Frustration with Westbrook Sent Durant Fleeing, Opens Door to Trouble for NBA

Howard BeckNBA Senior WriterJuly 5, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook #0 look on prior to game six of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

A 27-year-old man, one of the best in the world at his profession, chose a new employer Monday. He framed the decision in terms that any ambitious young person would understand.

He spoke of his "evolution" and "potential for growth," a yearning to leave his "comfort zone."

If Kevin Durant were a neurosurgeon or a world-class chef, no one would flinch at the choice. If he were a brilliant software engineer, no one would blame him for signing with Google.

No one would question his heart or his manhood.

Sports are different, of course. Real-world rules rarely apply. Choices are judged differently, swiftly, harshly, with little room for nuance.

Durant made a bold and controversial decision Monday, leaving a perennial contender in Oklahoma City for an actual championship team in Oakland, California. For that, he will be pilloried in some quarters.

The idea of a recent MVP joining the reigning MVP on a team stocked with All-Stars will be judged as unseemly, even cowardly.

"If u can't beat um join um," 10-time All-Star Paul Pierce tweeted, adding a chin-scratching emoji for effect.

It was an accurate summation. Durant is literally joining the team he couldn't beat, the Golden State Warriors, who overcame a 3-1 deficit to knock out the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals just five weeks ago.

But consider it another way, for a moment: Durant is joining the team that gives him his best chance to evolve.

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 03:  Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder talk to head coach Billy Donovan during their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on March 3, 2016 in Oakland, California.  NOTE TO USER: Us
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For the last eight seasons, Durant's fate has been intertwined with that of Russell Westbrook, a dazzling, fire-breathing, occasionally maddening point guard who sometimes forgets he has teammates—including a guy with an MVP trophy and four scoring titles.

Their partnership produced four conference finals appearances, and one trip to the NBA Finals, in the last six years. It also produced a simmering frustration that, in essence, paved the way for his exit.

Durant wanted an offense that kept the ball moving and provided him easier scoring chances. The Thunder fired coach Scott Brooks and brought in Billy Donovan, and still the offense stalled out at key moments, often with Westbrook dribbling into oblivion. The Thunder led the NBA in blown fourth-quarter leads last season, according to Darnell Mayberry of NewsOK.com, despite their firepower.

"Ultimately, he got frustrated and felt that they had plateaued," said a person with insight into Durant's thought process. "[Donovan] came in, and he still had the same issues that he had with Russ under Scotty. The offense didn't change much. He still had to take a ton of contested shots every game; and that's when he had the ball at all."

There should be no such concerns in Oakland, not on a Warriors team whose motto is "strength in numbers," whose stars are all dedicated ball-movers and whose coach, Steve Kerr, was reared on the egalitarian offenses of Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich.

Chemistry is a delicate and unpredictable phenomenon, but no current team blends elite talent as well as the Warriors do. And that, as much as the chance to win titles, is what is driving Durant to the Bay Area.

"He's never going to have a game in Golden State where Steve Kerr has to say at halftime, 'You guys need to get Kevin the ball,' which happened in OKC," the same person said.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - FEBRUARY 27:  Head Coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors talks with Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game on February 27, 2016 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User ex
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Kerr's fluid, flowing offensive system "appeals to him," the person said, as does the knowledge that Durant won't be burdened with so many contested shots.

Yet Durant probably would have stayed had the Thunder won the championship this season, the person said. The collapse in the conference finals only underscored all of his concerns.

So now the NBA's preeminent superteam just became even more super.

The Warriors now boast one of the greatest lineups ever assembled: the best shooting backcourt of all time, flanked by one of the greatest scorers of all time, alongside a multitasking power forward who ranks among the most distinctive players in history.

It's great for the Warriors, great for Durant—and potentially catastrophic for the NBA.

Teams in this league sell either excellence or hope, but what hope is there to sell when one franchise can hoard four of the league's best players?

Everything in the NBA's system is designed to thwart this outcome: the draft, the salary cap, the luxury tax, the rookie scale, Bird rightsall were created to disperse elite talent and ensure the viability of small-market teams.

The system just collapsed before our eyes, the result of a perfect storm of anomalies. An unprecedented salary-cap spikefueled by a new $24 billion television dealgave the Warriors room to add a fourth superstar. Durant's discontent created the path.

Everyone acted in his best interest, and it's hard to blame those people. But let's be clear: This runs counter to everything the league has worked to establish since creating the salary cap in 1984.

"The system is f--ked up," said a longtime team executive from a large market.

This is surely not what league officials had in mind when they staged a 149-day lockout in 2011, at a cost of $480 million.

That labor battle was driven by small-market owners who were apoplectic at the migration of superstars to the glamour markets and the creation of a LeBron James-led superteam in Miami.

MIAMI - JULY 09:  Fans cheer as (L-R) Dwyane Wade #3, Chris Bosh #1 and LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat are introduced during a welcome party at American Airlines Arena on July 9, 2010 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Marc Serota/Getty Images

They pushed for a hard salary cap but settled for a draconian luxury tax that was supposed to deter wild spending or star-hoarding. Commissioner Adam Silver even created an Orwellian new term for it: "player sharing"the idea that elite players would be more evenly dispersed.

When the Thunder traded James Harden to Houston in 2012—a deal triggered by fear of the luxury tax—league officials hailed it as proof the system was working. The Thunder still had three stars (Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka), while Harden had been "shared" with the Rockets.

When Greg Monroe chose Milwaukee last summer, and LaMarcus Aldridge chose San Antonio, their choices were cast as a victory for competitive balance.

The system sort of worked, briefly. Now, not at all. Now the luxury tax is virtually obsolete with the exploding cap.

League officials can blame themselves, for failing to anticipate the effects of a new TV deal they knew was coming. Safeguards could have been built into the collective bargaining agreement in 2011, when the owners had the players on the ropes at the bargaining table.

Silver tried to get control over the system in 2015 by pitching the idea of "cap smoothing"a gradual introduction of the new revenue, to create a more gradual rise in the salary capbut the players union rejected it outright.

Union leaders and player agents preferred the chaos of a $24 million spike in the cap. They got it.

Now one team, the Warriors, has four of the top 20 players in the world: Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The team that beat Golden State in the Finals, the Cavaliers, has three top-20 players: James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

That leaves 13 stars for the other 28 teams. Don't expect those teams to sit idly by.

"The small markets can't survive in this new [environment]," said another team executive in a top-five market.

Owners will almost certainly clamor for a harder cap, or a franchise tag, or perhaps the creation of a supermax contract to deter future superteams from being built.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

The NBA can reopen the labor deal next summer, and it should not surprise anyone if a hard cap is back on the list of demands. And demands for a hard cap always result in lockouts.

Across the league, teams are shuddering at what awaits in 2017, when the cap will spike again to a projected $110 million, and an even bigger wave of stars will hit the market, including Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap.

Curry and Durant will also be free agents next summer, though it seems safe to believe they will stay put.

Five years ago, as the lockout dragged on, Silver spent his days preaching the need for a system in which "30 teams," "if well managed," could "compete for a championship." Those talking points must sound awfully hollow in Oklahoma today.

The NBA set out to end the era of superteams. The sight of Durant in a blue Warriors jersey, standing alongside Curry, Thompson and Green, will serve as a thunderous rebuke.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. ET, on SiriusXM Bleacher Report radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.