A STRANGE THING HAPPENED on Kevin Durant's road to villainy:
Nothing of note, anyway.
Sure, he was jeered mightily in that February game in Oklahoma City by the fans he'd abandoned. And there was that odd night in Vancouver last October, when all of Canada seemed to turn on him, booing every second of his Golden State Warriors preseason debut.
But other than that?
"It wasn't bad at all," Durant tells B/R Mag, smiling at the thought. "I was expecting the worst."
Leaving the small-town Thunder for the Superpower by the Bay was supposed to trigger a fierce backlash, an endless torrent of invective and insults, vilifying Durant as traitorous, weak, a front-runner. That's how these things go—or at least, used to go.
It's a different world now.
The Warriors—up 2-0 on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals—are two wins away from a championship, and the only chatter about Durant is how sensational he's been. The only label being slapped on him is an acronym: MVP.
Few people care how he got here. If the Warriors win it all, Durant will simply be known as a champion. The historical details—Durant joining an established contender, the Thunder's loss to the Warriors in the conference finals last year—will be reduced to minor footnotes in a rapidly evolving NBA paradigm.
The old paradigm was shattered seven years ago by LeBron James.
When James ditched the Cleveland Cavaliers to form a superteam in Miami, it was greeted with universal shock. The public couldn't process the concept of an MVP leaving his team to join two rival stars. (Or the way he did it: the prime-time TV show; the pep rally; the ring counting.) It just wasn't done.
This was competitive sacrilege, and James paid dearly. He was branded a villain. His popularity cratered, and not just in northeast Ohio. Fans in every market turned on him. It took two Heat championships, a return to the Cavaliers (in 2014) and a title in Cleveland—for Cleveland—to fully regain his good standing.
But Durant has encountered a fraction of the static that James did since making his own controversial move last July. In part, it's because James is simply a more polarizing figure. But it's also because James blazed the trail and made it safer for Durant and other stars to choose their own paths.
"Once LeBron made that decision, it took a lot of the brunt," says Billy King, the former general manager of the Nets and 76ers. "You sort of almost expect guys now to maybe leave and do what's best for them."
Indeed, it's become routine to see the NBA's greatest players actively pursue the chance to join other stars, form superteams and chase championships—all without concern for the dumpster fire raging in their Twitter mentions.
Though Durant says he did not consider James' precedent, he readily admits, "He paved the way."
This is the new normal, for better or worse.
As one general manager says, bluntly, "The game has changed."
And the anxiety for owners and team executives has never been higher.
Paul George, disenchanted with the Indiana Pacers, is a threat to leave via free agency in 2018, if the Pacers don't preemptively move him sooner. Gordon Hayward, an emerging star in Utah, is widely expected to explore other options this summer. Chris Paul, the cornerstone of the Los Angeles Clippers, is reportedly considering a move to San Antonio.
Russell Westbrook, ditched by Durant last summer, could leave Oklahoma City as soon as 2018. Jimmy Butler will get his chance in 2019—if the Chicago Bulls don't move him before then. Anthony Davis, stranded on a dismal New Orleans team, could seek greener pastures in 2021—or use the threat of free agency to force a trade long before then.
And any of them could exercise that right with little concern for the consequences.
"As time goes on, and the changes start to become normal, people will start looking at it as normal," Durant says. "I hope and pray that they make a decision that's best for them, and nobody else."
It's a relatively new phenomenon.
For decades, the NBA's top free agents largely stayed home—a result of financial inducements and traditional notions of loyalty. All of that has eroded.
The league's labor deal still includes monetary incentives to stay put—via Bird rights—but a rapidly escalating salary cap has muted the impact. Top stars can now command $150 million or more in a multiyear deal. They might sacrifice $30 million to change teams, but the net income is still staggering. And today's stars can more easily make up the difference in off-court endorsements than their predecessors.
"The money has made it easier (to leave)," King says. "Now a guy's going to maybe make $140 million to leave, as opposed to $180 million to stay. It's a lot of money (to sacrifice), but $140 million is big money, too. … I think guys don't even look at the money as much anymore when they're making that decision."
As recently as 2009, you could count on elite players mostly staying put, for better or worse. As I wrote then, only three in-their-prime superstars had changed teams in free agency in the prior 12 years: Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady and Steve Nash. And even then, there were caveats. McGrady had not yet blossomed into a star when he left Toronto for Orlando. Nash only left Dallas for Phoenix because the Mavericks balked at his salary demands.
"It's hard to leave," Lon Babby, the longtime agent to Tim Duncan, Ray Allen and other stars, said at the time.
Superagent Arn Tellem went a step further, asserting that for superstars, free agency essentially didn't exist. The financial incentives to stay were simply too great.
The next year, Denver's Carmelo Anthony used the threat of free agency to force a trade to New York, and Chris Paul did the same to induce a trade from New Orleans to L.A. In 2012, Dwight Howard leveraged his own pending free agency to force a trade to the Lakers. A year later, Howard walked away from the Lakers to join the Houston Rockets. In 2015, LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland for San Antonio.
But no free agent moves were more impactful than James' in 2010 and Durant's last year.
"That's what free agency is about—doing what you want to do," Durant tells B/R Mag. "I commend LeBron. I commend LaMarcus Aldridge. I commend guys that stay, because they did what they wanted to do. That's the power of free agency."
King says the calculation simply is, "Where can I win the most?"
"They're doing what's best for them," he says.
"There's a lot of people who are scared of not being successful," one prominent player agent says. So stars seek out other stars to share the burden. "‘I can play with people I like and who are good teammates and can help me win.'"
And, the agent says, you can bet he will cite Durant and James to reassure a star client if that client is worried about making his own free-agency getaway.
The three titles won by James, and the possibility of Durant claiming his own championship this month, might serve as greater incentives for the next wave of stars looking to make the leap.
"I think KD opened the floodgates," another agent says.
The era of superstar stability seems to be over, giving way to an era of superteams formed by emboldened, fully liberated players who place personal achievement and satisfaction over everything else.
"At the end of the day, I mean, basketball is good," Durant tells B/R Mag. "You're still enjoying the same players. It's just different jerseys. But I just tried to do what I wanted to do, and make it as simple as that."
So the Warriors, a team built on three elite talents, added a fourth last summer, while rivals watched in horror. Player autonomy has fueled the rise of juggernauts in Cleveland and Oakland, and a growing sense of futility everywhere else. Everything about the 2017 postseason felt preordained, utterly lacking suspense. We're now witnessing the third straight Cavs-Warriors Finals, with no reason to believe next season will be any different.
But if the trend continues, perhaps we'll see new alliances form in the near future—a Westbrook-George partnership in L.A., a Hayward-Isaiah Thomas-Al Horford trio in Boston or a DeMarcus Cousins-John Wall-Bradley Beal cooperative in Washington.
Partisans hate seeing their basketball heroes leave town. But if fans are disillusioned by the Warriors-Cavs hegemony, and if we all want to see a more vibrant battle for the title, then the best solution to superteam dominance might just be…more superteams.