Kevin Durant raised an awful lot of eyebrows when he decided to leave $9.5 million on the table in his re-up with the Golden State Warriors. It wasn’t surprising that the 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player and 2017 NBA Finals MVP would take less than the maximum salary he could have commanded; that had been apparently scripted long in advance of July 1.
But taking such a big haircut in the interest of chopping $20 million off the luxury tax burden faced by co-owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber after re-signing Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston? That surprised people … including Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.
Anthony Slater of the Bay Area News Group caught up with Kerr at Las Vegas Summer League on Monday, and Kerr invoked the name of one of the modern NBA’s forefathers of taking less to win more in describing Durant’s generosity:
I knew he was going to give up enough money to allow us to keep Andre and Shaun. I didn’t know he was going to go beyond that. A remarkable gesture. I told him it reminded me a little bit of Tim Duncan and his time with the Spurs. He made max money and then, at key times in his career, he took a little less so they could add a player here and there. The way the league works, the way the [collective bargaining agreement] works, it really kind of is up to the star player at key times to take a little haircut here and there. Whether that’s fair or not, I don’t know. But I do know that Tim knew it was dramatically helping his own career, and KD understands the same thing. In the end, he’s going to make a fortune in his career. Already has. And he hopefully is going to win more titles, and that’s what he cares about.
Even given the financial parallels, it’s noteworthy that Kerr would compare Durant to Duncan, a former teammate whom the coach holds in the highest regard. We’ve heard Kerr in the past evoke Duncan as a means of communicating reverence for the jackpot the Warriors have hit with Stephen Curry — he has on multiple occasions likened the two in their combination of talent, modesty, humility and unshakable confidence on the court — and now, he’s adding Durant to that conversation.
After inking a seven-year deal worth well over $100 million in 2003 to take him through his prime, Duncan did indeed take significant pay cuts on each of his subsequent contracts. In 2007, he agreed to a two-year, $40 million extension — about $11 million less than he could have gotten — that kept him under contract through 2012, and afforded Spurs general manager R.C. Buford more flexibility to continue rounding out the roster as Duncan entered what was expected to be the latter stage of his career.
When 2012 rolled around, Duncan — still one of the league’s most productive big men and best defenders — again chopped his salary. This time, he took less than half of his prior year’s paycheck so that San Antonio could keep around guys like Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills, all of whom played pivotal roles in the Spurs’ consecutive runs to the NBA Finals and the 2014 NBA championship — the fifth and final title of Duncan’s illustrious career. He did it again in 2015, taking a two-year, $10 million deal — I knew that Dirk Nowitzki was a copycat — to make room for San Antonio to retain Green and go after LaMarcus Aldridge, as the Spurs looked to both stay in the title hunt in Duncan’s final years and bridge the gap to a new era of contention. In a perhaps somewhat related story, the Spurs just won 61 games and made the Western Conference finals in their first season without the Big Fundamental.
Whether Durant intends to make such haircuts habitual, as Duncan did, remains to be seen. Choosing to do so would not carry any inherent nobility. Durant is singularly talented and has worked incredibly hard to get to a point where he is worth every last penny a prospective employer is willing to pay him, and if he chooses to stack all of that copper — as LeBron James has done in recent years, deciding he’s done taking discounts — then more power to him.
If Duncan does decide that continuing to take less is worth his while if it means the Warriors can retain and add talent that keeps them at the top of the league, though … well, Durant has also worked hard to be in the position to make decisions based on what he prioritizes as most important to his career and his happiness, rather than solely to his bank account. If that choice dovetails with a couple of Silicon Valley billionaires not having to shell out however many millions extra in tax outlay, then so be it. From his perspective, the choice he’s making is less about that than it is about doing what you can to give yourself the best possible environment in which to work, compete and hopefully thrive.
Durant’s sacrificing on the front end with the belief that he’ll get what’s most important to him on the back end. Maybe he picked something up from Steph over the course of the season, after all.
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