There’s nothing easy about becoming one of the greatest basketball players in the world.
And there’s nothing easy about winning an NBA championship. Nothing. No matter how much talent is on the roster.
When the Boston Celtics assembled their Big Three in 2007, they were pushed to two Game 7s and lost a total of 10 playoff games on their path to a championship that season. When Shaquille O’Neal was at his peak in 2000 and Kobe Bryant emerged as a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player, the Lakers still faced elimination twice before they reached the NBA Finals.
And, of course, ask LeBron James how easy things went that first year in Miami, when the chorus of outraged fans took so much pleasure in his shortcomings in the NBA Finals.
LeBron, of course, is the template for modern-day superstar free agency, a player fully aware of his ability to shift the landscape and willing to prioritize his individual desires. Maybe Durant would be less inclined to take this bold step if LeBron’s move to Miami had not worked out so well.
Still, Durant is a pioneer in that we’ve never seen an MVP-caliber player join a team that just knocked him out of the playoffs in a hard-fought series. LeBron never faced the Heat in the postseason, Shaq hadn’t played the Lakers before he joined them in 1996. LaMarcus Aldridge did join the Spurs a year after losing to them in the playoffs but (A) that series ended in five games, hardly enough time to build up any animosity and (B) there’s no such thing as a “contentious” series with the Spurs anyway. (Seriously, when was the last time there was bad blood between the teams after a Spurs series?)
The risk for Durant is that there will be little credit for victory and a torrent of Crying Jordans the likes of which the world has never seen should the Warriors lose. But what characterizes every great player is they are unafraid of failure.
Still, the odds are stacked in favor of the Warriors as long as they avoid injuries and Draymond Green suspensions. Don’t worry about them finding enough touches for everyone. Durant already did just fine playing with the NBA leader in usage rate, Russell Westbrook. The Thunder were last in the NBA in passes, while the Warriors were sixth, with Golden State moving the ball 57 more times per game. And if the ball didn’t end up in the hands of the best shooter in the game it often went to the second-best shooter, so it’s no surprise the Warriors led the league in assists. They’re democratic enough to have had four different leading scorers in the last two games of the Western Conference finals and first two games of the NBA Finals. Now there’s Durant, there to take all the shots that opponents were previously willing to concede to Harrison Barnes.
If anyone’s legacy could take a hit it’s that of Stephen Curry, who could possibly win multiple NBA championships without winning the Bill Russell Finals MVP award. That Curry not only signed off on the recruitment of Durant but helped with the pitch shows he isn’t placing his individual place in NBA history above the possibilities of this team. He’s always shown a willingness to let Klay Thompson or whoever else has it going have their shine.
Coincidentally, Curry’s last glorious moment of the 2016 playoffs came at Durant’s expense, when Curry scored 36 points to finish off the Thunder in Game 7. Then LeBron lorded over Curry in the Finals, his new signature shoes were ridiculed on the Internet and the latest social media sport became pointing out how Curry’s $12 million salary in 2016-17 will pale in comparison to everyone from Timofey Mozgov to, yes, Harrison Barnes.
The contract talk overlooked the circumstances of the past, when the Warriors gambled on Curry coming off an injury-plagued 2011-12 season in which he played 26 games and Curry sought financial security. And it ignored the impact of this contract on the future: The best way to make up for the money he lost on this contract is to sign a five-year, maximum contract with the Warriors under terms he could not get anywhere else. There’s much more certainty that Curry will be with the Warriors long-term than Westbrook will be with the Thunder, which could be a factor in Durant’s decision to head to the Bay Area.
We’re still waiting for Durant to expound on the reasons behind his choice. He spent most of his post on The Players Tribune expressing his affinity and appreciation for Oklahoma City.
We do know what the Warriors sold him on: a chance at greatness, the possibility of a dynasty. They didn’t promise him it would be easy.