Nick Wass/Associated Press
Save for the delivery, a lot of what Durant said was justified. His departure this summer is not a foregone conclusion. He may be keeping everyone in limbo because even he doesn’t know what’s next.
Even if that lack of a decision has the Golden State Warriors in a precarious spot, saying outright that he is gone doesn’t help them win. So while it’s fair for reporters to do their jobs and question him on his plans, it’s also fair that Durant doesn’t want to let that dynamic get in the way of putting another trophy on his mantle.
Ethan Strauss, whom Durant called out by name, wrote in The Athletic:
Let us be frank, with the caveat that the choice lives inside the head of one guy who can and does change his mind: Insiders around the league think Kevin Durant is leaving the Warriors for the Knicks. Most people within the Warriors either think Durant is leaving or profess not to know one way or the other. His teammates recognize this reality, can handle it and merely want one outcome: Win a championship, absent too much drama.
Whether Durant stays or goes, the goal until then is obvious, both for Durant and the Warriors: a three-peat. And in spite of everything that’s happened off the court this season, Golden State is best-positioned to win the title.
For Durant, a potential third title and NBA Finals MVP and his regular-season MVP for 2013-14 headline a long list of accolades that put him among the greatest, most accomplished, most talented players ever.
He’s on pace to finish this season with over 2,200 points, and if he scores that prolifically for the next five seasons, he’ll surpass Kobe Bryant (33,643 points) and Michael Jordan (32,292) on the all-time scoring list. If the 30-year-old can put up 2,200 points per season over the next eight, he’ll have scored the most points ever. Durant is an all-time great player with the resume to prove it.
Noah Graham/Getty Images
Unfortunately for Durant, there’s a sentiment among some fans that what he has is still not enough.
Durant had to sacrifice his chance to win as the man in Oklahoma City. He latched on to the Warriors dynasty in 2016 because it gave him the best chance to win rings—and not only to win rings but also to beat LeBron James, something he will have needed to do in order to punch a ticket to the NBA pantheon of greats. Greatness is defined by titles, after all.
Fair or not, Durant joined the Warriors because he needed them to win titles, the optics of which may make it impossible for him to get the clout he deserves. This is, has been and will be Stephen Curry‘s dynasty.
There’s some merit to holding Durant to such impossible standards, but it’s also what may push him into taking the massive risk of walking away from the greatest team ever constructed. Winning a title on his own may be the only way for him to cement his career work. It’s all he has left to do. And based on his play this year, he’s more than capable.
The box-score numbers speak for themselves: 27.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and a career-high 6.0 assists per game while shooting 50.8 percent from the field, 37.2 percent from beyond the arc and 90.5 percent on free throws. He’s putting up MVP numbers in every way, and it shows in the win/loss column: The Warriors have what would be a league-best net rating of 11.6 with Durant on the floor without their original Big Three of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
Moving to a new (major) market, perhaps one where he could revive a once-great, long decaying, franchise from despair, would make his case even stronger. This is his legacy, we’re talking about. The narrative writes itself, people.
Mary Altaffer/Associated Press
If Durant does leave Golden State, he would cause a fissure in the NBA landscape, not only creating a legit contender wherever he unpacks his bags but also destabilizing the Warriors as the obvious favorites and begging the question: Do they have enough to emerge from a far more level playing field?
If it were based on their performance this season, the answer would be an emphatic no. This campaign, the quartet of Durant, Curry, Thompson and Green has a 13.6 net rating, third-best in the league (minimum 500 minutes). Remove Durant from the mix, and the Curry-Thompson-Green trio has a negative 4.9 net rating. You read that right…minus-4.9. Teams with net ratings that bad are fighting for a top-five pick, not a fifth straight trip to the Finals.
Sure, the combo of Curry, Thompson, Green has only played 43 minutes, and we all know how good Golden State’s core has been without Durant. The Warriors have a top-three player in the world (maybe better) flanked by two All-Stars, a zen master coach, a wizard GM and an owner willing to spend. By the on/off splits, Curry’s impact slightly outweighs Durant’s, so it’s not like the Warriors would be left without a revolutionary offensive initiator. Curry’s true shooting percentage, normally an elite 66.4, is down to a below-league average 53.6 during those minutes, a trend that simply won’t sustain.
The Warriors, without Durant, would continue to be one of the league’s elite teams, but whether they can win another title without Durant becomes a big question.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The rest of the league isn’t waiting around. Young and exciting teams like the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz are nearing their primes. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid are building toward greatness in the East. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and 76ers have taken big, title-contending risks by adding Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler, respectively. Anthony Davis could be on a contender in a little over four months. LeBron James, James Harden and Damian Lillard aren’t going to lie down.
The league is not getting any easier, and taking a giant step back, or even stagnating, could be the crack that makes the dynasty crumble.
The Durant-shaped hole would be tough to fill, but there are ways for the Warriors to rejuvenate themselves for sustained success as Curry, Thompson and Green pass the apex of their respective primes.
Best-case scenario, Curry elevates his game to the unanimous MVP status he once occupied. The Warriors would regain some cap space so they could retain Thompson and Green. Maybe they can bring back DeMarcus Cousins, who could feasibly re-sign. If they can get off what will be the expiring contracts of Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, they’ll have space to bolster their core with younger, more productive players.
But no matter how you shake it, their pre-Durant, 73-win success would be nearly impossible to replicate.
In November, Green reportedly told Durant, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports: “We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave.” Three years ago, that might have been true. One title and the winningest record in NBA history back that up.
There was a time when Durant needed the Warriors more than they needed him. He needed those titles, and he needed to hit those daggers in LeBron’s eye to acquire the prerequisites for all-time NBA greatness.
Now, the script has flipped, and it’s the Warriors who need Durant, not vice versa.
Follow Will on Twitter @wontgottlieb