Reggie Miller: Kevin Durant Traded a Sacred Legacy for Cheap Jewelry

Reggie MillerNBA-on-TNT Analyst and Special Contributor to Bleacher ReportJuly 6, 2016

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors talks to Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 30, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The gravity of Kevin Durant's decision to join the Golden State Warriors hit me on Tuesday when a friend texted me, saying: "Holy s--t! What an NBA weekend. KD is crazy. Will they lose a game?" 

I wrote back: "It's a bad look for the league once again. Between the huge signings of mediocre players and now KD defecting to the Warriors, there are really only five or six teams you are interested in watching—and only three of those have a real shot to win the championship. It's going to be a boring season unless the Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks or Boston Celtics are on TNT or ESPN every week."

He wrote back: "The rich get richer. If you're KD, would you go for the ring?"

And then I responded: "At the end of the day, what's more important, rings or legacy? The media only cares about rings, and rightfully so. We are judged on jewelry, so that's why I can't argue with it. From a personal standpoint, I'm upset that a small market will never recover from it.

"I like having stars/superstars in small markets. It evens the playing field and helps the overall product. It's why having Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay is great. In today's age of social media, you don't need to be in L.A., New York City or Chicago to get all the endorsements. Case in point: LeBron James and KD. Both have been the faces of the league in small markets." 

That's the conversation that really got me thinking (as you can see in the video below).

Look, I understand this isn't about money, because people like LeBron, Durant, Russell Westbrook and the retired Kobe Bryant make more money through their shoe contracts than they do on the court. So yes, we know this decision isn't about money.

To me, it's about your legacy versus rings.

Durant would have been a god if he stayed in Oklahoma City. People always say to me, "I'm so glad you stayed with us"—that I stayed for 18 years with a small-market (Pacers) team in Indiana. 

But the media, of which I am a part, always says, "Well, he never won a championship." And I get that; I understand that. Not winning a championship burns me to this day.

After reaching six Eastern Conference Finals and an NBA Finals only to finish without a title, I sympathize with Durant's dilemma. A rebound, loose ball, free throw, missed assignment, missed box-out can change everything. Being so close and ultimately losing sucks.

Nevertheless, it was the fight to put Indiana on the map that, in my mind, is my greatest accomplishment. 

I lost to Michael Jordan. I battled Patrick Ewing and his Knicks. I lost to Larry Bird and his Celtics. I lost to Isiah Thomas and his "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons. I lost to Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway's Orlando Magic.

You want to go against those guys, against the absolute best, even if you don't win.

In the NBA, it's not always about your destination. It's about the journey, successful or not, that goes into getting there.
In the NBA, it's not always about your destination. It's about the journey, successful or not, that goes into getting there.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

That's what Durant gave up by leaving the Thunder. And that matters. Had he stayed in Oklahoma City, people would have said, "He spurned all the other offers and continued to fight the giant."

Even if Durant didn't win a championship like me, John Stockton or players who briefly spent time elsewhere like Ewing, Karl Malone, etc. the rest of the world would have looked at him in a different light because he fought, rather than joined, the giants—LeBron, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Chris Paul, etc. And to me, that's a true legacy.

It would obviously be great to have both—your kingdom and an untarnished legacy. But there are only so many people who enjoy that luxury.

Jordan had both, because he already won six rings before going to the Washington Wizards. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Kobe Bryant. You can even put Hakeem Olajuwon in there, since he won two championships before going to the Toronto Raptors.

But I can't loop LeBron into that company. He left his kingdom in Cleveland for Miami, which was Dwyane Wade's kingdom. 

Yes, LeBron did win two titles with the Heat. So I get why Durant, like James, decided to go elsewhere. And I'm not here to say he cannot redeem himself, or that everyone will look back on his decision to leave and focus on that alone. 

Winning solves everything.

Let's say the Warriors go out and win the next three NBA championships. Will people really look back and only think about Durant defecting from OKC? Probably not.

And here's the other thing: Owners turn their backs on players all the time. So as a player, you have to do what's right in your heart. I get that 100 percent.

Still, there's a difference when you are "the man" and everything about a team is built around you. It's even more different for Durant. He had the best of both worlds: the reins of a franchise and another top-10, maybe top-five player in Westbrook.

When LeBron left Cleveland, the Cavaliers had Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Daniel Gibson, among others. His running mates were not of Westbrook's caliber—or even on the same level as Steven Adams.

Comparatively, it isn't like Durant spurned a team that needed to be redone. The Thunder finished with the league's fifth-best record in the regular season and were up 3-1 on the Warriors during the Western Conference Finals. They would have been right there again next season.

That's why I can't help but wonder if he had a conversation with Westbrook.

I'm speculating, but maybe he found out Westbrook planned to leave in free agency next summer if the duo couldn't win a title after what would be nine years together. Though Durant could've still signed a one-plus-one deal that would've put him in free agency with Westbrook, their conversation would at least shed some more light on why he left. 

Would Durant have left OKC if he knew Westbrook intended to stay?
Would Durant have left OKC if he knew Westbrook intended to stay?Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Maybe this has nothing to do with Westbrook potentially leaving—or even any existing rivalry or conflict between the two. Perhaps Durant's desire to win rings is just that strong, or maybe he took this past postseason as a sign.

I am only here talking about Durant joining the Warriors thanks to a perfect storm of circumstances: a salary-cap spike, Oklahoma City's collapse in the Western Conference Finals against Golden State and the Warriors' NBA Finals collapse versus the Cavaliers. Durant isn't a Warrior without all of those things happening.

And while I get all of this, stars in small markets have a greater obligation to their fans.

People always ask, "What made you stay in Indiana for all those years?"

This is the best way I can answer that question: Your checkout teller at the grocery store, the attendant at the gas station, the ushers, the waiters, the waitresses—all these fans laughed and cheered with me, and they cried with me after the losses to Shaq, MJ and the Knicks

We were in it together.

I could not look at those fans had I gone somewhere else. I could not win a championship in Miami like LeBron, popping bubbly and all that, knowing there's a group in Indiana that stayed with me when I wasn't able to win a title. I couldn't turn my back on that fanbase and say, "Yay, I got a ring!"

That's why I believe Durant took an unnecessary shortcut by joining the Warriors. Fans in smaller markets live and die with their teams. Going to playoff games and driving through the neighborhood, almost every house has signs and banners from kids. 

It gives me chills thinking about those experiences in Indiana. And that's not to say Durant won't encounter this with Golden State. He might. But he's in someone else's kingdom now.

Durant may find all he's seeking with the Warriors, but it will never be as sweet as it could have been with the Thunder.
Durant may find all he's seeking with the Warriors, but it will never be as sweet as it could have been with the Thunder.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Don't get me wrong, Durant will be the alpha dog. On the court, the pecking order will be Durant, Curry, Green, then Klay Thompson. But Durant will forever play in Curry's kingdom. He was with them first. He won a title for them first.

If Durant would have won in Oklahoma City, it would just be better. It would have been better if he joined any team that wasn't a ready-made contender.

But in Oklahoma City, winning one title would be like getting three or more in Golden State.

Failing to win one with the Thunder would arguably be more admirable than collecting any number of titles with the Warriors.

This is just my opinion. Others will feel differently. People will read this and say, "This is coming from a guy who never won a championship." That's fine with me. And again, I get Durant's decision. I understand that temptation.

The Celtics wanted me to come out of retirement in 2007-08, when they won a title with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. I couldn't do it. There was an opportunity to join the Lakers at one point. I couldn't do that, either. And maybe I should have. 

But to me, a king should never leave his kingdom.

 

Reggie Miller is an NBA Hall of Famer and five-time All-Star. He played 18 seasons in the NBA, all of which were spent with the Indiana Pacers, and is currently an NBA analyst for TNT.

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