Kevin Durant made the right decision. He didn’t make your decision, didn’t make my decision, didn’t do what’s considered popular or noble or competitively difficult. For one of the rare times in his Nice Guy career, Durant did exactly what he wanted. And if you have a problem with it, let’s see if your annoyance can last as long as his run with Golden State.
For so long, Durant has accepted the ridiculous burden of stardom in American professional sports, acting the so-called right way and saying the so-called right things, following the vanilla manual step by step in order to be liked and to stave off controversy. He tucked away any complexity to his personality, offering only hints that he isn’t some long-limbed choir boy during a few moments of frustration. He was the perfect small-market franchise player — the humble, anti-LeBron James, some dubbed him breathlessly — and now there’s this: On Independence Day, one of the most sought-after free agents in NBA history just expressed how free he really is.
Durant chose the Warriors, the ready-made team that won a championship in 2015 and lost this year in Game 7 of the Finals after a record-breaking 73-9 season. He took the easy route, some say. He should have been loyal to Oklahoma City, some say. It seems he violated some mysterious unwritten superstar rule that a ring-less franchise player can’t join a team that has won a title because, you know, you have to do it yourself even though this is a team game.
It’s the kind of nonsense that Durant has tried to live up to for nine NBA seasons. No more. He stripped away all factors that don’t really matter and he made a selfish basketball decision. Without a doubt, it’s the proper one.
Durant chose a team with a culture every bit as good as the one he’s leaving behind. He chose a team with the most exciting style of play in the league, and it’s a style that fits his game perfectly, with his ability to play multiple positions and excel with the ball in his hands or as a catch-and-shoot threat. He chose the team most likely to win multiple titles with him on it, a true potential dynasty. And he chose to play in a bustling Bay Area market.
What’s not to like about what Durant did? Only that he didn’t do what you wanted. He didn’t come to D.C., didn’t even allow his hometown team a courtesy visit. He didn’t stay in OKC. He did choose the team that his Thunder couldn’t beat during the playoffs despite a three-games-to-one lead in the Western Conference finals.
Durant has lost some respect, some say. Why? He made his announcement in a thoughtful short essay on the Players’ Tribune website, not during a televised show. There’s little chance that Golden State holds a premature celebration the way the Heat did after landing James six years ago, and there’s no chance Durant will come to Oakland talking about winning “not two, not three, not four, not five . . . ” championships. The only reasons to talk about losing respect for Durant are over ideas that too many people believe without thinking about them deeply.
Most important is this notion of a superstar’s responsibility to his franchise and to his sport. While it’s admirable and impressive when a star stays and wins a title with the team that drafted him, it’s foolish to think his greatness can only be validated by doing so. You heard that when James left Cleveland for Miami. He was joining Dwyane Wade’s team, people said, trying to discredit his success before he had any in Miami. Then James won two titles with the Heat, and he was both the regular season and Finals MVP during those championship runs. When James returned to Cleveland in 2014, he hadn’t just regained the respect he supposedly lost; he remained polarizing, but the appreciation of his talent multiplied, and he was celebrated as a champion without an asterisk.
Of course, James’s accomplishments in Miami now pale in comparison to ending Cleveland’s 52-year pro championship drought last month. But if James had stayed in Miami and kept winning at the highest level, he wouldn’t have diminished his legacy. We like to play these “What if?” games and argue circumstances, but while greatness is tested in theory, it is earned on the court. If Durant is the best player on multiple Golden State championship teams, the premature lack-of-respect angle will disappear for him, too.
The difference with Durant is that he’s joining the team that just beat him. Retired NBA legends and longtime fans hate that. Since the glory days of the 1980s, the competitiveness of the league has eroded. It’s not to the preposterous level that some suggest, but today’s privileged player has it easier and acts accordingly.
This will be considered a soft move by Durant. It reminds me of what a prominent hard-nosed basketball coach once told me about leading this generation of players: “There are a lot of soft dudes out there, but dammit, some of them can play. I’d rather win soft than lose hard. Those trophies and rings will be made of material that’s plenty tough for me.”
It doesn’t matter that Durant isn’t as ruthless as Michael Jordan. It doesn’t matter that you never could’ve imagined Isiah Thomas getting frustrated and joining the Celtics or Lakers when Detroit was still developing. This is a different era with greater freedoms that many former players fought hard to get for future generations. It’s unfair to judge current stars under stringent past conditions that no longer exist. It’s also illogical to assume that former stars wouldn’t have reacted differently if they had the vast options of this era.
For nine years, Durant gave one organization his best. He loved Seattle and became a community asset when he was drafted there. After being uprooted and sent to Oklahoma City after one year, he didn’t complain. He spent the next eight years making the Thunder one of the best franchises in the league and helping to turn the small market into a viable NBA city.
He has done plenty for the franchise, and Oklahoma City did its part by nurturing his talent and building good teams around him. The Thunder didn’t win a title, but Durant gave the franchise credibility. It’s hard to cry about loyalty when you consider that.
And here’s the truth: The L-word is a con. It’s a hustle. There’s no such thing in pro sports because everything is based on money and results. Players and teams are only as loyal as the situation demands. And these franchises that represent your city? Those are just letters stitched on a jersey.
In pro sports, there’s nothing more powerful than the freedom to choose. During the most important free agency of his career, Durant exercised that power. Now he plays for the best team in the league, a conglomerate of four all-stars in the prime of their careers.
Durant made the right decision. He made his decision. Dislike him for a soft approach if you must. His trophies and rings will be made of material that’s plenty tough.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.