Kevin Durant could not beat the Warriors this past year, and now he has joined them. His Thunder came within a few minutes of toppling the Warriors, who followed up a title in 2015 with a record 73 wins in 2016. But they didn't, and after nine years, Durant's long fingers remain ringless. So he's decided to play for the Warriors.
It is mind boggling to imagine how good the Warriors can be with Durant. Our minds were boggled by the regular season success of Golden State last year, and now they're adding one of the five best players in the world, who happens to fit stylistically and positionally with their team. My mind remains boggled. It's one of the most fascinating moves in NBA history.
But Durant has also received criticism for taking the easy way out -- joining a championship-caliber team when he was on the cusp of making one himself in Oklahoma City.
Durant's move is similar to (but not exactly the same as) LeBron James' move from the Cavaliers to the Heat in 2010. Like James in 2010, Durant is the best player in the NBA without a championship trophy. And like James in 2010, he's leaving the team he's played for his entire career for a team where he'll be an instant front-runner for the NBA championship. And like James, his decision to ditch his longtime team for an easier road to a championship has been criticized by those who remember the way the NBA used to be.
Perdue, of course, won four NBA championships without ever leaving a team in free agency, assisted by little-known sidekicks Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Like James, Durant is attempting to form a superteam. But superteams are not a new feature of the NBA. The history of the league is not one of parity. Bill Russell's Celtics completely dominated the 1960s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird went head to head for the entirety of the 1980s, and then came Jordan and the Bulls. Today's relatively fluid NBA, in which four teams have won championships in four years, is the exception to the dynastic nature of the league.
Teams of the past stayed dominant because player movement wasn't allowed. Unrestricted free agency as we know it didn't exist until 1988. The reason players in the 1960s and 1970s didn't switch teams willy nilly isn't because they possessed superior moral fiber. It was because they basically couldn't.
I imagine the thousands of players who weren't lucky enough to be selected by those teams will not agree with Perdue that it's more honorable to stay put. If they'd had the ability to switch as freely as players do today, they would have. We know this is true because many of the greatest players of all time did fight as hard as they could given the system's constraints to get into more likely championship scenarios.
Wilt Chamberlain led the NBA in assists and rebounds in 1968, earning an MVP, but was completely fed up with 76ers management. He demanded a trade to a Lakers team with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor that had made the Finals in five of seven seasons and ended up taking them to five more Finals in six seasons. The trade helped set up some of the most legendary Finals in NBA history.
Earl Monroe couldn't win it all with the Bullets, so he demanded a deal and refused to play, ending up on a Knicks team that had won the championship a year earlier. Teamed up with Clyde Frazier, Willis Reed and four other Hall of Famers, they won another title in 1973. The trade changed Monroe's legacy to that a player whose career is remembered as having plenty of substance, not just flash.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar eventually got tired of living in Milwaukee, so he demanded a trade to either New York or Los Angeles. With the Lakers, he eventually was joined by Magic Johnson and James Worthy and won five championships. We remember Abdul-Jabbar as a member of that Lakers dynasty, not so much as the young Buck who played next to Oscar Robertson under the name Lew Alcindor.
Bill Walton fought the Trail Blazers, demanding a trade and sitting out an entire season when they refused to honor it. When his contract with the Clippers was up, he limited his choices to the dominant Lakers and the dominant Celtics, eventually having a late-career resurgence with the Celtics. We think of his contributions to those Celtics as a symbol of his perseverance, not a sign of his weakness for refusing to stick it out in Portland or San Diego.
Moses Malone won the MVP with the Rockets in 1982, then signed with a 76ers team that had made the NBA Finals the year before. The Rockets had the right to match the offer and did, but eventually traded Malone to the Sixers, where he would win the MVP and the NBA championship in 1983. We remember Malone not for pushing his way out of Houston, but for the utter dominance he displayed with both teams.
And after free agency happened, NBA greats continued to ask for trades or sign to improve their situation.
Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando as a free agent for the Lakers, where he played with Kobe Bryant and won three rings, and then demanded a trade to Miami, where he also won a ring. We don't fault Shaq now for his team switching. We view him as an all-time great capable of shaping the NBA to his desires.
Clyde Drexler lost twice in the NBA Finals with the Blazers, but eventually requested a trade to a team where he might win a title. He ended up in his hometown of Houston with Hakeem Olajuwon, where they won in 1995. We don't fault him for failing to make it over the hump in Portland. We celebrate his eventual success in Houston.
Kevin Garnett suffered many years in Minnesota, but eventually got traded to Boston to play with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. We wouldn't view Garnett as the wise old man of the NBA if he hadn't won a ring, and he never would've won a ring if he kept fighting on hopelessly in Minnesota.
And then there's LeBron James. James has now twice made a basketball decision to leave a team. He realized the Cavaliers teams of the late 2000s had reached their ultimate potential and moved to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Two championships later, he realized Wade and Bosh were declining, and moved to join Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Both of James' moves have been successes. We view them differently, because one saw James ditch his long-suffering hometown and the other saw him become Cleveland's savior, but from a basketball perspective, they had similar motives. And both resulted in championships.
When James' career is over, I suspect the widespread criticism he's faced during his career will fade. He'll be remembered as one of the greatest to play the game, and his three (or more!) championships with multiple teams will be one of the main arguments in his favor. If he didn't switch teams twice, he might be sitting at zero right now.
Somebody will criticize players for almost any free agency decision they could make. If a player takes a deal to play on a team where they can't contend, they don't care about winning. If a player leaves a team for more money, they're greedy. If they take less money to sign on a team where they can be alongside better players, they're taking the easy way out.
But no matter how much money a player makes, or how much a player screws over their former team, or how tough they are to work with, or whatever it is we're supposed to be criticizing them about at any given point in time, one thing silences everything: winning.
This is how Michael Jordan -- a brand-obsessed, teammate-punching gambling addict who ditched his team to play minor league baseball and demanded the largest salary in NBA history -- is remembered lovingly, in spite of character traits we'd kill any other athlete for. Jordan was neither warm nor fuzzy, but he won, so he got a movie with the Looney Tunes.
Now imagine a different world, where Jordan gets drafted by somebody besides the Bulls -- maybe the Blazers, who drafted Sam Bowie -- but leaves to team up with Scottie Pippen before winning all his titles. Should we think differently of him because of a draft-day decision made by somebody else? Or shouldn't we praise him for finding the spot where he could best succeed?
Winning shushes all shouters, and Durant has done the thing he feels is most likely to lead to winning. People might bash him in the short term, but if he's right, they'll quickly change their tune.
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