The reverberations of that initial conversation at that house Kevin Durant rented in the Hamptons nearly a year ago continue to be felt in ways that extend well beyond the basketball court. The Golden State Warriors pulled off the most successful recruiting pitch this side of Pat Riley emptying a bag of rings on a table for LeBron James. But the efforts of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala were more fluid and organic, based on camaraderie rather than showmanship. Durant said that quartet was so close, it appeared to be holding hands. And last July 4, he was posing in a sleeveless white T-shirt, looking off in the distance as he announced his “next chapter” to a stunned audience.
A year later, Durant’s decision has already yielded a championship and the foundation for a potential dynasty because of a selfless culture rooted on sharing and sacrifice. The experience convinced Durant that he wouldn’t find more of the same elsewhere, that enduring the slings and arrows from detractors was well worth the eventual champagne shower. More than just the chance to add that elusive ring – or rings – to an already Hall-of-Fame career, Durant sought to recreate the kind of brotherhood that has always attracted him to the game as much as his gift for pulling up and drilling cold-blooded 3-pointers with the game on the line. Durant had lost the former over his final years with the Thunder, when bad breaks and business led the team to forgo so much of what made alluring to him the experience of playing in Oklahoma City. He didn’t want money to be what prevented the Warriors from continuing to build and get better – even if that meant playing for just $25 million next season and surrendering nearly $10 million.
Curry inadvertently subsidized the Warriors’ team-building success with his previous contract but the organization anted up to make him the highest-paid player in history. Realizing what Curry’s bargain deal meant in paving the way for Durant’s arrival – and understanding the sincerity that it took for a two-time MVP to make room for another transcendent talent — Durant stepped aside to let Curry earn what he deserved and sit comfortably as the team’s best-compensated employee with a move that reflected how much he has embraced the Warriors’ way. All the clichéd talk about sacrifice and doing what it takes to win can be found on the floor, and now, intentionally, on the salary books.
Fans can try to diminish the scale of Durant’s gesture if they wish. But it would be smothered with the same hate-filled bitterness that prohibited some from recognizing how James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh accepted less than they were due to help the Miami Heat build a contender around them in 2010. Two rings later, James was done giving back money to owners, and Wade decided last summer it was worth leaving all that he had built in Miami to squeeze out a massive payday elsewhere. Expect Durant to take a similar approach if he’s fortunate enough to collect more jewelry with the Warriors.
The league would prefer for superstars to feel the financial anguish of forming super teams, with a collective bargaining agreement that makes it more appealing to stay and accept deals that are ridiculously more lucrative. Durant abandoned the opportunity to earn more with Oklahoma City last season for the chance to win on a larger scale than he previously had. But after the first season of that partnership with the Warriors, Durant gave owners Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber a “hometown” discount to spare them a more punitive luxury-tax penalty as the franchise sought to keep core pieces intact. He may have also subtly sent a message to Thompson and Green when their contracts are up for renewal in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Durant’s willingness to be the 14th highest-paid player next season as opposed to the second-highest – after only one year of California dream-fulfilling – should provide some discouragement for any teams hoping to knock off the Warriors in the near future. Because Durant has shown that his desire to win and stay on top means a direct but nonchalant hit to his wallet. Of course, Durant is already worth nine figures and earns more from endorsements than his NBA salary. Passing on the nearly $9.5 million that he could’ve earned and the additional $6.8 million that he was expected to accept is still a lot of money that few would shun. But in the words of the late rapper Durant had tattooed on his left leg shortly after signing with the Warriors: “Ain’t no need in being greedy.” He’ll also have a chance to make back some of that money in two summers, when the Warriors will have his full Bird rights and the chance to reward Durant with a pact similar to the five-year, $201 million deal Curry just agreed to sign.
Durant added some duper to an already super team and inspired other teams to get better or get left behind this offseason. But the moves around the league feel more like the cards have been shuffled, not that any teams have been dealt a more favorable hand with regard to halting the Warriors.
Oklahoma City is better with the addition of Paul George. General manager Sam Presti and the Thunder recovered from the shock of losing Durant by acquiring the next best thing, sending a clear message to newly crowned MVP Russell Westbrook that the franchise will do whatever it takes to be a relevant contender again – even if that means a one-year trial rental. But it can’t be mistaken that Durant is better than George, and a Durant-Westbrook pairing wasn’t good enough to defeat the Warriors, who now have Durant.
Houston found a star to pair with James Harden in Chris Paul. No doubt Paul will be motivated to end his career-long inability to get beyond the second round but questions remain about how well the game’s most respected floor general will mesh with another ball-depended playmaker and how Paul fits in Mike D’Antoni’s uptempo offense. The upgrade in talent was certainly worth the gamble, however, more is needed – Carmelo Anthony, perhaps? – to make the champs spend any time fretting.
The Clippers are finally trying something different after banging their heads against a wall for six years, hoping for a breakthrough. They secured a decent haul for Paul, especially considering he could’ve walked out for nothing. They retained Blake Griffin, who, if healthy, has a chance to showcase a more well-rounded game and improvements that were often overshadowed by Paul’s presence. And they expect to add Danilo Gallinari, ending Doc Rivers’ perennially failed quest for a swingman. While an intriguing mix, the Warriors’ continued hatred and desire to humiliate the last Western Conference team to defeat them in the playoffs remains.
The Spurs have yet to make many improvements through free agency, but they also haven’t gotten worse. Gregg Popovich is still around, and they can still hold onto to those two and a half quarters in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals when they had a healthy Kawhi Leonard and a sizable lead over the Warriors. Minnesota added Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson. Denver is getting Paul Millsap. The talent in the Eastern Conference has been raided, making it easier for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to overcome a tumultuous offseason and make another return to the NBA Finals. But the gap hasn’t been closed enough by any team. At least not yet.
The Warriors have the potential to go on one of those runs that end only when the team gets too old, tired of playing together or ownership deems it too expensive to maintain. They will enter next season with the two most lethal offensive weapons on their side and better chemistry after a scorched-earth playoff run. Another season together can make the Durant-Curry union appear more fluid, create an opportunity for Thompson to have more days reminiscent of his time as Curry’s offensive sidekick, and give Green the chance to win Defensive Player of the Year in even more convincing fashion.
The rest of the league is chasing the team that just won the title, but the Warriors have a chance to be better than that team, simply from familiarity and experience, and can get out to an even greater lead on the pack. Durant can be at the forefront of that renaissance following a career filled with the annoyance of being no better than second best. He’s not surrendering his current perch right now. Not if he has the choice. A year after he shook up the league, Durant is still calling the shots.
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