The year is 2015, and Kevin Durant’s foot is refusing to cooperate. Just a year prior, he was giving his acceptance speech for what was supposed to be the first of many MVP awards. Now, he sits at home, enjoying the NBA playoffs just like the rest of us: as a spectator.
Last season’s NBA MVP has played in just 27 games the entire season as a result of several distinct, nagging foot problems. Without him, teammate Russell Westbrook claimed the league scoring title, but failed to lead Oklahoma City to a playoff berth, losing a tie-breaker to the New Orleans Pelicans for the 8th spot. Moments like this one are transformative. Since their 2012 Finals run, it’s been extremely difficult for this budding team to remain healthy enough to compete. They’ve yet to reach their full potential, but one has to wonder if, at this rate, they ever will.
Such thoughts rack the brain of the lanky scoring phenom. He doesn’t deserve to be in this position. He deserves to be on the court, potentially winning another MVP award, and leading his Thunder teammates into the teeth of the NBA postseason. In just a couple short months, he will get the chance to play again; fully healthy this time. However, we have to ponder just how much all this unwarranted frustration has altered Durant’s mentality. After all, his contract expires at the end of the 2016 season. Durant’s demeanor to this point in his career has suggested nothing but love for the city of Oklahoma City, and a desire to don the blue and orange for as long as possible. But since those days of glory and loyalty-pledging, Durant has gone through some very dark moments.
And moments like those are transformative.
Durant’s 2016 Free Agency decision is, for all intents and purposes, the stuff of sports legend. He infamously joined the Golden State Warriors after he and his Thunder blew a 3-1 series lead to them in the Western Conference Finals. Oklahoma City was left high and dry after coming a game away from the NBA Finals, and Golden State was considered by many to be the de-facto NBA champs for years to come.
Looking back from a modern perspective, both statements have their own sense of credence. Durant’s old franchise has experienced a snowball effect of changes that have put them in rebuilding mode going into this season. Golden State won multiple championships with Durant, but he only stayed in the Bay Area for 3 seasons before heading to Brooklyn. At first glance, it seems like his once league-altering choice didn’t amount to as much as everyone thought it would.
However, when you try to conjure a world in your mind that involves Durant sticking it out in Oklahoma City, you begin to realize just how many different shockwaves this seismic choice sent throughout the basketball world. It changed the course of careers, franchises, and left a mark on the sport that no other decision will soon eclipse.
And it’s only been 3 short years.
The OKC Angle
When evaluating the impact of Durant’s “Next Chapter,” we have to begin with the team who employed him for 9 seasons: the OKC Thunder (if you want to get technical, his first season was spent with the Supersonics, but that lone season was more of a confirmation of Durant’s talent than one where he truly impacted the league’s landscape). With Westbrook as the team’s lone superstar, the following season turned into a revenge tour for the freakishly athletic Point Guard. He broke countless records, particularly those related to the triple-double, en route to an MVP award. Despite the success of their star player, the Thunder fell in the first round, and were forced to watch as Durant waltzed to his first title on the Warriors.
That offseason OKC made deals to acquire Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, which had some projecting them as one of the Western Conference’s top dogs. Of course, everyone compared the trade for George as a “replacement,” for Durant, which reopened the wounds of Thunder fans everywhere. However, it also emboldened them, restoring their faith that they could return to the elite level they were at when Durant was still in town, and perhaps knock off the almighty Warriors in the process. Unfortunately, that was not how things were destined to go for the small-market standouts. OKC was ousted in the first round in 2018 and 2019, but many thought they would simply retool and try their luck once again in the 2020 campaign. However, a player personally victimized by Durant and the Warriors had other ideas.
The Leonard Angle
To truly grasp just how much Durant’s choice changed the league, we need to look at each storyline as they intersect. After all, many of them are dependent on one another, and they’re all dependent on Durant heading west in 2016. Prior to the 2017 playoffs, Kawhi Leonard was one of basketball’s most confusing enigmas. He was a 2-time DPOY, and had even earned a spot on the All-NBA First team in back-to-back seasons. After Tim Duncan’s sudden retirement, Leonard was the incumbent heir to the San Antonio throne. He looked the part, sounded the part, and certainly played the part putting up a career best 25.5 PPG in 2017. The playoffs were an even more impressive outing, as he led the Spurs to defeats of the Memphis Grizzlies and upstart Houston Rockets.
This set up a matchup with the Warriors in the WCF, and although Golden State was favored, the Spurs seemed like the only team that could compete with the Dubs, who were undefeated to that point in the playoffs. The Spurs opened the series with a bang, jumping out to a 20+ point lead fairly early. Could it be? Could the Warriors be defeated, even after adding a superstar to their 73-9 team? Could the invulnerability assigned to them by so many prove to be a myth?
We never got the answer to those questions. With 7:55 remaining in the 3rd quarter and San Antonio leading by 21 points, Leonard dribbled into the corner and hoisted a jumper while being guarded by Warriors Center Zaza Pachulia. Leonard didn’t have room to land, as Pachulia slid his foot under Leonard’s and ran to the Warriors bench as soon as he saw Kawhi was hurt. Leonard was in visible pain, and the Warriors stormed back to take Game 1, and later swept the series with Leonard sidelined. This began a brutal cycle of injury and distrust between Leonard and the Spurs organization that ended in their separation prior to the 2019 season. Kawhi was shipped to Toronto, where he went on to celebrate his second NBA title on the Warriors home floor in their final game in Oracle Arena.
But where was Durant? How could he not have been enough to stop Leonard and the Raptors from imposing their will on the defending champs?
Well, Durant was out with a leg injury, in a terribly similar way to how Leonard was helpless combat the Warriors just 2 seasons prior.
However, this eerie comparison was only made possible by the Raps making it out of the Eastern Conference. For years, the East had been ruled by a lone player, one who had a particular vice grip on Toronto so strong it became the subject of perpetual Internet trolling. That player had traded in his East dominance for a chance to bask in the Los Angeles sunshine, and that decision was heavily influenced by the dominance of none other than Durant and the Warriors.
The LeBron Angle
LeBron James and Kevin Durant have always had a sort of career tether to one another. Since Durant’s Thunder became elite in the early 2010s, there has always been a sense that the 2 could meet in the NBA Finals, and Durant was one of the few forwards in the league close to James’ level. After James and the Heat dispatched Durant’s Thunder in the 2012 Finals, OKC struggled mightily to field a fully healthy team. When 2016 rolled around and the pair experienced opposite sides of blown 3-1 leads against the Warriors, their connection was further strengthened, albeit with LeBron being cast into the spotlight and Durant into the shadows.
LeBron was on top of the basketball world after knocking off the 73-9 Warriors, and the rest of the summer was supposed to be essentially a victory lap for the Finals MVP. However, Durant’s decision instantly became the biggest thing in basketball upon its announcement, leaving the Cavs’ incredible season as an afterthought.
The 2017 season further heightened the tension between Cleveland and Golden State, with both blazing through their respective conference playoffs to set up their 3rd straight Finals bout. Despite the Warriors being the better team on paper, many believed Cleveland had a chance to pull off yet another historic upset. The basketball community’s faith in James had never been higher, and most believed that despite the relative formality of the rest of the postseason, the Finals would be a true nail-biter.
Unfortunately, this proved to be a fantasy. The conclusions everyone had jumped to when Durant first joined Golden State turned out to be true, as no team came remotely close to stopping them in the postseason. They ran through Cleveland, sending them packing 4-1, completing a 16-1 postseason run. The greatness of Golden State’s roster truly began to set in, and the future outlook for the title picture seemed bleak.
Additionally, the title of “League’s Best Player,” was up for grabs for the first time in nearly a decade. Durant was dominant in the championship series, and hit several clutch jumpers that made a huge difference in deciding the outcome. James had not underperformed, in fact he had been dazzling. However, Durant had been arguably better, and the outcome was overwhelmingly against The King. For the first time in quite some time, James looked human.
The 2018 Finals were just as bad, if not worse. This time, James was swept in the Finals for the second time, and although he had put together one of the most impressive individual playoff runs of all time, it appeared these Warriors were simply too much for him. His supporting cast on the Cavaliers was subpar, and he was no longer capable of willing his team to the championship. When his contract expired that offseason, James took his talents to Los Angeles, confirming a suspicion basketball fans across the world had believed for months. The tether between Durant and James was cut, mostly because the former’s choice had put the latter in an impossible decision.
The East was finally free of LeBron’s dominance, and the entire NBA was changed as a result of his change in scenery. If it weren’t for the unhappiness of James’ elite sidekick, though, he may still reside in Northeast Ohio.
The Irving Angle
Finally, we come to Kyrie Irving, the most modern connection to Durant. The pair joined the Brooklyn Nets together on the first day of Free Agency, and it was clear that the main driving force behind Durant heading to Brooklyn was playing with Irving. From 2021 onward, the duo will likely propel Brooklyn to championship contention for the first time since moving to the Big Apple. However, Kyrie may not have been in the position to join his 2016 Olympic pal in Brooklyn if not for his choice from earlier that summer.
Irving’s trade demand in the 2017 offseason was one of the most surprising revelations of the summer. Despite their demolition in the championship series, they had won the championship just a season prior, and Irving had flourished alongside James, despite him dominating most possessions as well as all positive media attention. This is the conundrum all of James’s teammates undergo. Due to LeBron’s greatness, he often receives the benefit of the doubt in all almost scenarios, leaving his teammates to shoulder the brunt of the blame. When they win, it’s not as large of a concern. Sure, it’s nice to be properly acknowledged for your contributions, but in the minds of most hungry NBA talents, nothing beats winning titles.
It’s when the wins dry up that things become dicey.
After winning the 2016 title at just 24 years old, Irving found himself in a grossly enviable position. Not only had he accomplished something most players strive their entire career for, but he had done it while looking like the best player on the court for parts of the series. The latter half of that statement is what caused a snag in the Kyrie-Cavs relationship. When Durant and the Warriors steamrolled Cleveland in the 2017 Finals, the young floor general felt like he was destined for more. He wanted to be more than a small bright spot in the gargantuan shadow of James. Thus, he asked for a trade out of Cleveland, setting the basketball world aflame as a result. Kyrie ended up in Boston, where his teammates fell in 7 games to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Had Irving played, Boston may have been Eastern Conference champs, and he would have forever carved his name in history as the man who abandoned the king before dethroning him.
Instead, Cleveland limped to the Finals on the back of James, with a supporting cast partially comprised of pieces they received for Isaiah Thomas, the star Boston gave up to acquire Irving. After LeBron went west, Irving and the Celtics were favored to represent the East in the 2019 Finals. Some even gave them a shot to knock off the Warriors, which would surely launch Kyrie into a new tier of elite recognition. Unfortunately, Boston’s season more or less imploded. Chemistry came at a premium, largely because Irving expected his teammates to bow to him the way he had been forced to bow to James. He let the imperfections he had developed as a sidekick affect his place as a leader, and that was a blow from which the Celtics never recovered.
Despite pledging his loyalty to the 17-time champs at the dawn of the season, the general consensus was that Irving would be signing elsewhere in the 2019 offseason. New York was considered his most likely destination, but which NYC team he would choose was up in the air. Eventually, he selected the Brooklyn Nets as his team of choice, usurping D’Angelo Russell as the starting Point Guard.
Arguably the most impactful part of Irving’s choice, though, was how it determined the decision of another disgruntled superstar.
The Durant Angle
Finally, we discuss the incredibly complex individual who set off this cataclysmic chain reaction: Kevin Durant himself. Despite all the immense side effects of his decision on other players, no one had their career altered by Durant’s choice as, well, Durant. After news broke on Independence Day 2016 that Durant would be joining the already lethal Golden State Warriors, it was apparent that his life would never be the same. He faced perhaps the most visceral backlash in the history of sports. Hundreds of orange and blue Durant jerseys were burned to signify their owners’ new disdain for a player they once adored. Following the public response, Durant, in a moment of sheer panic, allegedly asked his agent:
“How the f— could you let me do this to my life?”
In the moment, we all wondered if the league could potentially be in peril. Would ratings crater as a result of this parity-crippling move? Would the fans furious with Durant ever tune in to another game? Would anyone but Golden State have a chance?
Luckily, all these queries had positive responses, and when we look back on this league-changing choice, we will remember how it altered the life of one of basketball’s greats, rather than how shocked and disappointed we all were in the moment.
In Durant’s first season in Golden State, it appeared all our worst fears had been realized. The Warriors were unstoppable. They swept the entirety of the Western Conference before dispatching the Cavaliers in the Finals 4-1, making them the first team since the 2001 Lakers to lose just one game in the postseason. Durant was dominant in the closing series, putting up 35 points a night and outplaying LeBron James. Durant claimed his first Finals MVP award, and the immediate future of the league looked bleak.
Well, for everyone apart from Warriors fans.
The following campaign provided little in the way of relief for fans opposed to Golden State’s dominance. They may have been challenged slightly more than they had in 2017, but they swept the Irving-less Cavaliers to claim their second straight title, with Durant earning a second, slightly controversial Finals MVP over Steph Curry.
Just like that, the course of Durant’s career had changed. He had gone from being lost in the shuffle of the Western Conference to a 2-time champion. In order to become a hero, he had to make a choice that would undoubtedly cause the world to vilify him. The results were undeniable, but the cost had been almost unbearable.
The effect Durant’s decision had on his overall legacy is difficult to gauge. Some consider his titles to be worth less than they would be if he had won them in Oklahoma City. Others see his dominant Finals performances and individual hardware and believe that there should be no reason he isn’t considered a top 20 basketball player of all time already. It all depends on perspective.
Durant’s injury in the 2019 playoffs allowed Leonard (who was injured by a low-cost player the Warriors were forced to sign because they spent so much money on Durant) to knock the Dubs off as the league’s best. After a tumultuous season, Durant chose to leave the Bay Area in order to team up with Irving who had been unhappy with the Boston Celtics. In 2017, Boston took the Cavaliers to 7 games without their star PG, but fell to a dominant LeBron James, who decided the workload in Cleveland was too much. He bolted to Los Angeles, and his looming presence on the Lakers deterred Leonard from signing there in free agency. In the end, the 2019 Finals MVP only agreed to join the rival Clippers if they could poach Paul George away from the Oklahoma City Thunder, sending Durant’s original team into a rebuilding period indirectly brought on by his decision to leave them 3 summers earlier.
There are many instances of domino effects in sports; plenty of free agency decisions have caused consequences that are very difficult to connect without looking beneath the surface. However, no such decision is as far reaching as the web of the Durantula.