In the minds of basketball fans across the globe, July 4th, 2016, will be forever remembered as the day an indelible mark was left on the NBA, the day an entire era of league history was completely refashioned into an unfamiliar likeness, and the day the scale of competitive balance around the Association was shattered in one fell swoop. I remember exactly where I was on that day. It was 11:38 AM on a sunny day in Jacksonville. After a morning at the beach for the holiday’s celebration, I returned to my car and prepared for the drive back home. As I would for every other long drive, I took out my phone to use as a GPS. But this time was different. As soon as I got my phone in hand, a notification flashed across its blank screen. Its message seared into my memory: “Durant announces decision to sign with Warriors.”
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Before I discuss further my thoughts on Kevin Durant joining forces with Golden State, I would like to make a few things clear. I do not begrudge anyone in or associated with the Golden State Warriors organization for making this move. Everyone involved in Durant’s recruitment, especially Jerry West, deserves much credit and respect for successfully pulling off one of the biggest free agent signings in NBA history. They did what anybody in their situation should do, which is benefit their franchise in any way possible, and they warrant nothing but commendation for their success in signing the man they wanted.
Nor do I have any animus toward Kevin Durant for deciding to leave the Thunder and join the Warriors. At first, I was very upset by his move, which many have labeled weak and cowardly. It certainly appears that way, as Durant’s Thunder were up 3-1 over the Warriors and just a win away from the NBA Finals before collapsing in epic fashion. But as time as passes and the dust settles, I find it harder and harder to rip Durant for simply taking the better job. According to a piece by Bleacher Report, the rumored on-court chemistry issues between Durant and Westbrook ultimately drove KD out of OKC. So, if Kevin Durant was set on leaving the Thunder out of a legitimate concern that he could not win with Westbrook, there is no reason anyone should question his character or his integrity, much less his manhood, just for taking his best option outside of Oklahoma City. That best option just happened to be with the team that bested his (a team which also happens to be a much better fit for him). And to those who say that KD was being duplicitous in his nine years with the Thunder by professing his love for his franchise and his teammates only to leave this summer, I ask you this question: What would you have had him do? By ingratiating himself with his teammates, his organization, and his community through his consummate professionalism and charity, he was simply doing what the face of any franchise should do by representing his team and his fan base to the best of his ability. I know this decision is extremely disappointing for Thunder fans, and they have every right to be disappointed. However, they owe Kevin Durant more respect than go around burning his jerseys and plastering “Traitor” over his name wherever it appears in the city. Put some respect on his name.
Finally, I am not among those who bellow incessantly about Durant’s “legacy.” Some say winning cures all ills, and this may one day prove true for Durant, who has put himself in a position to do a whole lot of winning. Of course, Durant has probably eliminated himself from the discussion of one of the top ten greatest of all time by joining an already stacked Warriors team, but I doubt that matters much to him. Jerry West’s pitch to KD came from the perspective of a man who had lost in the NBA Finals time and time again and was still haunted by those losses to this very day. If Jerry West, whose silhouette is the NBA logo, is tormented by Finals losses to a point where he cannot then find comfort in his undeniably great legacy, it’s perfectly understandable why Durant would want to prioritize winning over some abstract concept of memory.
With all of that being said, it may appear that I take no issue with KD’s move to the Bay Area. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Rather, I take huge issue with the impact this decision will have on the NBA for the foreseeable future. This move has already rendered the remainder of this summer’s free agency utterly irrelevant. Veteran big man Pau Gasol signed with the Spurs? Who? Future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan is leaning strongly towards retirement? What? Dwayne Wade left Wade County for Chicago because the Heat just wouldn’t give him his money? Huh? It simply doesn’t matter anymore. Kevin Durant, 4 time scoring champion, 7 time NBA All-Star, and former league MVP, has officially joined a team that won 73 regular season games last season led by the league’s first unanimous MVP and two other players who are both easily top 15 in the Association. Unless the Thunder trade Russell Westbrook to the Cleveland Cavaliers or San Antonio Spurs in exchange for pennies found under their sofa cushions (both impossible moves for many, many reasons), there are simply no more moves that can be made this summer that will in any way impede the inevitable advance of the Warriors and the Cavs to their 3rd straight NBA Finals matchup. And, in what disturbs me most as a fan of an NBA franchise not named the Warriors (aka the Portland Trailblazers, aka Western Conference team #14 whose title window just got slammed shut in its face), is that this move threatens to make the entire NBA season, and perhaps even the postseason, completely irrelevant as well.
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The thing that made last year’s Warriors so intriguing was that, no matter their record, they never seemed completely invincible. I remember tuning in to watch my Trailblazers play them on February 19th, their first game back from All-Star Weekend. I had to stay up late into the night and early into the morning (curse you West Coast and your time zones) but I didn’t care because I thought my team could win. Only four other teams had managed to defeat the Warriors at that point, and the Blazers had already lost in their four prior meetings, but I didn’t care because I believed. That belief is why I chose to pass up on much needed sleep to watch the Warriors play in the Moda Center. And on that night, I was rewarded. I marveled as Damian Lillard exploded in a spectacular 51-point performance, made obnoxious jokes at the expense of Steph Curry’s lackluster on-ball defense, and sang “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” as the Warriors starters made their sad journey to the bench in the midst of a 137-105 blowout at the hands of the Blazers. Needless to say, I slept very well that night (well, technically morning). Its those kinds of games that fans of the [NBA team not named Golden State Warriors] all live for, and I was only lucky enough to witness it because I believed. But that was last year. Could the Blazers win a game against the new look Warriors this year? Well, anything is possible (Roy Hibbert is still on an NBA roster). But do I believe that they will? Hell no. In fact, I don’t believe the Warriors will be considered underdogs in any regular season game this entire season, barring injury to one of their numerous star players. Now of course, they’ll lose some games. I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if they won less than 65 games. But never in this entire season will I decide to watch a game believing the Warriors will lose. With Kevin Durant now in tow, they’re simply too loaded for any rational person to bet against when at full force. And without that belief, that intrigue, that expectation for the unexpected, some of the magic and mystery that drew me into the NBA world and kept me engaged in it is lost.
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Throughout last year’s regular season, analysts and fans across the basketball world were all discussing which teams in the West would be able to knock off the historically great Warriors come playoff time. Was it San Antonio with Kawhi Leonard’s lockdown defense or Oklahoma City with the overwhelming star power of Westbrook and Durant? Now, I’m not sure if that’s a discussion worth having. Sure, Kawhi Leonard is an elite defender. But can he guard four players at once? Sure, Russell Westbrook is capable of going full God-mode on any given team on any given night. But can his heroics singlehandedly overcome those of Golden State’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” lineup in four games of a seven game series? Wouldn’t count on it. A healthy Warriors squad will be able make the NBA Finals without breaking a sweat, and this will be the case for the foreseeable future. I and many others often lament how weak the Eastern Conference is and how the lack of any legitimate challengers to the Cavaliers has essentially removed any of the excitement of Eastern Conference playoff basketball as LeBron James casually makes his now customary march to the Finals each year. The West used to be different. In days past, the West was a heated battlefield where no team was ever safe. It was an unforgiving arena that saw the once reigning NBA champion Spurs get dispatched in a Game 7 of the first round by the Los Angeles Clippers who then met their painful demise at the hands of the Houston Rockets after jumping out to a 3-1 series lead. It was the same rugged battleground that compelled so many to root for the young up-and-coming team of homegrown players that used to be the Golden State Warriors on their run to the franchise’s first championship in 30 years. It was the same blistering cauldron of competition that pushed the 73-9 Warriors to the brink of elimination at the hands of a Thunder team that many believed could not make it past the Spurs. But those days now are gone, and the powers that once battled for control of the West have already been crushed under the monolith of the new Warriors regime. Kevin Durant’s move has not only made Golden State considerably better, but it has also demolished any championship aspirations of a once title contending Thunder. If Kevin Durant had returned, the Thunder, who acquired Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, would have been a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs and a legitimate threat to dethrone the Warriors. Now, it’s hard to see them getting past the second round. And while San Antonio may find more postseason success than the Thunder, its hard to believe that they will be able to either shut down or match the explosive offensive display of the new Splash Family. Even another NBA Finals matchup between the Warriors and the Cavs appears far, far less interesting. Vegas has already made Golden State odds-on favorites at 2-3 to win the title next year, and its easy to see why. LeBron James is undoubtedly one of the greatest of all time, but no one in NBA history has ever had to deal with four players as lethal as Durant, Curry, Thompson, and Green on one squad, and defeating them seems like a task that not even the King and all his men can accomplish.
We’ve seen super teams before. We’ve seen epic battles between Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. We’ve seen the transcendence of Michael Jordan and his 1990s era Bulls. We’ve seen LeBron James and the Miami Heat Big 3 dominate the East. But those teams never fully achieved the status of invulnerability. We watched Magic’s Lakers get denied a Finals berth by the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals in 1986. We watched Larry Bird’s Celtics get swept out of the first round by the Bad Boy Pistons in 1989. We watched Michael Jordan’s Bulls get handled by the Orlando Magic and tossed out of the playoffs in the second round in 1995. We watched LeBron’s Heat suffer complete meltdowns in the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs in 2011 and 2014. But we’ve never watched a team like these Golden State Warriors. Maybe I’m jumping the gun. After all, the season hasn’t started and maybe the Warriors are more vulnerable than I think. Sometimes I think that the Warriors loss of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli will open up gaping holes in their interior defense that can be exploited by more physical teams. But then I remember that the Warriors used their draft pick on promising 7 foot center Damian Jones and signed Zaza Pachulia, David West, and Mamadou Ndiaye (the tallest player to enter the league since Yao Ming) to fill their holes in the paint. Sometimes I think that the loss of Harrison Barnes may lead to a period of struggles as the Warriors adjust to their new superstar. But then I remember how easily Golden State was able to generate open looks for Barnes in the flow of their offense and realize that KD can hit those shots in his sleep with one hand tied behind his back. Thinking of ways to beat this new Warriors team is a losing battle. They are unlike anything we have seen before and hopefully unlike anything we will see ever again.
Maybe I’m just a salty fan of the [NBA team not named Golden State Warriors]. Maybe I’m too obsessed with competitive balance and all this other zen nonsense. Maybe I should want to watch a Warriors and Cavaliers Finals matchup for years and years and years to come. Maybe that last statement was obvious sarcasm. But, there is one thing I do know to be certain. Every front office, every team, and every fan outside of the Bay and the Land must adjust to a new reality of the NBA, one where no move they can make, no free agent they can sign, no trade they can orchestrate, and no player they can draft will matter for an entire era of NBA history. No matter what they do, they will always be no more than a footnote. For those teams forced to live under the shadow of an unprecedented super team, relevance is a relic of the past NBA. In this new NBA, every challenger to Golden State’s dominance has been cut down like long stalks of wheat by the scythe of a Slim Reaper now cloaked in blue and gold.