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Through hours spent in the lab perfecting his craft, Kevin Durant earned the right to be the NBA's most in-demand man – to have Tom Brady visit the Hamptons, in all of his Super Bowl-ring-winning glory, to help form a unified New England sports coalition; to have the ultimate, toss-the-rings-on-the-table negotiator, Pat Riley, in his presence; to have The Logo call in to remind Durant of his haunting championship misses, trying to close the deal. That type of deferential, preferential treatment is only reserved for someone who has dedicated himself to become considered one of the three best players in the game.
This moment – this surprising, seismic shift in the NBA’s power structure that has Durant leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State and leaving, perhaps, the other 29 teams to play for second place for years to come – has been building for nearly two years, with the league anticipating Durant's first venture into the open market from the time LeBron James stunned so many by declaring that he was going home for a purpose greater than basketball. But for Durant, this has always been about a basketball decision, not a show, based solely on the game – and for him, this process was anything but a game.
Durant is seeking championships to validate his career and assume a spot in the discussion of the all-time greats. Seeing how quickly fans and media moved on during his brief injury hiatus was upsetting and served as a reminder of the lasting legacy of Larry O’Brien trophies over any other individual honors. He earned the right to have this moment because of the time spent in the gym, mastering that buttery smooth jump shot through meticulous repetition, because of hours of film study, correcting flaws and finding the most efficient means to thrive on the court. But that dedication wasn't just so Durant could own the first few days in July. Ultimately, that work ethic – and this weekend – was about finally taking annual ownership of a few weeks in June.
At one point in his career, the concept of a one-man, one-team legacy appealed to Durant. Durant watched Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki stay in the same place, win in the same place, and envisioned doing the same in Oklahoma City – until his quest for the rings they possessed, and he lacked, was always interrupted by something. The James Harden trade. Russell Westbrook’s knee. Serge Ibaka’s calf. His own foot. A three-games-to-one collapse against the team he has now joined to the dismay of the place he called home for eight years.
After leading the Thunder past Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs last May, in what could be the sure-fire Hall of Famer’s final game, Durant offered a hint that his mentality could be changing. While discussing the comparisons he shared with Duncan as the long-time face of one of the league’s smallest markets, Durant told The Vertical, “He does stuff his way, and it’s been nothing but successful, and I’m going to handle stuff my way. I’ve had my ups and downs, just like any other person. I did it my way, and I’m trying to create my own path.”
Durant owed it to himself to explore what was out there, beyond what he has come to view as the norm in his nine seasons with the only organization he has known. Oklahoma City has been one of the most successful NBA franchises over the past six years, but four of the teams Durant met with have won six of the nine NBA titles since he was drafted second overall in 2007. He could've made the long-awaited Summer of Durant a spectacle, made meaningless flirtations with the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers or even his hometown Washington Wizards to increase the drama and stroke his own ego. But Durant wasn't trying to waste anyone's time, create some unwarranted hype or raise any unnecessary hope.
Over the course of a holiday weekend in which his NBA brethren were handed more than $2 billion in winning lottery tickets, Durant chose to sit down with the Thunder, Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers, Boston, San Antonio and Miami – teams that met his demands in placing him closer to capturing that elusive first championship and had established cultures and traditions for winning (except for the quickly dismissed Clippers, of course). By the time Durant concluded his final meeting with Oklahoma City on Sunday evening, the decision came down to the Thunder and the Warriors.
Warriors players aggressively recruited Durant via text messages throughout the season and even during the playoffs after the teams staged a memorable seven-game series in which the Thunder were a few possessions away from advancing to the NBA Finals. Durant’s attraction to Golden State wasn’t just because it was the only franchise that could offer what the others couldn’t – the opportunity to play on a better team, coming off back-to-back Finals appearances and a record 73-win season. He had formed a strong bond with reigning two-time MVP Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala during their time playing together in the 2010 world championships and was enthralled by the appeal of an environment in which the work-life balance was embraced and encouraged, in which players walked on equal footing and shared in the glory of winning over collecting statistics. On a team with All-Stars Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Durant can become an even more efficient player with better looks and a reduced playmaking burden.
The drawback of joining the Warriors is the backlash from forming a hated super team reminiscent of the Heat’s Big Three era with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – except this group would be even more lethal, considering it had already established itself as a champion, coming within a minute of being two-time champions. But Golden State’s sometimes-wobbly postseason run pushed home the importance of having another star to relieve Curry from the pressure of carrying the franchise. The Finals loss to James’ Cavaliers also created a more acceptable window upon which Durant could enter the Bay Area as the missing piece to a potential dynasty, instead of a desperate ring chaser destined to be vilified for bandwagon hopping – or blamed for any failures.
Durant has always tried to be one to forge his own path instead of follow – he infamously, quietly, announced his decision to sign an extension with Oklahoma City in 2010 through a simple Twitter message right before James decided to take his talents to South Beach on an television special. Building from the ground up carried its own special charm, and Durant always relished in never being a frontrunner in his time with the Thunder.
If Durant could count on anything in his time in Oklahoma City, it was that general manager Sam Presti was going to do whatever it took to field a competitive team while consistently stockpiling the roster with promising young talent. Including the draft-night Serge Ibaka deal with Orlando, the Thunder have managed to acquire seven lottery picks in five of the previous six NBA drafts despite reaching the conference finals four times over that span.
With several chances to check out and move on to his future, Durant remained in the moment during what could’ve been a distraction-filled season. Durant’s performance in Game 4 of the conference finals against San Antonio was the perfect example of that commitment, when he rallied his team from a double-digit deficit, scoring 41 points to tie the series, which his Thunder eventually won. Even in the days leading up to free agency, Durant still spoke of Oklahoma City in terms of “us” and “we,” which now appears to be a reflex more than a sign.
As he attempted to dodge questions about his pending free agency last week at the U.S. Men’s Olympic team introduction in New York, Durant made it known that he was entering the weekend with an open mind: “I don’t really plan stuff. I’m a spontaneous guy. I just go off what I feel at the moment. I think about it and go off it,” he said.
Staying would’ve given Durant at least one more chance to win a title with long-time running mate Russell Westbrook, who becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2017, and made sense from a financial perspective given the Thunder’s ability to pay more than anyone else. But Durant has already accrued generational wealth after signing a shoe deal with Nike worth more than a quarter-billion dollars, and no paycheck will provide what the four-time scoring champion and 2014 MVP really wants. His one Finals appearance in 2012 ended in failure, and Durant has yet to make a return.
Durant has invested too much time into being great to continue settling for no better than second best. He earned the right to be in this position, to invoke his rights within the collective bargaining agreement to make this decision. Leaving behind all that he’s known for an unknown, Durant has eliminated all excuses. He has turned his chase for a ring – and rings – into something more of an obsession. And he will soon learn if it was worth it.