As I thought about how to approach a column on Kevin Durant's earth-shaking decision on July 4th to sign with the 73-win Golden State Warriors as a free agent, it dawned on me that I've actually written this column before. To be exact, it was six years ago around this time and my column was titled "I will never root for LeBron James ... ", reacting to James's decision to bail on his Cleveland Cavaliers and collude his way to an NBA title in Miami with his Team USA buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Having matured (just a bit) over the past six years, I looked back at that column with a mix of prideful agreement and embarrassment. I never did root for LeBron James while he wore a Miami Heat uniform and always felt that his two championships there (which should have been one ... thank you, Ray Allen) with Wade were akin to Alex Rodriguez gravy-training for a World Series title alongside Derek Jeter - like Jeter in New York, Wade was already a champion in Miami before James arrived. Simply put, I always felt as though James's Miami championships were hollow victories. After all, Michael Jordan never overtly enlisted "HELP!" to win his six championships with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
But even though James basically treated his Miami teammates in 2014 as he treated his Cleveland teammates in 2010 by leaving Miami to join forces with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love back in Cleveland, that move never irked me. James was four years older, wiser, more respectful and introspective, and in a sense was doing "the right thing" (whatever that means anymore in the NBA) by going back to his hometown of Akron / Cleveland to end a half century of suffering in professional sports in Northeast Ohio.
Six years after James's disastrous public relations move known infamously as "The Decision," I found myself rooting for James to end Cleveland's sports curse and defeat the mighty, 73-win Warriors in this past June's NBA Finals. With an NBA title won in 2015, the Warriors had already tasted victory after a 40-year title absence and even though James's Cavaliers were stacked with talent, with 57 regular season wins - against crummy Eastern Conference competition - they were clearly the underdogs. And but for the Bay Area itself, I suspect most American and international sports fans were rooting for James and his Cavaliers as I was.
Unlike many sports fans who began hating on the Warriors as they marched toward their record-breaking 73rd regular season win last season, I never disliked this Warriors team. How could I? Unlike James's Heat, this Warriors team was built "the right way" by using the NBA Draft over several painstakingly long seasons. Just as our Denver Nuggets are attempting to do now. The Warriors smartly drafted two-time MVP Stephen Curry 7th overall in the 2009 NBA Draft, drafted Klay Thompson 11th overall in 2011 and then scored big time by selecting Harrison Barnes (7th overall), Festus Ezeli (30th) and Draymond Green (35th!) in 2012. If anything, the Warriors should be an inspiration to franchises like the Nuggets that you, too, can build a championship squad by making the most of one's draft picks ... regardless of where they land in the draft.
Moreover, even before Steve Kerr took the reigns as head coach of the Warriors in 2014, they were fun to watch. Damn fun. Former Warriors coach Mark Jackson gave Curry and Thompson the freedom to shoot at will and upon arrival Kerr upped the ante, taking Jackson's impressive 51-win team and turning it into a 67-win NBA Champion just a season later. The Warriors have been must-see-TV for the past four seasons, and that was before they announced that Kevin Durant - arguably the NBA's second or third best player - agreed to sign with them this week. More on Durant's move in a moment.
Having closely followed the NBA all of my life, I get that teams need a cluster of stars to win championships and I get that true parity has never been a part of the NBA. Magic Johnson had Hall of Famers James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar alongside him as his Los Angeles Lakers won five titles and appeared in nine total NBA Finals. Larry Bird had Hall of Famers Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish on his way to three NBA titles in five finals appearances. Jordan had Scottie Pippen with him for those six Bulls championships. Isiah Thomas had Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer in Detroit. Shaquille O'Neal had Kobe Bryant, and vice versa. And then O'Neal and Bryant had Karl Malone and Gary Payton ... and made it to another NBA Finals together (but didn't win). Tim Duncan had David Robinson in San Antonio, and then Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to help him get to six NBA Finals and win five of them. And then Boston had their "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Allen which resulted in two finals appearances and one trophy, and probably more had Garnett not been hurt along the way. And so on.
But with the exception of James's Heat, the aforementioned teams were constructed somewhat organically (for lack of a better word) by their respective general managers through good drafting, trading and free-agent-signing. Jordan himself said it best when asked to respond to James's "The Decision" in 2010:
"There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team.' ... In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys."
Which brings me to Durant's decision to sign with the Warriors and why I think it's bad for the NBA, bad for Durant ... and bad for our Denver Nuggets.
First off, let me be clear that I have no issue whatsoever with Durant wanting to make this decision for Durant's sake. As Sports on Earth's Will Leitch pointed out, Durant more than earned the right to make this decision and I applaud, generally speaking, players choosing their own destinies after their contracts have expired. It's their finite career, they can do what they want with it and there's little, if any, loyalty bestowed upon them from the franchises who draft them (see Wade, Dwyane). If Durant believes that joining a 73-win juggernaut is what's best for him at this point in his career than so be it.
But just as Durant has the right to choose wherever he wants to play, I as a ticket-paying fan have the right to be happy or unhappy about it.
Growing up as an NBA fan in the 1980s, I was guaranteed to see at least one - if not two - star(s) when most opposing NBA teams came to Denver's McNichols Arena to compete against our Nuggets. Even many of the lowly teams of the 1980s had players worth watching. Granted, the NBA had just 23 teams back then and the league's expansion to 30 teams since has inevitably diluted much of the talent, but prior to James and the Heat's grand collusion of 2010 the NBA didn't have the "have's and have not's" disparity that we see today. It's no accident that just last season we had the pleasure of watching two historically incredible teams (the 73-win Warriors and the 67-win Spurs) while simultaneously having the misfortune of watching one of it's historically worst teams (the 10-win Philadelphia 76ers). Lest one forgets that whether you're watching the Warriors or the 76ers, your tickets cost the same.
From my vantage point, Durant's signing with the Warriors just exacerbates the league's already bad "have's and have not's" problem, which is ironic given that the NBA's most recent collective bargaining agreement and television contract was meant to engender parity, not obliterate it. At least when Durant was on the Oklahoma City Thunder he played alongside another top-five player in Russell Westbrook, making the Thunder a must-see ticket for the past seven or so seasons. With Durant now gone to the must-see Warriors, Westbrook - whose deal is up at the end of next season - is certainly close behind in walking out the Oklahoma City exit door.
When James and Bosh bailed on Cleveland and Toronto in 2010, respectively, I wrote: "Two franchises - Toronto and Cleveland - died this week, meaning as a Nuggets season ticket holder I'm stuck with two more worthless games that combined will cost me about $600 to sit through." With Durant's departure, Oklahoma City isn't a dead franchise ... yet. But it will be when Westbrook bails in the summer of 2017 to
collude join forces with the NBA's next putative champion. Point being, with 30 team rosters to fill it sure would be nice to see the talent spread around. And while talent clusters theoretically make for great television ratings - which will be essential if ESPN/ABC and Turner are to justify their multi-billion dollar contract with the NBA - how good will those ratings be if every time the Warriors play the games end in double digit blowout fashion? Remember that the Warriors were already winning games all too easily. And what happens to the local markets trying to put asses in the seats for 41 games when only a handful of teams are worth buying tickets for?
(On a side note, I can't say I feel bad for Oklahoma City. Despite their amazingly loyal local fan base and terrific blog writers, the NBA had no business relocating that franchise away from Seattle in the first place and we knew the day would come when Oklahoma City would have to face a no-Durant, no-Westbrook reality and still attempt to lure free agents. That reality is almost here and, frankly, I don't foresee Oklahoma City recovering from this for many, many years to come.)
For Durant personally and his legacy as a player, the signing is a head scratcher. As I wrote previously, I always felt and still feel as though James's championships in Miami were somewhat hollow, even though he emerged as the alpha dog on the two teams that won it all. Durant himself had objections to the "super team" concept in 2010:
Now everybody wanna play for the heat and the Lakers? Let's go back to being competitive and going at these peoples!— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) July 16, 2010
But unlike James's collusion of 2010, neither James's Cavaliers, Wade's Heat or Bosh's Raptors were 70-plus win, championship-caliber basketball world beaters. Durant is going to a team that literally does NOT need him to win a championship. What will the Warriors with Durant have to do to improve upon Durant's legacy: win 80 games by a margin of 20 points per night and collect five rings along the way?? On the legacy card, I guess I agree with 2010 Michael Jordan and 2010 ... errr ... Kevin Durant? If Durant felt as though he'd never win a ring in Oklahoma City, why not join the Al Horford / Isaiah Thomas duo in Boston, or the John Wall / Bradley Beal duo in Washington, or the DeMar Derozan / Kyle Lowry duo in Toronto, or the Clippers "Big Three" in Los Angeles? Why take the (literally) easiest route possible to win a championship?
And not only do I question whether or not Durant's addition to the Warriors is good for Durant, but I question if it's good for Curry and Thompson, too (even though Curry - to his credit - was in on the recruiting mission). Like Durant, Curry and Thompson are capable of scoring 40-plus points on any given night - or, in Thompson's case, any given quarter! Are those three going to make the major sacrifices necessary for the sake of winning? Are one of those three going to be okay playing a third-fiddle role a la Kevin Love in Cleveland? Love may be a champion today, but in the process Love has potentially cost himself from ever appearing in another All-Star Game, from ever being a Hall of Famer and from ever being the first or second option on an NBA team again. Throw in Green and the Warriors now have a "Big Four", something we've never really seen sans the 2003-04 Lakers who - despite being coached by the legendary Phil Jackson - were never able to jell around Bryant, O'Neal, Malone and Payton (admitting here that Malone and Payton were past their primes whereas the Warriors "Big Four" are in their respective primes).
Assuming that Coach Kerr and the Warriors can figure out how to integrate their new cluster of stars into a winning outfit - and despite my reservations, I believe they can - I can't imagine that Durant's signing with Golden State is good for our home team here in Denver either. Yes, Durant's signing all but removes the Thunder from Northwest Division contention for years to come, but Durant's signing - barring injuries - essentially cements the Warriors as Western Conference Champions for the next five straight years, a la James's Heat (who appeared in four straight NBA Finals that would have been six and counting had James kept his talents in South Beach). And thanks to Durant's signing with Golden State, teams like the Spurs and Clippers will continue their own arms race just to keep pace with the Warriors. Meaning, despite Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly and the organization's earnest efforts to rebuild their team through the draft (just as the Warriors did with their assortment of picks over the years), I cannot foresee a scenario when the Nuggets will topple any of the West's elite for many years to come.
Like LeBron James in 2010, a grown up version of Kevin Durant has made a grown up decision. Some will applaud it. Others will deride it and/or seriously question it. But regardless of where you come down on Durant's decision, with this move the NBA just dropped one more team from the "worth watching" list, and if that keeps happening it will be to the league's overall detriment for years to come.