On the morning of July 4, Kevin Durant announced on the Players’ Tribune that he’s leaving Oklahoma City and signing with the Golden State Warriors. My first thought on this transaction is: DAMN!!!
My second thought is that the Warriors are going to be very, very good. This year’s Golden State team went 73-9. Next year’s team will not chase the regular-season wins record, because the regular-season wins record is cursed and the Warriors will want to rest up to destroy teams’ souls in the playoffs. But as Pablo Torre notes, the Warriors’ best lineup will be, indisputably, the best non-Dream Team fivesome in the history of the sport.
If Curry-Klay-Iggy-Barnes-Draymond was the Death Lineup, then Curry-Klay-Iggy-Durant-Draymond is the Earth Extinction Event. To break it down in term of X’s and O’s, the Warriors’ X’s will make everyone else’s O’s look like garbage. On offense, three of the greatest shooters in history will fan out across the floor alongside two of the NBA’s most versatile players. These guys would be impossible to defend even if they weren’t allowed to set screens for each other—the worst player in that lineup is a Finals MVP! On defense, everyone except Curry will be able to guard pretty much anyone on the opposing team. This “small ball” unit will now feature a guy who might be the NBA’s best center and a dude who is taller than DeMarcus Cousins. Would the best five-man lineup from the entire rest of the NBA beat the new Warriors? Westbrook-Paul George-Kawhi-LeBron-Anthony Davis could probably do it. But it would be close!
Another thought: The Warriors’ heel turn is now complete. In mid-April, Golden State was the greatest NBA team ever and the most likable. They were led by a lovable, humble superstar. They played a beautiful, pass-happy style. They made basketball fun again. Less than three months later, the Warriors have transformed into groin-assaulting, star-hoarding villains led by a smug venture capitalist owner who insists his franchise is “light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things.” Before this week, the shift in how the Warriors were perceived had more to do with familiarity breeding contempt than anything Golden State had done. (Also, it had something to do with the fact that Joe Lacob is a smarmy billionaire who I really don’t want to see succeed.) Durant’s signing changes that. A team of (mostly) homegrown stars has now become a destination for mercenaries. And we all hate mercenaries.
Last week, the Sporting News published a piece headlined “NBA free agency: It’s time for Kevin Durant to be criticized like LeBron James.” This is my least favorite genre of sports writing: Because we were dumb about this one thing, let’s please for consistency’s sake double down on that raging stupidity. (The kicker of this incredible piece of sports journalism: “Regardless of where he lands, please stop giving Durant a pass. He doesn’t deserve it.” Yes, let’s not allow his actual decision to inform our reactions to said decision.) Here’s how that argument goes: Durant, like LeBron, was disloyal to the team that drafted him and the teammates he’s shared the court with. He’s taking the easy way out, chasing rings with a team that’s already won a title. He’s tarnishing his legacy.
Here’s another way to look at the same set of facts. The NBA’s greatest players exert more control over the direction and history of their sport than athletes in any other league. But the great man theory of NBA history doesn’t capture the deeper structural forces that govern how the sport works. The last few days have been the perfect illustration of how the CBA creates the NBA. Thanks to a $24 billion television deal, the league’s salary cap spiked this offseason from $70 million per team to an estimated $94 million. General managers have to spend that money somewhere, so huge chunks of change have gone to bench players like Jon Leuer (four years, $41 million) and Timofey Mozgov (four years, $64 million). Rookies, by contrast, are massively underpaid, while the collective bargaining agreement’s max contract rules stipulate that LeBron James makes roughly the same amount as Chandler Parsons.
Given that the CBA works as a redistribution program, with players like Leuer, Mozgov, and Parsons grabbing cash that should really belong to draftees and superstars, it’s inevitable that a player like Durant would look to extract value in some other way: by winning championships, for instance. And the surest path to winning a championship is to form a super team. From the team’s perspective, it will cost Golden State approximately as much to sign Durant as it would have to match the Mavericks’ offer to Harrison Barnes. (Or to put it in terms that Joe Lacob would understand: In the NBA, it costs as much to purchase Apple stock as it does to buy a broken floppy disk.) When money is no longer a differentiating factor, players will inevitably choose the franchises that give them the best opportunity to win. By mandating that the best players don’t get paid like the best players, the CBA has given us the era of the super team.
This is how things are going to be unless something structural changes. People are complaining about individual actors—dumb, spendthrift general managers and disloyal, cowardly players—when this is exactly what the league has set itself up to be.
The structure of Durant’s new contract, a two-year max deal with a player option after the first year, is also a consequence of the collective-bargaining agreement. Just as LeBron James has done repeatedly, Durant will sign a short-term deal that allows him to become a free agent again in 2017, when the salary cap will grow to $110 million and his max contract will be that much richer. Next year, LeBron (almost definitely), Durant (if he opts out, which he will), Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin will all be free agents. The most hilarious outcome would be for Durant to return to Oklahoma City via a first-person essay headlined “I’m Coming Home,” only to have Westbrook replace him on the Warriors. More likely, Durant will stay with his new team, having maximally enhanced his contract value and his championship chances.
The irony here is that the super-team-spawning NBA has given us a more enjoyable product while at the same time stoking fan and pundit resentment. Maybe you’ll hate-watch the Durant-Curry-Draymond Warriors. (I just listed the three best players on the 2016-2017 Warriors, none of whom is Klay Thompson. Jesus.) But you’ll be watching, mouth agape, as Steph penetrates and dishes to Klay, who swings it to KD for an open three. That’s a vision that’s impossible to hate.