TORONTO — In a just basketball world — or simply one more patient than this current frenetic existence — the futures of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard would not carry more intrigue than a fascinating NBA Finals matchup between their teams. This series should be an ode to astute team-building, with the Golden State Warriors operating at an all-time aptitude and the Toronto Raptors persevering and daring to be great.
Durant and Leonard should be counting the days until free agency only because they can’t wait to sign new contracts to remain in two of the best situations in the NBA. Instead, it feels as if the Finals represent a dual ending. For Durant, it could conclude one of the most successful and polarizing three-year stints a professional athlete has ever had. For Leonard, it could be a one-and-done season for the ages with a team that risked it all by trading for him without assurances he would sign long-term.
In both cases, the franchises have delivered exhilarating experiences for superstars who needed a change. And in both cases, it’s as close to certainty as it gets in sports that the partnerships will remain prosperous if Durant and Leonard stay. Yet they are considered more likely to leave.
As the NBA’s showcase event begins, we’re left with this bizarre thought: It is becoming a radical viewpoint to want to keep a great — not good, not very good, great — thing together. And while interest in the league will soar when free agency begins in about a month, there should be greater concern that all the impatience and transience is starting to create a vicious cycle.
It’s complicated because free agency is a right that professional athletes deserve, and many former players in various sports fought hard to gain control of their careers and earning potential. It has been 50 years since Curt Flood challenged the Major League Baseball reserve clause. But you have to wonder whether it really sparked a revolution just so NBA players could be illogical and wishy-washy a half-century later.
Again, it’s their right to be this way. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for the game. And I don’t blame just the free agent superstars trying to follow the LeBron James model. The whole environment has become quite poisonous, from the manner in which we scrutinize great athletes and judge their legacies to the dysfunctional way that most owners run their franchises. It all creates distrust and a desire for stars to look inward and forget about the convoluted big picture.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver inspired plenty of debate a few months ago when he spoke frankly at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and brought up the idea that some players — despite their multimillion dollar contracts and celebrity — seem miserable.
“We are living in a time of anxiety,” Silver said then. “I think it’s a direct result of social media. A lot of players are unhappy.”
At the time, it was easy to rail against the notion and accuse Silver of making excuses for the mercurial nature of some of his coddled celebrities. But I took it as more of an informed hypothesis. He didn’t present it as fact, just a theory. And Silver isn’t one to engage in breathless chatter. His words warrant deeper thought and further investigation.
The entire history of the NBA screams for the best of the best to live by one rule: The ring is the thing. Basketball is a team sport in which one outstanding player changes everything and the greats are judged by how many championships they can collect. Early in the league’s existence, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics created that standard and elevated it to an untouchable level. Thankfully, 11 championships aren’t the prerequisite for greatness, but multiple titles are a common expectation for legendary figures.
It’s unfair without some kind of context. But an overwhelming majority of legends met that standard, so it’s widely accepted. There’s a belief that most players struggle on their way up the mountain, and when they finally break through, they learn all the cheat codes and figure out how to repeat excellence. This era of star movement began because James, the league’s brightest young star at the time, felt he needed to leave Cleveland and go to Miami to meet the championship standard. In general, most star players leave to win more or earn more. But now that’s not even enough.
Two years ago , Kyrie Irving left a championship situation in Cleveland because he wanted to be the No. 1 guy. That hasn’t gone so well in Boston, and he could be on the move again this summer. James could have kept dominating the Eastern Conference in Cleveland, but he went to Hollywood, and the Los Angeles Lakers have turned into an embarrassing soap opera.
No matter what happens in these Finals, Durant and Leonard have decisions to make. Common sense says stay. Durant, who is recovering from a calf injury, has won two championships and earned two Finals MVP awards with the Warriors. Golden State is playing to win its fourth championship in five seasons. The core is still in its prime, and Durant won’t find a superstar partner who fits as well as Stephen Curry. But his interest in the New York Knicks has long been rumored, and he figures to hear a pitch from the Los Angeles Clippers, too.
Leonard left San Antonio partly because he felt he couldn’t trust the Spurs anymore. He won a championship there, but conflict over his quadriceps injury ruined the relationship. Masai Ujiri and the Raptors took a chance and traded longtime star DeMar DeRozan to acquire Leonard. Since then, they have gone about everything right. They managed Leonard’s workload, limiting him to 60 games in the regular season, instead of trying to get everything they could out of him. They built the perfect system around him. In the playoffs, they have turned him loose and allowed him to show everything he can do. In return, he has reestablished himself as one of the best players — if not the best — in the game.
This version of Leonard could help the Raptors upset the Warriors. If they don’t, it could be because Durant returns from injury at some point in the series and gives Golden State the kind of boost it will need against a team with great size and defensive versatility. This notion that Durant is a nonessential part of the Warriors — a mere luxury — is ludicrous. They can win without him, but at the highest level of competition, they need his length and shot-making to diversify their attack. The Warriors aren’t great just because they have extraordinary shooters. They’re great because they marry extraordinary shooting with a level of all-around excellence that tends to escape most jumper-reliant teams. With Durant, they have taken those superpowers to the extreme.
This should be the beginning of Leonard with the Raptors, the beginning of a run that shows what a fantastic basketball city Toronto can be. And this should be another season toward immortality for Durant and these Warriors. Instead, there’s a race to experience everything possible before more fast-closing windows shut in the NBA.
For the rest of the NBA — particularly the crowd that wants Golden State to come back to earth — this is a wonderful thing. But ask yourself this as the Finals begin: If it turns out that these teams can’t keep superstars in today’s NBA, who can?
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer