The Toronto Raptors completed a Cinderella story of sorts in this season’s playoffs. They shook off their ‘choker’ tags, reversed a 0-2 deficit against the Milwaukee Bucks, and dethroned the Golden State Warriors. Kawhi Leonard was their Prince Charming, leading them to the Promised Land.
As they rode off into the sunset the Warriors took stock of their losses, especially on their injury list. Klay Thompson tore his ACL in game 6, and the NBA’s pantomime villain Kevin Durant suffered a torn Achilles in game 5. A harsh sense of schadenfreude surrounded the Durant injury. After all, the prevailing opinion was that he had left the Oklahoma City Thunder to join a 73-9 superteam and ease to multiple titles.
Durant didn’t deserve the gleeful reaction many – including the Toronto crowd – had to his injury. Playing hard to win a third championship, Durant had only just recovered from a calf injury when he went down. Besides, who wouldn’t want to play for the team with the best chance of winning several NBA titles? Yet some argued that Durant took the easy option and should’ve instead stayed with Russell Westbrook to fight the Behemoths in Oracle Arena. Questions of the validity of Durant’s victories and of his lasting legacy will grate with him no doubt. Which begs another question: Should Durant leave the Warriors for pastures new?
Kevin Durant’s talent is undeniable. It’s the reason why he’s in such demand, despite his Achilles injury. He is one of the best shooters in the game, he’s long, athletic, and defensively sound. He’s also opinionated.
He has had multiple incidents and utterances with the media over queries about his impending free agency. He has grown weary of the media narrative around him. Far more self-aware than any regular pantomime villain, Durant may decide enough is enough. Looking at a recent example of how to bring the media back on his side, Durant could follow LeBron James’ example.
Much like Durant, LeBron left in free agency to be the centrepiece of a superteam to the chagrin of the media, which delighted in reinforcing his status as the villain of the NBA. He won two championships with the Miami Heat before deciding to return to Cleveland to end the city’s championship drought. While Durant can’t make a triumphant return to Oklahoma City due to cap issues, he has the opportunity to alter the media’s perception of him by joining a team starved of success which – like the Cleveland Cavaliers – is full of young, hungry talent. A team like the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets, or New York Knicks.
Yes, he’d be paid less than if he took a supermax with Golden State. No, success may not be as immediate or easy as LeBron’s in a weakened East.
Durant still needs to recover from injury and return to his best. Yet, teams are more than willing to risk it for his talent, and Durant can look at the effect winning with the Cavaliers had on LeBron’s legacy to see that a change of scenery away from the Warriors. It depends on how Durant really measures his own career’s success.
Taking the supermax
The argument for Durant leaving the Warriors is also the exact reason he could stay. He plays with a roster full of depth and with championship experience and pedigree. This is particularly true at the top end of the squad, with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green as teammates. Klay Thompson could also sign a max contract to come back to the Warriors after his injury. Having the Splash Brothers on your team makes Durant’s championship window very big indeed. Should they all return, the Warriors will expect to return to the NBA Finals next season and beyond.
Golden State also have the best offer financially, being able to give Durant the payday that he has long deserved. Remember, Durant left money on the table to sign (and re-sign) with the Warriors. He rejected a $153 million extension with the Thunder to move to Oakland. His contract could be worth north of $200 million over five years.
One of these years will be spent rehabilitating his Achilles, knowing he can be full refreshed next season. As he recovers, Durant’s absence will be noted and if the Warriors struggle (by their standards), his legacy could actually be furnished. Much like the pantomime villain, the story is much more boring for the media without Durant.
Finally, the Warriors are moving to the Chase Center next season. In fact, they’ve already made $2bn in presale tickets. Leading the Warriors to another championship through the venue change would be a massive positive for his legacy. Given the history around the Warriors and Oracle Arena, an immediate championship in their new home would be massive. There are plenty of pull factors to bring Durant back to Golden State.
No matter what Durant chooses to do this offseason, the reverberations of his decision will be felt around the league. Before his injury Durant was the prize of free agency, now he’s a more calculated risk for teams who are ready to compete.
For teams looking to accelerate their rebuild, Durant could be their catalyst. Should he remain at Golden State, the narrative around Durant will remain about taking the easy option. Especially given that he’ll be missing most of the season, leaving Curry with Green as his only All-Star calibre teammate while he makes somewhere around $40 million recovering.
If Durant leaves, the spectre of negative remarks that he believes have hung around him since his 2016 exit will lift significantly. He becomes the saviour of a maligned franchise. The money he makes while injured is just part of the package of signing a player of his talent. He becomes the leader of a young team with no guarantee of success. Maybe he has another superstar teammate with him, like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were for LeBron. All the questions about his legacy fall by the wayside if Durant wins a championship away from the Warriors. The villain becomes someone else’s Prince Charming, as loved as Kawhi Leonard has been in Toronto.
The real question Kevin Durant needs to ask himself is about how he wants to be remembered. Golden State is a safer option for chasing Michael Jordan-esque amounts of rings while being paid the way his talent deserves, If he wants to eliminate doubts about his toughness in the face of adversity, and rewrite the history books about his leadership, perhaps a new team can help. Only one person knows what he wants most.