Why it’s not (entirely) fair to blame Durant for joining the Warriors

Martin B Roar Rookie

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    Three days into the 2016 free agency period, Kevin Durant gave up a potential five year/$150 million contract to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    He had been there for nine years. He signed a short-term deal with the Golden State Warriors, who just came off an historic 73–9 season. Considered the biggest and most divisive free agency move since LeBron James to Miami in 2010, many media members and fans considered this a weak move. But why is it considered weak? What is deemed as a ‘weak move’?

    The popular perspective that solely blames Durant for leaving OKC for Golden State is taken in a more traditional way. It focuses on Durant’s personal characteristics. It focuses on his mental fortitude and competitiveness compared to past sporting triumphs. The main points used against Durant for joining the Warriors are as follows.

    • They already have three perennial NBA All-Stars (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green);
    • In 2015, The Warriors won the championship and Curry won his first MVP award;
    • In 2016, the team set the NBA record for most wins in a season (73–9), and Curry wins the NBA’s first unanimous MVP award, his second consecutive;
    • and in the 2016 Western Conference Playoffs, Durant’s Thunder were leading 3–1 against the Warriors and lost.

    Considering this context, Durant joining an already successful team who have proven they can win without his talents is seen as non-competitive. It is seen that he doesn’t possess the mental fortitude to bounce back and face the Warriors he was so close to beating, next season. Instead of competing against a formidable opponent, he chose to join them  –  eliminating the competition to win a championship, ultimately taking an easier route to achieve his goal and is therefore considered a weak move.

    We then look back through NBA history, with former greats referencing their experiences 30 years ago, highlighting that in previous eras great players would never leave their own team and join a rival to increase their chances of winning. For the traditional fan, the argument is more centred around Durant’s personality and how it compares with past figureheads of the sport, such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – two iconic personalities that resonated with the everyday fan by facing tough competition and adversity, and finding a way to win.

    Acknowledging adversity is a key point in blaming Durant. Historically, society has taught us about adversity and its importance in life and survival. Stories of one character’s lone adventure to face an impossible challenge are told and retold to our younger generations as a cautionary tale to better prepare them for the real world.

    From biblical figures such as David against Goliath, to superheroes like Batman, society covets adversarial narratives because it is what people relate to most.

    Michael Jordan Tall

    (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

    From Jordan’s triumph over the Pistons to Kobe’s 2010 Finals win over the Celtics, these victories over adversity are revered en masse by NBA fans. With Durant joining the Warriors, there has been little adversity faced en route to winning his first championship, contradicting what society has taught throughout history – getting what you want is hard and you have to face tough challenges to get it.

    So yes, when looking at the move from a more traditional perspective there is an argument in purely blaming Durant for joining the Warriors, and the majority of basketball fans agree. But let’s consider Durant’s move in a different light for a moment, and maybe we can acknowledge his game a little more without the vilification.

    Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives past Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant

    (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

    One of the main arguments against blaming Durant for leaving OKC, is to look at the move in a different context. Imagine the CEO of Samsung was offered the top position at Apple. Apple is currently achieving more success and is performing at the top of its industry with Samsung trailing.

    If Samsung’s CEO went to Apple, it would be considered a very good career choice. No scrutiny, no cupcake signs, nothing. So considering Durant’s move as a career choice, which it basically is, we would call it a good decision for him.

    He’s moving to a place that’s achieved more and can sustain their success with him. He’s also worked hard for an organisation where he didn’t choose to work for, for nine years, and this is the first time he has been given an opportunity to work somewhere else of his choosing.

    Surely he’s earned the right to explore his options as we would expect if we were in the same position.

    If we were to explore our options after nine years, one of our main criteria in joining a new organisation is culture. How does the organisation operate day-to-day? How do people interact with one another? Is there a sense of purpose to achieve a collective goal?

    We would surely join an organisation with an excellent team culture where everyone loves working together and has fun without internal tension.

    For Durant’s case, that is exactly what the Warriors have shown game-to-game. With the beloved Steve Kerr leading a hyper-paced free-flowing offense with a versatile team-oriented defence, the team plays with a certain joyful energy that is rarely seen on the basketball court and Kevin Durant just wanted a piece of that, like any other person looking to make a career move.

    It’s not his fault that he chose to work for a successful and culturally-rich organisation, we all would. So, if we consider Durant’s move outside of an emotionally-charged sporting context, there is an argument that the Warriors’ organisational management is more responsible for attracting him in the first place.

    Finally, let’s not forget the fundamental factor that made this move even possible – the unprecedented salary cap spike that settled during the latest collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the league and the players’ union.

    The $24 million rise in cap space gave the Warriors the perfect opportunity to create room by trading Andrew Bogut and not re-signing Harrison Barnes. It’s clear that the league is also responsible for Durant’s decision because if the league and the union agreed to a smoothing of the salary cap over a longer period, this situation could have been avoided and competitive balance would remain (somewhat) intact.

    After considering Kevin Durant’s decision outside of popular traditional perspective, there is a valid argument that there were other key factors that encouraged Durant to join Golden State and it’s not fair to solely blame him.

    It was the league’s decision-making that resulted in the cap spike that created the opportunity for Golden State, Golden State’s astute management and culture that made the opportunity possible, and Kevin Durant’s choice to take up the rare opportunity of historically greener pastures.

    Nevertheless, sport is all about entertainment and emotion, and it’s difficult for us to take emotion out of opinion, especially when it impacts our team as well as the entire sport. While Durant and the Warriors may have turned the league into chaos, let’s at least stop and acknowledge the game of basketball being played at its highest level again.

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