By Michael Kinney
Kevin Durant caused a massive ripple throughout the NBA and the world of sport Monday when he announced he was leaving Oklahoma City to go play for the Golden State Warriors. While it made fans in Oakland happy, it left a fan base in Oklahoma dispirited and worried about the future.
Durant had every right to choose to play for any team that wanted him. But he happened to choose the one team that would cause the most controversy.
Here are my three quick take-aways from the entire day.
- Alpha Males are a dying breed: No great player has ever won an NBA title by themselves. No matter what people think, Michael Jordan had a ton of help in Scottie Pippin, Horace Grant (first three titles), Dennis Rodman. The same with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan. They all had talent that surrounded them.
The difference is, it’s hard to imagine any of them leaving their team in their prime to join forces with the squad that had just punished them in the playoffs.
Don’t know if it started with Lebron James going to Miami, but the days of one player wanting to lead his team to an NBA championship are done. What made Durant’s decision surprising is it goes against every preconceived notion we had about what it ‘used’ to mean to be a superstar in the NBA.
Today’s players seemingly are no longer interested in being the alpha male who wants to carry their team by their sheer will and talent. This generation wants to be part of a collective and carry less of the burden on their shoulders.
I can’t say if that’s good or bad, but it feels like it’s here to stay for a while.
- Bubble burst: One of the greatest attributes of the Thunder organization and fans is that they protect their players. Whether it’s from the media or outside criticism, they have done a good job of shielding their stars (aka Durant and Russell Westbrook). That also may have been their biggest weakness.
When Durant said in The Players Tribune “I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone…,” I got the feeling he was referring not just to the Thunder but also the fans. In his eight years in Oklahoma City, Durant never had to face the firing squad or was ever called out in a major way. No matter what he did or how bad he played, the fans gave him unconditional support and never turned on him. The one time he got a negative headline, the entire state of Oklahoma came to his defense.
While with the Thunder he was in a protective bubble and he knew it would always be that way. When Oklahoma City lost to Golden State in the postseason by losing three straight games in which Durant played below par, he should have been raked him over the coals. Any other super star would have been. Instead, excuses were made for him, seemingly not wanting to hurt his feelings so he would come back to them.
Great players don’t get better that way. They have to face the firestorm of failure and everything that goes with it. That’s how they get tougher, develop thick skin and find out what they are made of. For eight years, Oklahoma City kept that from happening.
So when Durant says he needs to move out of his comfort zone, I took it as getting outside the bubble the Thunder had created for him.
B: You also have to question the relationship between Durant and Westbrook. While both publicly said they were like brothers, reports have surfaced that Durant didn’t think he could evolve in the same offense as Westbrook.
If Durant indeed is feeling that way, he is not taking into account his own flaws that cost the Thunder in the series vs. The Warriors.
- New direction for Thunder: Durant’s departure almost guarantees that Oklahoma City has to trade Russell Westbrook. The All-star guard has given no hints or public assertions that he wants to be with the franchise long term. With his contract up at the end of next season, they can’t afford to let him walk away for nothing as well.
However, it’s almost impossible to trade a player of Westbrook’s stature and get fair value. Teams such as the L.A. Lakers and New York Knicks won’t empty their roster because they assume they can sign Westbrook when he is a free agent. When the Thunder traded James Harden in the same situation, they found a willing partner. That may not be as easy this time around.
Westbrook could decide to stay and be the one to carry to franchise. Presti has surrounded him with a strong cast that easily gets to to the postseason where the Thunder can make noise. (A matchup with Golden State in 2017 playoffs would be epic ).
But can the Thunder take the chance that Westbrook wants to stay?
If not, Thunder are set to enter a new trajectory that doesn’t include competing for an NBA title every year. In other words, they are in a rebuilding phase, which had general manager Sam Presti reflecting on the past eight years.
“What we have been able to experience in Oklahoma City over the last several years is truly something remarkable,” Presti said. “As I said before, I don’t want to keep talking about the postseason accomplishments and the different things that have taken place, but it’s a really special thing to be a part of a team that walks into the season every year with a chance to win the title and with a group of guys that are passionate, that are hard-working, high-character, not perfect, you know, but putting ourselves in a position to have an enjoyable experience watching the team year in and year out. So we have to be grateful for that.”