The biggest question of the NBA off-season was answered Monday when Kevin Durant, one of the greatest athletes ever to hit unrestricted free agency in any sport, agreed to join the Golden State Warriors. Details of the contract have yet to be announced. Durant posted his decision on The Players’ Tribune website.
With the exception of LeBron James, few NBA free agents of Durant’s caliber have hit the open market with any realistic expectation that they might switch teams, making Durant the rare player whose decision could dramatically alter the league’s balance of power. The same holds true in other sports, where truly elite players rarely are able to decide their own team in the prime of their career.
Like so many things about the NBA, the scramble to sign the league’s most elite free agents has become something of a pop culture phenomenon in recent years, with players like Durant accepting suitors like so much eligible royalty. Durant — who grew up playing around Washington, D.C., and has spent nearly his entire professional career with the Oklahoma City Thunder, away from the hoopla of the coasts — held court with teams in the Hamptons, a location known more for its celebrity culture than for its basketball.
Durant’s multiple days of deliberation and meetings seemed like an eternity, given the nature of the NBA off-season, which is nothing if not frenzied. Teams are permitted to begin contacting players at 12:01 a.m. on July 1, and many deals are struck before most people wake up the next morning. But Durant had the luxury of setting his own timetable because of the uncommon nature of his free agency.
The Boston Celtics were reported to have brought New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady along to help woo Durant; the Red Sox slugger David Ortiz added his own entreaty on Twitter, writing, “Brady will tell u they don’t call Boston the City of Champions for nothing.” The Warriors’ delegation was reported to have included Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. And Steve Ballmer, the bombastic owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, reportedly cried during a meeting because he had become so emotional.
And yet, while nearly every franchise with anything approaching a maximum-salary slot was interested in Durant, he limited his meetings to a small group of teams that also included the San Antonio Spurs.
For the Warriors, Durant will fill a specific need as a player who is far more adept at getting to the basket than anyone on their current roster, a flaw exposed by both the Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, where perimeter defense and a great deal of physical contact seemed to shut down the team’s strategy that involved living and dying at the 3-point line. The threat Durant brings, of someone who can just as easily penetrate as he can knock down outside shots, would likely free things up a great deal for Thompson and Curry, who have rarely needed much help in that regard but could, almost terrifyingly, become more effective.
To accommodate Durant’s salary, the Warriors will have to make some corresponding roster moves that likely include renouncing their rights to the restricted free agents former UNC start Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli and possibly trading another high-priced player such as Andrew Bogut or Andre Iguodala. Bogut would potentially be a candidate to be released using the stretch provision, which lessens the impact on the salary cap. Once the dust settles, they may also be forced to part ways with some of their veteran free agents like Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights.
With depth having been a key part of the team’s “Strength in Numbers” approach, the various machinations involved in acquiring Durant could dramatically alter Coach Steve Kerr’s approach, but to have a lineup that features four All-NBA players in Curry, Thompson, Green and Durant is well worth the change. An adjustment period should be expected as Durant has never played in a system with as much ball movement and is unaccustomed to the team-first approach, in which Golden State’s players have often been asked to sacrifice personal statistics for the good of the group, but for Durant to sign with a team already loaded with stars is likely an indication that he is willing to adjust things in order to find the team success that has eluded him thus far.
Once the roster is given a chance to gel, the Warriors may not be a candidate to win 73 games again because of the depth and consistency needed for such a run, but they would seemingly be more suited for playoff-style basketball and would have to be considered heavy favorites to win the team’s second title in three seasons.
Still just 27 years old, Durant has been among the league’s premiere scoring threats and best all-around players since being taken with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft by the Seattle SuperSonics. The Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, becoming the Thunder, in his second season, and he won a scoring title in his third — his first of four in five seasons.
Durant’s talents run the gamut. Listed as a 6-foot-9 small forward, he is most likely closer to 7 feet, and is capable of playing anything from shooting guard to power forward on offense, while being both quick enough and strong enough to keep up with players ranging from point guards to power forwards on defense.
In Oklahoma City, Durant has been paired with Russell Westbrook, another game-changing talent, forming one of the most potent one-two punches the game has seen. But the team has failed to capitalize on its stars, making just one appearance in the N.B.A. finals — a five-game loss to James and the Miami Heat in 2012. In three other seasons, the Thunder bowed out in the Western Conference finals.
This past season, the Thunder came tantalizingly close to winning it all, taking a three-games-to-one lead in the Western Conference finals against the Warriors before eventually losing the seven-game series and furthering a widely held belief that Oklahoma City has talent to spare but tends to crumble when the pressure is highest.
That reputation somewhat obscures how effective the Thunder were for four games at devising a game plan to slow down Golden State, the winner of a record 73 regular-season games. Had the Thunder advanced to the finals, they might have found themselves favored against the Cavaliers. Instead, both Durant and the team faced hard questions about their collective futures, with several years left in Durant’s prime, but with his 30s rapidly approaching.
Now that Durant has made his decision — just like every other free agent, he will not be allowed to actually sign a contract until July 7 — the teams that were gunning for him are free to pursue the remaining free agents to bolster their rosters.