Eleven months ago, as the world heaved under Kevin Durant’s feet, we had a million reasons why Kevin Durant would leave his brodie Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. We had a million reasons why Kevin Durant would join the Golden State Warriors, already the world’s best basketball team (albeit one that had just dropped a championship).
We had a million reasons why Kevin Durant would make the decisions he did, but we could never really know. After Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals — a masterpiece even by Durant’s lofty standards, with 33 points on 22 shots, 13 rebounds, five blocks, three steals, and six assists — we have a pretty good idea of what Durant sought.
Durant sought immortality. He sought ascension to the highest level of basketball stars. He sought universal praise — something he’s still not getting, by the way. He sought unequivocal respect.
Durant did things like this with the Thunder. In the 2012 Finals, Durant averaged 31 points on an effective field goal percentage of .610, which is ridiculous. Oklahoma City lost in five. He averaged 30 and eight against the Warriors in the 2016 West finals. The Thunder lost in seven. He’s won four scoring titles and an NBA MVP, yet he’d only been to the Finals once and never came close to winning a title.
In Oklahoma City, with Russell Westbrook by his side, Durant was on course for one of those careers we know all too well. The Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Carmelo Anthony, Karl Malone careers — universal acclaim for a talented all-timer, but no season the player can claim for his own because every time, someone else is hoisting the championship trophy. Durant’s incredible 2014 MVP season was ended by Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs. Leonard eventually hoisted the Finals MVP trophy, and has joined the conversation of candidates for best player in the world status.
Durant’s injury in 2014-15 is critical here. This is the year that saw the Warriors rise to behemoth. They were hardly seen as invincible at that point, but it was clear they were a problem for the league. While Durant recovered from multiple foot injuries, the Warriors set the tone for a new era. We know what happened in Durant’s comeback season of 2015-16: they ripped the Thunder’s hearts out in Game 6 of the West finals, and finished the job in Game 7 ... only to be denied a repeat by LeBron’s singular greatness.
When Durant took his free agent meetings in the Hamptons a few weeks later, he was presented visions of what the rest of his career would look like. Boston offered a chance to grow with a rising roster. Miami offered a model that had worked for LeBron under different circumstances. San Antonio offered a chance to play under the best coach of this era and team up with a deferential superstar unlike his OKC co-star. The Clippers offered a home base of Los Angeles and a very different sort of point guard. Oklahoma City offered a continuation of the quest and familiar haunts.
The Warriors — and only the Warriors — offered guaranteed glory.
This isn’t to say that this championship was or is certain (though it’s close) or that Durant didn’t choose the easiest path to ultimate success (he did). But we all make choices and have individual priorities. Durant chose this type of glory. It would have meant more to the sports-watching public had he achieved it in OKC. It may have meant more to him, too. But it wasn’t close to assured with the Thunder. It was close to assured with the Warriors.
It’s like the old risk tolerance gambit you see on game shows: do you take 100 percent odds at a lot of money, or 50 percent odds of even more money? The guaranteed windfall usually wins out. Durant took near 100 percent odds at glory over less than 50 percent odds — maybe 20 percent, maybe lower — for slightly more meaningful glory. Durant took the surer bet at reaching basketball immortality.
It’s paying off.
The basketball world will grouse about Durant taking the easy way out, just as they did in 2012 when LeBron won his first title with Miami. When Durant and the Warriors win another one as our protagonist records memorable, glorious moments, the critiques will lessen. The complaints about how Durant orchestrated his career will continue to fade until they are footnotes, laments of a bygone era. Joining the Warriors allows us to appreciate Durant’s excellence better than we ever could before, because on the Warriors Durant is right in front of us all the time, in full, undeniable glory. The excellence we see is far more visceral and memorable than the mechanics he used to get here. We’ll remember the moments and eventually forget the Hamptons.
There is no right answer when it comes to Durant’s decision in 2016. It’s all preference. This — this, what we’re watching KD and the Warriors do to the Cavaliers and the world — is what Durant wanted. He’s getting exactly what he sought, whether you like it or not.