Basketball Decisions

“That’s what it is for me. It’s a basketball decision. I’m looking forward to the future.”

Kevin Durant

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Once Kevin told us that his decision to choose to make either San Francisco or Oklahoma City would be a ‘basketball decision,’ we should’ve known.  Though I was more suspicious than most, like almost everyone else I woke up on July 4th and was shocked.

We all expected Durant to return to OKC, just as we all expected the Thunder to have a ring by now – at least I did.

The Thunder were the second youngest team in NBA history to contend for the trophy for the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the Finals.  In 4 years later, they haven’t made it back.  The team has improved, though injuries, trades, signings, and the ebb and flow of contenders across the league stunted their growth.  This was supposed to be a dynasty.  It wasn’t.

The team’s future is hazy, even in a universe in which Kevin Durant recommits.  In 2017, Russell Westbrook’s free-agency shakes the foundations of the seemingly league-wide assumption that Durant left a team poised to contend years into the future.  Even if Westbrook did return, his knees are going to give eventually, and frankly, many are surprised that they have yet to do so.  No player in recent history most resembles Westbrook than the 2011 MVP Derrick Rose – now, both he and the Bulls are in sorry shape.

The ‘dynastic’ criticism of Durant’s choice to leave OKC further buckles under serious scrutiny with the Ibaka trade.  Yes, Sam Presti made a ‘good deal,’ but the short-term implications are unsettling.  Ibaka didn’t have the greatest regular season this year, but in the Western Conference Finals, Ibaka was a vital cog in the ‘Mega Death’ lineup which represented the first time that their Death Lineup had been stifled.  Ibaka had the highest +/- of any qualifying player in the series, with a 5.4 average positive impact.  Durant had a 5.0 average positive impact by comparison.

thunder 4

Of the defining 4 pieces that formed the “Thunder Dynasty” that never was, 2 are gone, one is up for contract within a year, and the other is Kevin Durant, who, meanwhile, looks at a Warriors team whose super-star core is locked up under contract for years to come.  To make matters worse for the Thunder, if Russell Westbrook were to skip town a year down the line with Kevin Durant resigned to OKC, the city’s market size and the limited appeal to an NBA star makes it phenomenally different to convince free agents to commit to the team to replace Westbrook.

In the short-term, the acquisitions of Oladipo, Ilyasova, and Sabonis are nice, but hardly game-changing.  They will develop over time, and, conversely, Ibaka will wane; but with so much made about the league-wide “win now” mentality, the move is unconvincing in terms of the Thunder’s immediate contention.

For Durant, immediacy is a must.  Westbrook’s knees are a significant question mark in terms of his long-term efficacy, but the stress fractures in Durant’s foot is also a cause for concern:

“I was scared, I was worried,” Durant says. “Will I be back again? Will I be who I am? A year ago people were telling me my career might be over and I listened to that stuff. 

Kevin Durant on foot injury: ‘I was scared, I was worried’, SI Wire

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 12.23.00 AMDurant’s physical profile is completely unique to the NBA: 7′ tall, long limbed, and a meager 240 lbs, he faced questions going into the NBA Draft, and has faced other questions since then.  Durant had a healthy season last year, but over the course of the prior season he underwent 3 foot surgeries and played only 27 games.  He should be fine now, but the same athleticism and unique physical build that allowed Durant to be a dominant force in the NBA, may eventually be his undoing.  No one knows that better than Durant.

To those who question, mock, or scrutinize Kevin’s decision to sign with the Warriors, I suggest that they re-evaluate the situation: OKC is in an incredibly tenuous situation, while the Warriors projected to dominate the league even without Kevin Durant.  With Durant, the Warriors are monolithically talented, and project to maintain their dominance for years to come.  The Spurs are aging, LeBron is 31 and on the decline, and no other NBA teams appear poised to emerge as elite contenders, particularly in regards to this monstrous Warriors team.

2157889318001_5021920704001_5021806439001-vsAnd, of course there’s the Thunder; an under-recognized aspect of Durant’s decision is that it utterly cripples the team that seemed most likely to knock out the Warriors over the next few seasons.  The Cavaliers barely won, and needed a whole slew of variables to tip in their favor to do so.  The Thunder, however, dominated the Warriors, only to collapse to the same late-game/ late-series woes that have defined the team for years.  Billy Donovan changed a lot of things, but in the end, he didn’t change the Thunder’s tendency to stumble at the finish line.  Perhaps if he had then Kevin Durant’s departure wouldn’t have been the last, and most fatal, among the many stumbling blocks which the team has failed to maneuver past.

Though Durant’s decision was a “basketball decision,” the Machiavellian reality of the Thunder’s impending collapse couldn’t have been unrecognized by Durant and the people around him.  With Durant, the Thunder were a stretch to win a championship in years to come, while the Warriors seemed all but assured to win at least another one or two.  Without Durant, the Thunder are out of contention, while the Warriors are fearsome in a way that only a 73-win team that just added one of the league’s perennial MVP candidates – the most prolific scorer in the NBA over the last 8 years – can be.

The Warriors are all but assured to win a championship over the next few years.  That means that Kevin Durant is all but assured to win a ring too.

These are only a few of the defining aspects of Kevin Durant’s decision; it wasn’t a Russell Westbrook decision, nor a Nike decision, nor a short-cut decision, nor a loyalty (or lack thereof) decision.  Durant wanted to win, and now he will.  NBA basketball is more complicated than any one of those singular dynamics – Durant made a basketball decision.

And he made the right one.

By Chris Axmann