Kevin Durant to the Warriors: A Case in Loyalty, Hypocrisy, Failure & Success

What would your reaction be if an NBA MVP and scoring champion elected to join your team via free agency? As any Warriors’ fan, my first reaction was pure ecstasy on July 4 when I received my barrage of texts about the signing. The oft-cited Bill Simmons expose dissects thoroughly how Warriors fans have been tumultuously thrown around over the course of recent decades. We've all been witness to that roller coaster veering sharply upward in recent years. Now that team represents the league’s Goliath. The 2016-17 Golden State Warriors will be one of the league’s most intimidating super-teams. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson…it is undoubtedly a powerhouse team unlike any in NBA history.

It feels ironic that the team from Silicon Valley rose just as meteorically as its tech industry. Apple, Google, Facebook, and Snapchat…and now the local Warriors. The David Lee pick-up set the stage for the Andre Iguodala acquisition which eventually led to this??!!

After reading 100s (probably thousands) of tweets, watching too many rants by “experts,” and reading all the hate on reddit and my own Facebook feed, some guilt started to creep in. We earned our championship and our regular season record through the draft, and small but smart moves started to naturally add up. Is Kevin Durant crossing the line of too much? How did Golden State end up ripping the thunder out of Oklahoma City? And where does loyalty fit into the greater picture of the NBA?

Assessing "The Decision"

Three questions here that are repeated again and again: should the Warriors feel guilty for hoarding a disproportionate amount of the league’s elite talent? Do we blame the Thunder ownership for failing to make re-signing Durant’s best option? Do we blame Durant himself for a) leaving OKC and/or b) joining the team that beat him in the Western Conference Finals? I think this all fits into a more complex picture that casual NBA fans prefer to neglect for the simplified one. As Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, we often elect to substitute our answer to an important target question (how should the movement of elite NBA talent be regulated by the league?) with the heuristic question (should Durant have left OKC to join the Warriors?). And the result of this substitution, as I will discuss later, is a tremendous amount of hypocrisy. Resentment from other teams and fan bases would be quite different if they were a part of the Warriors fans or organization. As Jim Rome said, “[the Warriors are] playing the same game as everyone else. They’re just playing it a helluva lot better.”

The Warriors should be praised rather than vilified for acquiring Durant. Golden State drafted the vast majority of its core. Stephen Curry (drafted 2009), Klay Thompson (2011), Draymond Green (2012), Harrison Barnes (2012), Festus Ezeli (2012) were all homegrown products. Not unlike Oklahoma City, who drafted three MVP candidates (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden) in three consecutive years, 2007-2009, both teams relied on strong drafts to make themselves competitive. Isn’t this exactly what teams like the Boston Celtics do? Stack assets, become competitive, and hope to acquire a superstar?

The glaring difference between the two teams (GSW and OKC) was their respective desires to retain talent. OKC couldn’t make up a $4 million difference to keep James Harden. They instead opted to take Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and three draft picks. Harden wanted a $60 million contract; the Thunder stayed firm at $55.5 million (per ESPN). Perhaps it was fitting that, as reported by Royce Young, OKC majority owner Clay Bennett (net worth around $400 million) spent his final weekend courting Durant from a Holiday Inn Express. Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob, by contrast, doled out in 2012 what was at the time a risky $44 million contract to Steph Curry. He took the heat (and boos) for trading away fan favorite Monta Ellis that same year. He paid Klay Thompson and Draymond Green when the time came to do so. The front office hired a general manager with no GM experience (Bob Myers) and paid a coach who had zero coaching experience (Steve Kerr). Both have gone on to win NBA awards at their respective positions.

OKC general manager Sam Presti failed to do (among other things) what I recognized and have said since this site’s inception over four years ago: trade Westbrook. Now, in the twisted irony, Westbrook will, in all likelihood, be the last piece of their core to be traded. Presti could never quite get the right surrounding pieces to calm KD and Westbrook in their love-hate relationship. As we have already seen, the hate in that relationship will be highlighted in weeks to come. 

Despite all of OKC’s success, a cloud of unease always lingered over Chesapeake Arena. Coaching and managerial decisions in OKC's isolation offense made shots a competitive asset. In Golden State's fluid, assist-heavy offense they aren't. One more win in their 2016 season may have relieved that tension enough to sign the pair of superstars to contract extensions, but that win didn’t happen. Where OKC failed, Golden State succeeded. And Durant, after struggling for nine years, wanted a taste of true success. Wouldn’t you?

I think it can be universally agreed upon that Kevin Durant had every right to leave Oklahoma City. Even Stephen A. Smith agreed to that. (More on Screamin’ A. later.) The corollary to OKC’s front office failures is that KD had every right to leave.

Losing hurts a player’s image, and if one’s image is hurt, so is their brand. The Jordan brand still looms large over the NBA, and there is no doubt that the tech-centric Bay Area would have appeal for Durant, a Nike-sponsored and brand-conscious athlete. I wrote in 2013 that, in part because of the area, Golden State would soon be better than OKC. Who would’ve known that on July 4, 2016, the Bay Area would poach OKC’s once-in-a-generation superstar? This brings us to good old random chance.

Injuries happen. Suspensions happen. OKC has had more than their fair share of injury history with Durant and Westbrook over recent years. Golden State never knew if Curry’s ankles would last. The Warriors dealt with both injuries and suspensions in 2016 and didn’t use either as an excuse for losing the NBA Finals. Whether it was Curry going down against the Blazer, Draymond being suspended for Game 5, or Bogut exiting with injury in the Finals, injuries and the unexpected happened. To what degree did it impact the outcome? Who cares. All the theoretical simulations in the world may have ended in a Warriors repeat instead of a Cavs upset, but none of that occurred in the actual 2016 NBA playoffs. There are enough “what ifs?” in NBA history to prove that random chance is ubiquitous.

Loyalty and Hypocrisy

Cleveland Cavaliers fans were just as quick to jump on the excuse train when they lost the 2015 NBA Finals as they were to burn LeBron James’ jersey in 2010. Yet somehow LeBron forgave the city. The city loved LeBron once again. Most impressively, LeBron forgave Cavs owner Dan Gilbert who bashed LeBron as narcissistic, selfish, disloyal, cowardly along with the empty and ultimately false claim that he would bring Cleveland a championship before LeBron earned his first. How many people can say that they willing went back in to work for a boss who publicly shamed them? And the team bounced back in 2016.

Once Durant announced he was leaving, the jersey burning insanity reappeared. No loyalty, some fans cried. Nine years apparently means nothing. All of the community work means nothing. The MVP and Finals appearances mean nothing.

Loyalty in sports is rare and it is a two-way street. And let’s take a minute to remember a few moments just in the past decade that put loyalty to the side:
  • Kobe Bryant asked to be traded from the Los Angeles Lakers more than a handful of times. In the end, Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal were ousted. Kobe is still praised for loyalty to LA.
  • Derrick Rose was born and raised in Chicago. This off-season, Chicago dealt him away to the New York Knicks.
  • Dwyane Wade is the Heat. He is Miami. Few athletes are the face of their city more than Wade is to Miami. Pat Riley and the Miami mafia were supposed to take care of him. He is now a Chicago Bull on a near-$50 million contract.
  •  LeBron James famously departed Cleveland for South Beach. We all know what happened from there.
As a San Francisco Giants fan, I also watched All-Star second baseman Jeff Kent leave SF and eventually play for the rival Los Angeles Dodgers. Closer Brian Wilson signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being an instrumental part of our 2010 World Series run, the first championship San Francisco baseball had ever seen. What about guys who like Johnny Damon, Roger Clemens, and even Babe Ruth who jumped from one side to the other side of arguably sports most historic rivalry?

Let’s revisit the (lack of) loyalty that Oklahoma City showed its own guys. James Harden. Serge Ibaka. Scott Brooks. What about the “original sin” when ownership decided to rip the franchise from Seattle? If a team can’t show loyalty to a city…is there even such a thing as loyalty in sports?

Now for the most ridiculous hypocrisy that I’ve seen. Stephen A. Smith had a tantrum over Durant’s decision to bolt David to join Goliath. Yet, like Sporting News wrote, didn’t Smith himself leave a small newspaper to join the “biggest name in sports news”? Charles Barkley also chimed in. (After all, his favorite pastime is ripping anything to do with the Warriors.) Did amnesia kick in when he said Durant is “cheating” to win a title? He demanded a trade from the Suns and ended up with two future Hall of Famers in his own career. Smith and Barkley, in particular, are prone to oversimplification and negligence of facts. They give nice soundbites, yes, but a ten-year-old with a keyboard could write 140-character tweets with the same superficial opinions.

Carmelo Anthony gets criticized for taking too much money and not prioritizing winning. Miami will likely be criticized for failing to give a past-his-prime Dwyane Wade his money. LeBron has gone from loved to hated somehow back to loved again by most NBA fans. And unlike Durant, LeBron had a televised decision and a party where he proclaimed “not one, not two, not three…” Somehow, opinion re: the Warriors have gone from “73-9 means nothing because they didn’t win a championship!” to “how is a 73-9 team getting Kevin Durant???” Maybe in light of the lack of consistency in response to stars moving around the NBA, none of this is all that surprising.

One of the 2011 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement's goal was to help small market teams. It backfired when the new TV deal ballooned the salary cap for all 30 teams. If anyone deserves criticism, it’s Adam Silver, NBA owners, and the NBA Players Association for all agreeing to a system that tries to spread talent across the league. Losing the player max contracts could be one way to fix "a broken system." This would force teams to either spend a huge amount on one superstar player or spread the wealth among lower-tier stars.

People are going to find something wrong when they are on the losing side of a trade or acquisition. Did OKC fail to put themselves in position to keep Durant? Yes. Period. Did the Warriors put themselves in the best position to acquire him? No doubt about it. Was there luck involved? There always is. But to blame Durant and the Warriors for using the system to their advantage is to blame Sam Hinkie for tanking in Philadelphia. It is misplaced blame. Look to those who set the rules of the game to question the “fairness” of the rules; you might be surprised to find that those who agreed to the rules are the same ones complaining about them. Don’t blame the Golden State Warriors who played by the rules and successfully optimized their ultimate goal of winning. Especially when it is a group of guys with character and class.

Former NBA commissioner David Stern made a highly scrutinized decision when he vetoed the Chris Paul to the Lakers trade (a trade that I thought should’ve gone through despite having a vested fan-interest in it being vetoed). Conveniently, a Laker fan recently wrote to me that the Kevin Durant to the Warriors trade should have been vetoed just like that Chris Paul trade.

I’d be willing to bet he would’ve been just fine if the Lakers had acquired the future Hall of Fame point guard.