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Kevin Durant’s decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors in free agency has engendered a host of strong and loud reactions from all over the sporting world, with many pointing to the former Oklahoma City Thunder star’s past public critique of those who choose to join other superstars to form super-teams rather than joining already-elite squads to pursue titles as evidence that the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player has gone soft or lost his edge. Hall of Famer and Turner Sports NBA commentator Charles Barkley’s job, primarily, is to have strong and loud reactions, and he strongly and loudly sided with those upset by Durant’s decision during a Wednesday morning appearance on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike” show:
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“I was disappointed. I was disappointed like I was disappointed when LeBron [James] went to Miami,” Barkley said […] “Kevin is a terrific player, he’s a good kid. But just disappointed with the fact that he weakened another team and he’s gonna kind of gravy train on a terrific Warriors team. Just disappointed from a competitive standpoint. Because just like it meant more to LeBron to win one in Cleveland, it would mean more to Kevin to win one in Oklahoma than it would be in Golden State.”
“Listen, I’m not going to hate on Kevin Durant. Just disappointed, but I was disappointed when LeBron … like, I was really excited when LeBron went back to Cleveland, because I knew it would mean more to that city. If Golden State wins again, it’ll be like, ‘Well, we expected to win. We just won a championship two years ago. We just won 73 games.'” […]
“We develop this thing where you keep telling these guys, ‘Hey man, if you don’t win a championship you’re a bum.’ I don’t feel like a bum,” he said. “I’m pretty sure Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton — we think we’re pretty damn good. We could have played with some of those other guys and kind of cheated our way to a championship. But there is this thing that started with this new generation where these guys feel so much pressure. Everybody wants to win.
“I’m a big Chris Paul fan. I’m sure Chris Paul wants to win a championship. And he could, when his contract is up, go join one of these super teams and get a championship. But it won’t be the same as leading your team where you’re the bus driver instead of the bus rider.”
This has been the most common critique of Durant’s move, one echoed by fellow ringless Hall of Famer Reggie Miller: that, media focus on rings aside, there’s more honor and valor in coming up short on your team than there is in winning after joining someone else’s. “A king should never leave his kingdom,” as Miller put it … nevermind that Reggie once had his sights set on leaving Hoosier territory for the Big Apple. (And, for what it’s worth, Chuck might want to revisit what precipitated CP3’s exit from New Orleans to join the Clippers, an ascendant team starring future All-NBA studs Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.)
Some fans noted that Barkley seemed to be talking out of both sides of his mouth here, calling Durant on the carpet for jumping ship after twice moving to more competitive situations — first from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Phoenix Suns in 1992, and then from Phoenix to the Houston Rockets in 1996.
Pressed on that question by the hosts, Barkley argued that the circumstances of his moves were totally different than Durant’s.
“I got traded to Phoenix. They wasn’t a super team. They wasn’t even a good team when I got there, first and foremost. I got traded for five guys to go to Phoenix, so they weren’t a super team. And I got traded to Houston. I never wanted to leave Phoenix.” […]
“That’s my problem. Listen, if you get traded, you get traded. But if you all get together and say, ‘Let’s dominate the league,’ and try to cheat your way to a championship […] First of all, don’t you want to compete? There is something about competition. I would love to go back in my day and just, ‘Hey, let me call Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and let’s just dominate the NBA.’ But, like, there is some part of this that’s really good competition.”
It’s inarguably true that Barkley was traded twice, rather than making the choice to join the Suns and Rockets in free agency. It is perhaps worth noting, though, that Charles isn’t quite telling the whole story here.
Yes, the 76ers traded Barkley to Phoenix in the summer of 1992 in exchange for three (not five) players: guard Jeff Hornacek, center Andrew Lang and power forward Tim Perry. Hornacek had been the Suns’ leading scorer and an All-Star; Lang and Perry were serviceable starting big men. None matched Barkley’s megawatt talent, and the Suns were able to import Charles — who was fresh off being acquitted of disorderly conduct and battery charges stemming from a bar fight with a Milwaukee heckler the previous winter, and who had loudly criticized 76ers management and teammates during his years in Philly — without giving up All-Stars Kevin Johnson or Dan Majerle, or top reserve big man Tom Chambers, in the bargain. From the New York Times, after the deal:
“We were looking for a package, and once those names were there, we felt it was the package that would get it done,” [76ers general manager Jim] Lynam said. “Charles has said he wants to be be on a contender, and in all honesty, if we had kept Charles, I’m not sure we could strike that posture. We had to make changes. No one in our organization felt we could come back with the same team.”
After one brilliant season in Phoenix during which he won league MVP honors and pushed Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to six games in the NBA Finals before falling short, the Suns bowed out in the second round in two consecutive seasons to Hakeem Olajuwon’s eventual NBA champion Houston Rockets before falling to .500 and making a first-round exit at the hands of David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs. The following summer, Barkley was once again on the move … this time to join Olajuwon and the Rockets. From the Associated Press, following Barkley’s retirement in 2000:
In 1996, the Suns were eliminated by San Antonio in the first round, and Barkley wanted out. He made some bitter comments about the Suns’ management and virtually forced a trade to Houston for Chucky Brown, Mark Bryant, Sam Cassell and Robert Horry.
“Charles orchestrated his leaving Philadelphia. He cussed the franchise, the owner and everybody,” [said Suns director of player personnel Cotton] Fitzsimmons. “He orchestrated his trade from here. He tried to make it look like we wanted to trade him, and he’s the one who wanted out. He thought he had a better chance to win there than here.”
After the trade was completed, with Barkley heading to Houston to team up with Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in exchange for free agents Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Chuckie Brown and Mark Bryant, Barkley made clear that he was the one who called for the shake-up. From the Philadelphia Daily News:
“I’m very excited,” he told two Philly TV stations. “Obviously, it’s something I wanted to do. Houston was my first priority.”
And a perfect fit, Barkley said.
“At this stage of my career, I’m not a great player. I’m a good player,” he said. “But with Hakeem and Clyde, I have a great shot at a championship.” […]
Barkley said he was pleased with the way the deal had worked out.
“I called the shots,” he said. “When push comes to shove, I think you have to stand up to the system.”
In his “Mike and Mike” interview, Barkley differentiated between his circumstances and Durant’s by saying there’s a distinction between younger players teaming up and older players doing so while on their last legs:
“And first of all, we were just too old then. I’ve heard that argument the last couple of days — I have no problem with a guy at the end of his career — like Karl Malone, or Gary Payton I think did it, something like that — I have no problem with a guy at the end of his career [trying to link up with a ready-made title contender]. We’re talking about a guy who’s 27 years old, who’s led the league in scoring four out of [the last seven] years, who’s a former MVP. I think that’s a little bit different than a guy who’s 37 years old like myself getting traded to Houston when I couldn’t play anymore. I don’t think that’s comparable.”
Durant will turn 28 a month before next season starts. Barkley was 29 when he went to the Suns. He was 33 when he went to the Rockets after averaging 23.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.6 steals in 37.1 minutes per game during his final season in Phoenix, which is pretty good for a guy who couldn’t play anymore.
But while Chuck seems to be engaging in a bit of selective memory on his player-movement journey, and playing a bit fast and loose with the facts of his own case, the general point as it pertains to today’s proceedings remains unchanged. Barkley, like many former NBA players and current NBA fans, looks at Durant moving to the Bay as an elite player choosing the path of least resistance to championship contention rather than embarking on a more difficult journey, and sees the former as a less honorable and fulfilling pursuit than the latter. No one can reasonably argue the first part; your mileage may vary on the second.
It’s tempting to say that the only way for Durant to quiet such criticisms will be to turn in the most dominant performance of his career, lead the Warriors to multiple rings and leave no doubt about his individual greatness independent of the context in which he plays. Something tells me, though, that this particular strain of censure will persist no matter how successful Durant’s tenure in the Bay winds up being.
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