Kevin Durant chose a new employer and a lot of people didn’t like it. Now in theory, the superstar small forward owes us nothing and should feel free to take whatever job he sees fit. Yet in actuality, his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and sign with the Golden State Warriors runs counter to his aspirations and the league’s purpose. You see, a player’s objective may be to win, but the league’s objective is to entertain; to narrate the wins. Those who achieve both—capture a title and our imaginations—can brand themselves as legends. For the most part, those are the rules.
Players know and in many respects aspire to uphold this standard. They never dreamt of toiling in anonymity. They want their talents recounted in NBA lore. Fans' continued obsession with this lore has made several around the Association unfathomably rich. The players’ relationships with them can still be strained by a revolting sense of entitlement. But to say players don’t (or shouldn’t) take fans opinions or desires into consideration is simply false.
Of course, this claim arises from a natural instinct to shield players from unjust criticism. But too often such instincts produce equally empty rhetoric. Durant did take public opinion into consideration. In fact, according to reports, he anticipated it, and had no desire to become a villain. He wasn’t just another guy choosing a job. The world was watching. He was thinking of himself as a brand, and looking to broaden its reach; blind allegiance couldn’t be expected with every decision. Yet his choice ultimately reflected more rhetoric — the idea that no one will remember how he got the rings in 10 years.
This is laughably false. Remembering how players got their rings is how the league is sold. Their career arcs are neatly packaged from draft night to ring ceremony; in profiles, documentaries, commercials, and opening credits. Their stories then live on long after retirement, whether in barroom arguments or bedtime stories.
The details matter, too. Jerry West finally won it all in 1972, but just as many—if not more—know that he won Finals MVP in 1969 after yet another NBA Finals loss. He’s still the only player to do so, a sign of eternal respect for his perseverance and competitive fire that weighs more than any ring — you know, just in case becoming the NBA logo that year wasn’t enough.
But if losing isn’t your cup of tea, then consider the case of Kobe Bryant, a five-time champion who, according to many, can only lay rightful claim to two of his rings. What did the fifth ring mean to him, despite a Finals MVP that many said should’ve gone to Pau Gasol instead? “One more than Shaq. You guys know how I am. I never forget anything,” Bryant said. He knows we don’t either.
Just as LeBron’s narrative is defined by his success in Cleveland now, one title in OKC would’ve been worth two more anywhere else for Durant. Well, at least in our eyes.
LeBron James presumably changed all that. He eschewed the hero’s narrative and attempted to establish a new standard in Miami, only to initially write the legend of Dirk Nowitzki. But after that healthy dose of schadenfreude, James returned, a model of brute efficiency and unbreakable will, stomping his way to consecutive rings over increasingly impressive competition. Yet there’s no question that the ring which truly encapsulates his legacy is the one he receives on opening night next season. It was a promise fulfilled, a brief respite from an ever-looming shadow, and proof positive that how you win matters just as much as the winning itself.
Michael Jordan not only turned that principle into an empire, but into Americana — a symbol reflecting a standard of excellence and an unbelievable story of determination. Much like Kobe and LeBron, Durant clearly aspired to such permanence. $300 million from Nike and a career full of quotes continue to support this. He demanded loyalty, relished in the journey, and was determined to reach his destination. Until he didn’t. But much like Kobe and LeBron, he may come to realize that legends aren’t built on the path of least resistance.
Ironically, the path of least resistance from the public was waiting for him in Oklahoma City. It hardly would’ve been an exercise in futility. The Thunder made significant improvements to reassure their leader, with Al Horford reportedly only needing Durant’s commitment before he’d join them too. It would’ve been a coup for both KD and OKC, an opportunity to control their fate and bring a happy ending to a painful story. Losing Harden would’ve been justified, the injuries would’ve become prologue, and Durant would’ve become a part of history alongside his Brodie.
Just as LeBron’s narrative is defined by his success in Cleveland now, one title in OKC would’ve been worth two more anywhere else for Durant. Well, at least in our eyes. But for him, that wasn’t enough. The problem is he wants us to believe what he chose will just be — despite his own reservations of forever being labeled a title chaser or traitor.
Choosing to join the Warriors wasn’t following LeBron’s example, nor was it establishing a bold new precedent. This was an anomaly, a convergence of circumstances, revealing an opportunity to be exploited only by Durant. A 73-win team with the Coach of the Year, three All-Stars, and a unanimous MVP weren’t waiting for LeBron in Miami, nor did he leave a top 10 player behind. He was the rising tide that lifted all boats. But Durant’s new team could’ve sailed through next season as an overwhelming title favorite without him.
Regardless, the echo chamber will inevitably return to the dawn of the modern era in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But comparisons often ignore the fact that they co-existed. No one cared if the Lakers and Celtics were "super teams," because they played each other and saved the NBA in the process. Could we say the same if it were just Magic or Bird running unopposed every November through June?
Players are free to play where they want. But brands have less choices and more to consider. For them, the game isn’t just the game — it’s the narrative. Until a worthy opponent arises, KD has sacrificed his to public opinion for a ring. Time will tell how much it’s actually worth.