Monday, 4 July 2016

Kevin Durant to Join the Golden State Warriors

The biggest question of the N.B.A. off-season was answered Monday when Kevin Durant, one of the best players ever to hit unrestricted free agency in any sport, agreed to join the Golden State Warriors.

Durant’s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Warriors in effect allows the rich to get richer. Although Durant nearly led the Thunder to a stunning upset of the Warriors in the Western Conference finals this spring, the Warriors ultimately prevailed before, in turn, losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the N.B.A. finals.

Now the Warriors, regrouping, have added the 27-year-old Durant, creating a virtual Dream Team out of a starting unit that also includes all-stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Warriors now become the overwhelming favorites to win next season’s N.B.A. championship, which would be their second in three years.

Durant made his announcement on The Player’s Tribune website. While the terms of the deal have not been formally announced, a person briefed on the negotiations said it is a two-year deal worth $54.3 million, with the second year being a player option. The structure of the deal would allow Durant to opt-out after next season and take advantage of the escalating salary cap to maximize his earnings.

“The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player — as that has always steered me in the right direction,” Durant said in the posting.

“But I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth. With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.”

The reaction to Durant’s decision was swift, with some on social media outlets predictably awarding Golden State the 2016-17 title, and others scorning Durant for leaving Oklahoma City and seeking an easier route to his first championship in the Bay Area.

In that respect, Durant was receiving the same criticism LeBron James endured when he left Cleveland, where he initially failed to win a title, to form a Big Three in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

That threesome did win two titles, including one in which they beat Durant’s Thunder, and James ultimately returned to Cleveland to win a third. But James’s roots are in Ohio and there were compelling reasons for him to eventually come home. The notion that Durant, who is from the Washington D.C. area, might someday return to Oklahoma City seems a lot more far-fetched.

Durant has been among the league’s premier 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 in his second season, and Durant won a scoring championship in his third — his first of four such titles in five seasons.

Durant’s talents run the gamut. Listed as a 6-foot 9-inch 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.

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 Cavaliers in the recent 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, now become even 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 Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli and possibly trading another high-priced player, such as the center Andrew Bogut or the versatile forward Andre Iguodala, their valuable sixth man.

Bogut would potentially be a candidate to be released using the league’s stretch provision, which lessens the impact on the salary cap. Once the dust settles, they may also be forced to part ways with some other veteran free agents like Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights.

With depth having been a key part of the Warriors’ strength in numbers approach, all of these potential moves could diminish the Warriors’ depth and create new challenges for Warriors Coach Steve Kerr

As well, there will be an adjustment period for Durant, who 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.

Still, 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 ultimate team success that has eluded him thus far.

Like so many things about the N.B.A., 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 chose to conduct his talks with various teams in the Hamptons, a lavish Long Island summer retreat known more for its celebrity culture than for its basketball and about as far removed from Oklahoma City as humanly possible.

And his deliberations, which actually lasted only a few days, still seemed like an eternity, given the nature of the N.B.A. free-agency period, which is nothing if not frenzied.

Teams were permitted to begin contacting players at 12:01 a.m. on July 1, and many deals were struck before most people woke up the next morning. But Durant had the luxury of setting his own timetable because he was by far the biggest catch.

Various N.B.A. teams tried various ways to impress him. The Boston Celtics were reported to have arrived in the Hamptons with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as part of their entourage.

If that wasn’t enough, the Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz added his own entreaty to Durant on Twitter, writing, “Brady will tell u they don’t call Boston the City of Champions for nothing.”

The Warriors’ delegation to the Hamptons was reported to have included Curry, Thompson and Green. And Steve Ballmer, the bombastic owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, reportedly cried during a meeting with Durant so intent was he on trying to convince him to join his club.

The Thunder, of course, tried to convince Durant to stay. For years in Oklahoma City, he had been paired with Russell Westbrook, another game-changing talent, to form one of the most potent one-two punches the game has seen. But the team failed to fully capitalize on its talent, making just that one appearance in the N.B.A. finals — a five-game loss to James and the Heat in 2012. In three other seasons, the Thunder bowed out in the Western Conference finals.

It is the last of those three that will linger painfully in Oklahoma City, especially now that Durant is gone. The Thunder had a three-games-to-one lead against the Warriors but couldn’t find a way to a fourth victory, even when they led for most of Game 6 in their own arena.

Had they managed to vanquish the Warriors, the Thunder might have found themselves favored against the Cavaliers in the finals. Instead, having lost, Durant and his Thunder teammates faced hard questions about their collective futures, with several years left in Durant’s prime, but with his 30s inevitably approaching.

Facing all that, Durant decided to try something new rather than continue to try to make things work with the Thunder.

“I will miss Oklahoma City, and the role I have had in building this remarkable team,” Durant said in his post.

“I will forever cherish the relationships within the organization — the friends and teammates that I went to war with on the court for nine years, and all the fans and people of the community.”

But it remains to be seen whether those same fans will cheer or boo him when he returns to Oklahoma City next season as a Golden State Warrior.

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