We watch and follow sports for lots of reasons. We come to be entertained by athleticism and pageantry, and to live and die with the drama of the thrill of victory and agony of defeat. We come to watch heroes crowned and villains vanquished, to feel civic pride and fortify familial bonds. We come to be floored by intricate and meticulous works of beauty, and to be invigorated by supernova spontaneity, to see order and chaos intermingle and explode time and again.
That’s what makes Kevin Durant’s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors in pursuit of the NBA championship that has thus far eluded him so special, so remarkable, so insane. It checks every damn box. It is anything and everything you want it to be.
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If you like seeing things you’ve never seen before, well, the winningest-regular-season team of all time just added one of the three best players in the world due to a heretofore unthinkable series of events.
Durant’s Thunder blew a 3-1 series lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals (the 10th time in NBA playoff history that had ever happened) thanks in part to a somehow-not-impossible game of a lifetime from Klay Thompson and a whale of a second half from Stephen Curry, who over the last four years has recovered from serious ankle problems that locked him into a $44 million contract extension that, now that he’s won two consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player awards, stands as perhaps the most laughably below-market contract in the sport. Then Golden State blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals (the first time it had ever happened in the championship round) thanks in part to a somehow-not-impossible string of games of a lifetime from LeBron James.
This came just before the start of a free agency period in which the infusion of a somehow-not-impossible $24 billion broadcast rights deal hit the league’s coffers, resulting in an unprecedented $24.1 million spike in the salary cap at precisely the moment Durant hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his NBA career. The league tried to prevent that gigantic spike, but the National Basketball Players Association, unconvinced that the NBA’s “cap smoothing” plan would meaningfully benefit its constituency more than one monster cap increase, rejected the proposal, giving Golden State a window.
The way Durant’s season ended afforded reasonable doubt that Oklahoma City could finish the job against the Dubs. The way the Warriors’ season ended afforded a chance to tell a compelling story featuring Durant as the final piece of a Bay Area dynasty. The way the math worked out, thanks to Curry’s deal and the spike, afforded Golden State enough financial wiggle room to get within hailing distance of a maximum-salary offer for Durant’s services. Yes, more than a few saw this coming, but the road here was paved by a once-in-a-lifetime accumulation of almost-accidents, the results of which we’ll get to watch in real time and, if the players’ track records are any indication, with our jaws scraping the ground.
If you’re looking for sheer wow factor, you’re in luck: Golden State’s offense could be legitimately historic. Adding Durant — a four-time NBA scoring champion, the league’s 2013-14 Most Valuable Player, and one of the most potent scoring forces we’ve ever seen — to a Warriors offense that just finished head and shoulders above the rest of the league in offensive efficiency should create an absolutely terrifying attack.
Durant’s a monster off the dribble on the perimeter, working out of the post, handling in, screening on or spotting up around the pick-and-roll, running the floor in transition, or just pulling up from wherever he damn well pleases, because he’s got a nearly unblockable jumper and range out to the parking lot … and he’s about to get the cleanest looks of his career, because defenses can’t just leave two-time defending NBA MVP Curry or Thompson, the two best shooters in the league, alone to get up in KD’s grill.
Remember how the Warriors’ existing offense bogged down in the playoffs when the Thunder and Cavaliers started adopting the San Antonio Spurs’ strategy of switching screens on Curry’s actions, often leading to possessions ending with a misfire by a sadly not-ready-for-prime-time Harrison Barnes? Well, now you replace him with Kevin Durant. Remember how the Warriors’ offense, especially in the Finals, seemed like it had no ways to score besides just hoping that Steph, Klay and Draymond Green kept hitting 3s? Well, now they have Kevin Durant, who shot nearly two more free throws per game last season than any Warrior, hit them at a 90 percent clip, and shot 57 percent inside the arc last year.
Remember how Golden State’s small-ball Death Lineup annihilated almost every opponent it faced except for OKC’s small-ball counter with Serge Ibaka at the five and Durant guarding Draymond at the four? Well, now Serge is in Central Florida, and the Warriors don’t have to worry about KD guarding Draymond, because now they have Kevin f*****g Durant. (And, oh by the way, while losing starters Barnes and Andrew Bogut and reserve big man Festus Ezeli to create the cap space to import Durant could have a significant negative impact on the Warriors’ top-flight defense, it’s also possible that adding this best-ever-defensively version of Durant to defensive coordinator Ron Adams’ cupboard gets Golden State back up near the top of the league in points allowed per possession next year, too.)
A better regular season than Golden State’s record-setting 73-9 campaign seems awfully tough to expect — remember, the Big Three Miami Heat stumbled out of the gate, and the Kobe-Dwight-Nash-Pau Los Angeles Lakers never got close to the superteam many expected — but if the principals work out the kinks quickly, this may be the most potent single-season offense we’ve ever seen. And hey, that’s good for every other fan base, too.
Remember how much fun everyone had rooting against those expected Goliaths? Warriors fans got the setup for the mother of all sequels to #ArrogantSZN; non-Warriors fans just got a worthy target for their frustration, anger and derision, an avatar for all their sports hate, a supervillain that lays bare just how sick and money-driven contemporary pro sports is … unless you’re inclined to remember that Durant chose a shorter deal for more immediate flexibility to play where he wanted, and that the Warriors got here by building through the draft with back-half-of-the-lottery scores in Curry and Thompson and all-time-second-round-steal Green, in which case you get to hold Golden State up as a paragon of the virtues of scouting, player development and providing a nurturing environment in which young men can succeed beyond their wildest imaginations.
(And for all the justifiable crap principal owner Joe Lacob took for his remarks to the New York Times earlier this spring about how the Warriors’ organizational approach makes them “light years ahead” of the rest of the league, it’s worth noting that the multifaceted front-office braintrust also brought in and prioritized legendary player, executive and advisor Jerry West, who reportedly played a significant role in closing the Durant deal. So hooray for forward-thinking and well-run workplaces, too.)
If you prize the right of employees to assert primacy over the conditions and fruits of their labor, carping haters be damned, and for artists to take whatever steps are necessary to reveal the purest form of their personal expression, then Durant-to-Golden State is cause for all the workers of the world to unite and raise our voices in song. If you believe patriotism and piety, above all else, should govern our choices, well, you’ve got to be loving how the seeds of this most perfect union were sown during chapel sessions on a trip to win a gold medal for the good ol’ U-S-of-A.
If you’re the kind of person who likes calling people weak cowards for deciding to take a new job, or who likes burning or firing weapons at jerseys and filming your child crying, you got that. If you’re the kind of person who thinks it’s insane to minimize fans’ emotional attachments to the players they love, even when that unbridled passion boils over into legitimately frightening displays, then you’re in business, too.
If you judge players not only by their will to win and desire to dominate, but also by just how many of their fingers feature disco-ball-glimmering jewerly by the end of their careers, Durant-to-the-Warriors is proof positive that players “count the ringzzzz,” too. If you believe what makes the NBA special is the way players reach the top of the mountain, not merely that they drop a pin once they get there, and that players should also believe that, since players are now brands and brands’ narratives matter, you’re free to get your licks in.
No matter who you like to chastise, you can do it. Everybody gets to feel morally superior to someone. Thanks, sports!
Durant-to-the-Warriors casts the Thunder as a tragic tale, the Dynasty That Never Was, a collection of dreams shattered first by the eternally arguable decision to trade James Harden and then by ill-timed injuries in 2013, 2014 and 2015. It marks the end of the tandem of Durant and Russell Westbrook, one of the most dynamic and remarkable partnerships in recent league history, an inarguably evocative and titillating on-court product borne of a relationship that throughout its tenure (and immediately after its dissolution) suffered speculation about how close the silky smooth scorer and the furious finisher really were off the court, and whether their styles could ever truly mesh on the court.
It could deliver us a fully unleashed Westbrook, who ascended to a new plane of triple-double-generating existence as the Thunder’s top gun and NBA’s leading scorer with Durant sidelined for most of the 2014-15 season, and who now stands as Oklahoma City’s unquestioned main man, poised to reduce the opposition to ash in a single-minded search-and-destroy pursuit of the rim, the MVP trophy and validation as a bad-enough man to carry the load all by himself. Or, with Westbrook set to hit unrestricted free agency next summer, if Thunder general manager Sam Presti refuses to chance getting nothing in return as another All-NBA linchpin walks out the door, it could deliver one hell of a bidding war for the right to trade for one of the league’s most explosive, productive, marketable and singular superstars.
There will be beautiful basketball and buckets by the boatload, met with vigor by a league of 29 other teams searching for the weakness in the Colossus to highlight and exploit, because this is the NBA, and that which seems invincible is only ever briefly so. There will be frustration and schadenfreude, high drama and furious anger, elation and anxiety, endless rending of garments over legacy and self-actualization, new possibilities revealing themselves day after day. There will be ceaseless entertainment … and, if there isn’t, there will be something to complain about. Whatever you look for in a sports story — in any story, really — you can find it in Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors. For now, they exist only in our heads, hearts and throats; soon, they’ll all be made real. October can’t get here fast enough.
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