or are in favour of what it does for the NBA as a whole, Durant made the tough choice and the choice that he felt maximized his chances to win a ring. Personally, I hated this at first and saw it as a cop out and weak move by KD. However, the more I consider the implications, and the more I consider the circumstances, the more I understand it and can respect why he did it. The Thunder had great title chances and no doubt had the third highest chance of any team not named Cleveland or Golden State last season, but by making this move he maximizes his chance of winning in the future.
The dominoes that had to drop for this move to even be possible are the most intriguing aspect of the whole scenario. Making a move of this magnitude, with as much financial and fan impact it has could only be possible with many different factors working together:
2010 FIBA World Championships
The easiest place to start tracing this move back would be the 2010 FIBA World Championships, where Kevin Durant played with Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala. Now, you might say that this could be irrelevant and Durant was teammates with a lot of stars then, but apparently he really took to Curry and Iggy during that tournament. Building relationships during these types of events are huge for athletes so this could have been impactful on Durant’s psyche. It is also reported that the trio often attended chapel together over that summer. To top it off, that 2010 team won and nothing brings players together more than winning.
Golden State’s 2016/17 Payroll
To add to the history that KD has with some of these Warriors players, another domino that fell in the Warriors favour is the luck that they’ve had with their team’s payroll.
They signed Curry to a contract that, in hindsight, might have the best value of any contract ever given to a basketball player. They got him back on a 4 year/44 million dollar deal which in 2016’s salary cap standards is that which you give a ninth man, who would play 20 minutes a night. Over the course of that deal (which still goes through next year) Curry has won two MVPs, a scoring title, a championship, and made three All-Star games. At the time Curry put the pen to paper, the contract offer was justified. He had been a question mark his whole career with bum ankles, and people around the league weren’t sure exactly how good he was going to be. To go along with the Curry contract, they netted Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to, what are now, high value deals as well: Thompson at 68 million over four years, and Green at 82 million over five. Under the new salary cap regime, this paved the way for Durant’s new deal.
Nike Shoe Deal
A 300 million dollar deal with Nike has also granted Durant the freedom to pick and choose what he does with his career and where he goes. The peace of mind in knowing that you have that kind of financial security has to play into your career decision-making. Taking a few less dollars with the Warriors is more than made up for when he sees the cheques coming in every week with that classic swoosh in the corner.
State of the OKC Thunder Franchise
Throughout the years, the Thunder have been one of the most exciting and fun teams to watch. They’ve had two of the top ten players in the game for all of the 2010s, as well as one of the best fan bases the league has ever seen. So why would Kevin Durant want to leave that? A few reasons are possible.
For many years now, Durant has wanted to play a more open style of basketball with plenty of passing, a lot of player movement, and a heavy focus on long-range shooting. However, since the Thunder rose to prominence, they’ve consistently been at the bottom of the league in passes and assists per game. Fans have been quick to point the finger at the team’s now best player, Russell Westbrook, but Durant should be equally to blame. With two players that dominant and who need the ball to be effective, it was just impossible to have that desired ball movement with the squad they had. The team improved last season under new head coach Billy Donovan, but they still weren’t at the same level as the other elite offences in the league. With Golden State leading the league in assists per game the last two years, Durant should get his wish. Just picture the countless wide-open corner threes that Harrison Barnes has had for the past four years and then picture Kevin freakin’ Durant taking them instead.
To go along with the incentive to move to a more free and open offence, Durant was allegedly frustrated with Westbrook’s play style and if it was good enough to win a championship. The ball often became stagnant and uninspired when the opposing team would buckle down and take away Durant and Westbrook. There’s no denying how great of a player Russell Westbrook is, but pairing him with another player who requires the amount of shots that Durant does was never a match made in offensive heaven. The draw to play with unselfish players like Curry and Green was too difficult to pass up.
Two Blown Playoff Series
The Western Conference Finals was extremely exciting for one team, and extremely disappointing for another. After a dominant 24-point win, and a 3-1 lead in the best of 7 playoff series, the Thunder were flying high and feeling good about their title chances. Westbrook had just put up a 36-point triple double and Durant played wingman dropping 26 points of his own. Many thought the series was over and the Thunder were about to advance to the Finals and Durant was going to get his rematch after losing to LeBron in 2012. However, the unthinkable happened and the Thunder blew their lead in the series and were forced to watch the Warriors celebrate as they went to a second straight Finals. If the Thunder had of won the West this past season, there’s virtually no chance KD would bolt for Golden State. I mean, why leave for a team you just beat?
The other playoff series that helped sway Durant’s decision is the actual Finals. It was the complete opposite story for the Warriors. They blew their own 3-1 lead and had to watch the Cavs hoist their own trophy. If the Warriors had won again and raised back-to-back banners, it is extremely unlikely that KD could have justified leaving and teaming up with Steph and the gang. It is a lot more reasonable going to a team that just lost, than it is going to one that just won their second straight.
Salary Cap and Max-salary Contracts
The NBA wants parity, but instilling a salary cap, and thus max-salaries for players, denies them that chance.
With implementing a salary cap, the NBA is forcing teams to become pragmatic and careful with how they spend their money. Big market teams like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago can’t just go out and buy their players; they have just as much money to offer as Milwaukee or New Orleans. The salary cap being a reality also forced the league to instill max salaries to players. You can’t have a salary cap sitting at 59 million dollars and offer a guy like LeBron James a 4-year, 200 million dollar deal. It just doesn’t make sense. So by creating max salaries, you give teams the ability to offer a big star a larger contract, while also having money to dish out to supporting players. This all sounds well and good until you consider that the offering of max salaries to players, versus their allegiance to their teams creates issues.
The way it is set up now, having a max salary for a player gives that player no drive or incentive to stick with the teams they’ve played with previously. Yes, the Thunder could have offered Durant the most money, but the Warriors can offer him slightly less money, and a much higher chance at winning a championship. The difference between the max salary Oklahoma City could have offered Durant and the max that the Warriors could have offered him isn’t large enough for him to deny himself the best chance at winning. With a few million dollars less in his pocket, but what should be multiple rings on his fingers, KD made the most sensible decision basketball wise.
The NBA has created a system where players are more or less forced to take pay-cuts and join up with other great players because their own teams can’t bring the necessary aid because of the salary cap.
Now, if players didn’t have to take a pay cut and could make what they’re actually worth, less players would join up on super teams and would be more likely to chase the money. This would also cultivate a system where elite players would be spread out a lot more. If there was a free market (non-salary capped) and teams could pay what they wanted, elite players would be getting paid what they deserve, all on different teams. Incentives for players in an open market would change, and become more based around maximizing their earning potential. The league would thus have the parity it desires.
To bring it back to Durant, the incentive to join the Warriors is a lot higher if you’re going to be paid almost the same amount as what you’d be getting paid in Oklahoma City. Now, if there was no cap, and thus no max-contracts, OKC could offer him way more because Golden State wouldn’t even be able to compete after already having three all-NBA players who would demand a similar payout.
Team Meetings in the Hamptons
The Warriors meeting with Durant in the Hamptons was no doubt one of the main reasons he made the decision he did. Initially, management pitched the business side of the deal and how it could further Durant’s career as a business man as well as a basketball player. The second part of the pitch consisted of current Warriors players just sitting around and shooting the shit with him. Those players chosen were their their four best: Curry, Thompson, Green and Iguodala. Durant’s past relationship with Curry and Iggy no doubt came in to play during their pitch meeting.
Warriors executive board member, part-owner and behind the scenes puppet master, Jerry West, also made a call to Durant the day following the team’s meeting with him in New York.
One reason OKC folks should be nervous about Durant phone chat with GSW advisor Jerry West: The Logo closed the deal for Shaq-to-LA in ’96.
— Ailene Voisin (@ailene_voisin) July 3, 2016
West apparently didn’t straight out tell Durant what he thought his decision should be. Rather, he played into the common theme of what Durant’s thought process was going through free agency, and tapped into that. That thought process revolved around KD looking to improve his happiness as a player and his growth as a man. With many years playing and managing in the NBA, it would be hard to find a better or more knowledgeable voice to shed some light on what it’s like to be a player transitioning from one part of your career to another. “The Logo” as West is known, no doubt helped push the 2014 MVP to join his team.
It is hard to argue that the Warriors won’t be dominant for the foreseeable future with the addition of a top 3 NBA player. However, this move could play heavily into the decision of the top free agents next summer. With an even higher cap jump (roughly 13 mil) the possibility of guys like Westbrook, Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul moving to other already elite teams gets even higher. There could be a team on par or one that could possibly exceed the current Golden State Warriors in no time.
Lastly, for the judgment on Kevin Durant and his decision, please just consider it from the perspective of a player that has never won a ring. The media landscape of the NBA values rings over everything else, and only considers players to be in the conversation of greatest ever if they’ve won a championship. How can you blame a player who is maximizing his chance to add himself to the greatest ever?
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