In his longest and most significant public comments since choosing to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join the Golden State Warriors in free agency, Kevin Durant refuted reports that his decision to depart had anything to do with Russell Westbrook’s style of play or the chance that the All-Star point guard might decide to skip town when he hits the unrestricted market next summer.
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Durant had appeared briefly in the Bay Area at an introductory press conference a couple of weeks back, and had spoken to Chinese media during a trip through Asia last week. But his first time facing a large number of NBA reporters came Monday, when Team USA began practicing in Las Vegas ahead of next month’s 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and the four-time scoring champion and 2014 NBA Most Valuable Player faced 25 minutes of questions about his decision, its aftermath and — most notably — whether some sort of schism with his longtime friend and running buddy helped precipitate it.
Word of such a rift came after Durant announced he’d agreed to terms with Golden State, courtesy of Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck:
[Durant and Westbrook’s] partnership produced four conference finals appearances, and one trip to the NBA Finals, in the last six years. It also produced a simmering frustration that, in essence, paved the way for his exit.
Durant wanted an offense that kept the ball moving and provided him easier scoring chances. The Thunder fired coach Scott Brooks and brought in Billy Donovan, and still the offense stalled out at key moments, often with Westbrook dribbling into oblivion. The Thunder led the NBA in blown fourth-quarter leads last season, according to Darnell Mayberry of NewsOK.com, despite their firepower.
“Ultimately, he got frustrated and felt that they had plateaued,” said a person with insight into Durant’s thought process. “[Donovan] came in, and he still had the same issues that he had with Russ under Scotty. The offense didn’t change much. He still had to take a ton of contested shots every game; and that’s when he had the ball at all.” […]
“He’s never going to have a game in Golden State where Steve Kerr has to say at halftime, ‘You guys need to get Kevin the ball,’ which happened in OKC,” the same person said.
On Monday, Durant denied that Westbrook’s aggressive and at-times domineering on-court style in any way contributed to his decision, according to Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman:
“No, it wasn’t [a reason I left],” Durant said of Westbrook. “It wasn’t. Obviously coming out now, all these reports are gonna come out. But I can’t really control it. I made a decision based on where I wanted to go. Simple as that. We can talk about all the reasons and the factors, but it’s simple. [Golden State] is where I wanted to play basketball.”
This might be a “six of one, half-a-dozen of the other” type of situation.
Maybe Durant doesn’t personally feel at odds with Westbrook, the friend with whom he spent his 20s learning and growing, experiencing the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Maybe he doesn’t feel like Westbrook’s pedal-to-the-metal-forever attacking itself was the problem that prevented OKC from getting to the top of the mountain; it was, after all, an undeniably effective approach, one that led to Russ finishing ninth in the league in scoring and third in points produced for others via direct assist, and OKC finishing second in the league in points scored per possession (behind, naturally, the Warriors), while not precluding KD ranking third in the NBA in points per game himself. But it’s hard not to start connecting dots between what Durant’s just experienced for the past nine years, his stated interest in “evolution as a player and a man,” what he’s chosen, and what he’s said about why he’s choosing it.
In discussing what made the Warriors so appealing to him, Durant has made no bones about loving the fluidity of their free-flowing, ball- and player-movement-heavy offense, a scheme in which he’s not only surrounded by elite talents like two-time reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry, All-Star sharpshooter Klay Thompson and Defensive Player of the Year-caliber point forward and recruiter Draymond Green, but surrounded by elite talents who have shown a penchant over the past two seasons for freely sharing the ball. He also praised the evident chemistry among Curry, Thompson, Green and Andre Iguodala on display during the meeting at which the Warriors pitched him on making the leap, according to Sam Amick of USA TODAY:
Durant, who joked that [Curry, Thompson, Green and Iguodala] all “walked in and it looked like they were holding hands,” walked away knowing what he wanted. […]
“A lot of people talk about how tight they are, and how much they enjoy each other … but to see them together – you could tell that it was true,” Durant said. “I asked them, ‘How is it? How is it there? How is the culture? How do guys work? How is film session? How is being on the plane? That stuff, stuff that you don’t really see that goes into the product you put on the court.
“I try to look at this as a game. It’s not life or death. We play basketball for a living. We get to take care of our families. I want to enjoy every day. That’s all it is.”
As KD himself sees it, his desire to be part of a different culture and more egalitarian structure with a better shot at enjoying every day might not be about Westbrook. But then, it can be hard to see the whole picture when you’re smack dab in the middle of it, right?
Westbrook’s ability to enter unrestricted free agency next summer stands as another variable highlighted by many as a big piece of this puzzle, with the assumption being that Durant would’ve wanted to get a sense of what Russ might be thinking about his long-term future before deciding to put pen to paper on a pact to stay in OKC. On Monday, though, Durant said didn’t enter into his calculus, either. More from Slater:
The two, along with long-time teammate Nick Collison, had dinner together in Los Angeles a few days before free agency started. There’s no clarity about what exactly was discussed, but Durant said Westbrook’s future wasn’t.
“We didn’t talk about that,” Durant said, looking a bit uncomfortable with the question. “We didn’t talk about anything at all. But, nah. I wish him nothing but the best. I can’t really say anything besides that.”
How exactly Durant told Westbrook he planned to leave — what that conversation was like, when it took place, how Westbrook responded — remains somewhat unclear. Durant said during his introductory Warriors press conference that talking to Westbrook was “tough,” and that “I’m sure he wasn’t happy about the decision, but he respected it as my friend.”
Later, that certitude was replaced by hope: “Obviously, our relationship probably won’t ever be the same again, but it’s something I wanted to do and I expressed that to him. Hopefully, he respected it.”
On Monday, Slater reported that “one source described [Westbrook] as ticked off about the Kevin Durant departure, determined for this new challenge and eager for the season to start: ‘He’s ready,'” noting that Westbrook — who has been awfully quiet publicly since Durant’s exit — has “given the Thunder no indication that he currently wants out.”
As Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported Monday, Oklahoma City’s decision to rescind the qualifying offer for guard Dion Waiters, making him an unrestricted free agent, helps open up more salary cap space that could give Thunder general manager Sam Presti an opportunity to work out a renegotiate-and-extend contract, like the one James Harden just signed with the Houston Rockets, to keep Westbrook in Oklahoma City for several more years and perhaps lure another top-flight free agent to play with him next summer. Woj reports that Westbrook hasn’t yet committed to renegotiate, though, which ought to keep Oklahoma City at the center of rumors and speculation for the foreseeable future.
It seems likely that Durant’s relationship with Westbrook will stay there, too, despite the former’s best efforts to clear the air Monday and his continuing insistence that deciding to leave OKC was the hardest thing he’s ever had to do. Whatever Westbrook’s future holds, Durant’s almost certainly includes vicious and vociferous boos from the fans he left behind; he gets that, and remains hopeful that one day this, too, shall pass. More from Amick:
“Having a chance to play in Oklahoma City for eight years, to see the city come together to support the team, I understand [why they’re upset],” he said. “I understand where they’re coming from. It hurt me. I was hurt for a few days because I know that I hurt so many people in Oklahoma City by changing teams.
“Of course they’re going to say what they have to say because everybody is emotional, and I understand that … I can’t really say anything to make them feel any different, but just still go out there and be who I am as a basketball player and as a person, and like I said, life moves on.”
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