As he weighed his latest free agency decision, Kevin Durant had everything at his disposal that any superstar could want: fame, fortune, sunny weather and championship rings.
In the end, he prioritized playing with his friends.
The Golden State Warriors offered the most money — $221 million over five years — and the best shot at future championships. The New York Knicks represented the largest platform for his off-court interests and brand-building efforts. The Los Angeles Clippers pitched palm trees and a functional organization from top to bottom.
But Durant nixed them all, announcing on Instagram on Sunday that he planned to ink a four-year, $164 million maximum contract with the Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets? Yes, the same Nets who ranked last in home attendance in 2018-19, held the NBA’s worst record two years ago and have never won a title. Durant, an MVP and four-time scoring champ, was able to look past that lack of history and visibility because he will be joined by Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, his close friends and former USA Basketball teammates.
Pitching this trio as a “Big Three” is too generous, with Irving having to answer questions about his leadership ability and health and Durant not expected to return from his ruptured Achilles’ tendon until 2020-21. Jordan’s effectiveness also has declined substantially over the past two seasons. Until Durant is back, the Nets will merely be competitive, not a contender. At that point, they still might require another star to win the East.
There is no comparison between Durant’s new teammates and his former Warriors squad. Stephen Curry is a better shooter, leader and decision-maker than Irving, with a more extensive track record of postseason success and fewer long-term health concerns. Draymond Green is a more versatile, mobile and aggressive defensive captain than Jordan and a more useful offensive player, too. The Nets’ incumbent players are better than you think, but there is no Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala or even Kevon Looney among them.
The key advantage that Irving and Jordan have over Curry and Green? A lack of preexisting baggage that built up during Durant’s polarizing stint in the Bay Area.
Durant and Curry formed one of the most lethal scoring duos in NBA history, ripping off a 16-1 postseason run in 2017, but they were regularly pitted against each other, always at Durant’s expense. Even with two titles, two Finals MVPs and two signature three-pointers over LeBron James, Durant never eclipsed Curry in popularity. He couldn’t even escape unnecessary slights during the Warriors’ 2018 title parade.
Curry was there first. He was the one who led the franchise’s turnaround, and he was the one who sacrificed by recruiting Durant. If Warriors fans were given the choice between watching Durant score 50 or watching Curry score 50 — well, that was no choice at all. Durant, as hyper-aware to public sentiment as any modern superstar, surely understood the dynamic better than anyone. Steph was Marcia Brady; KD was Jan.
It’s a shame, too, that the best on-court moments involving Durant and Green were long ago surpassed by memes and altercations. How many times did Green hit Durant with a lob for a smooth and forceful dunk? How many times did they fly around together on defense, covering impossible amounts of ground and forcing an untold number of turnovers? How many times did Green make the extra pass on the perimeter to set up a backbreaking Durant three?
Their shared greatness was so overwhelming that it immediately bred outside resentment. Green’s parking lot recruitment efforts in 2016 became fodder for critics who insisted that the Warriors and Durant were guilty of stacking the deck and ruining the league. Then their on-court disputes — first during a January 2017 loss to Memphis and then during a November 2018 loss to the Clippers — came to symbolize a divide between the original Warriors and their so-called mercenary.
It should never be forgotten that Durant played brilliantly and beautifully throughout all the drama, real and imagined. Or that he attempted to return to the court in the 2019 NBA Finals rather than play it safe by watching from the sideline. That decision led to his career-altering Achilles’ injury, which, in turn, dissolved the “supervillain” Warriors. It should never have taken a basketball tragedy to remind critics of Durant’s humanity and his basketball brilliance.
Last year, Durant admitted to ESPN that he thought winning a title “would fill a certain void” but that “much hadn’t changed” after he claimed his first ring. He then spent the next 15 months alternating between being aloof and engaged, annoyed and triumphant, defensive and self-confident. Satisfaction always seemed fleeting.
His 2019 postseason featured both poles. “I’m Kevin Durant, y’all know who I am,” he declared before dropping 95 points over two games against the Clippers and earning plaudits as the best basketball player in the world. Within weeks, he was all but invisible after suffering a calf injury against the Houston Rockets.
Durant’s move to the Nets is not a legacy play; he will face an uphill battle to win his third title or his second MVP. It’s not a money grab, a la LeBron James’s move to the Lakers; Durant brings far more cachet to the partnership than the Nets. And it’s not some elaborate power play with the potential to turn the NBA upside down.
Instead, Brooklyn represents a clean slate, an entertaining place to live and work and a chance to build something in his own image. More than anything, though, it’s a place to play basketball with like-minded souls. This move will frustrate ring-counting basketball historians and those who appreciated the Warriors dynasty, but it appears that Durant has decided that his path to happiness is reliant upon some new and trusted faces.