In suspending Draymond Green for Tuesday's victory over the Atlanta Hawks following his heated exchange with Kevin Durant on Monday night, the Golden State Warriors made a choice. And it could cost them both stars.
They did not opt to keep their two-time Finals MVP, a free agent again this summer, over their one-time Defensive Player of the Year. That decision isn't theirs to make. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Coming to Durant's defense after the tongue-lashing he was treated to won't get him to sign on the dotted line a little less than seven months from now. His free agency is bigger than their response to a war of words.
Nor does handing Green a six-figure slap on the wrist portend his exit, immediate or eventual. Golden State doesn't have to reconcile his future until this summer at the earliest, and neither player is getting dealt midseason. Durant has an implicit no-trade clause in his one-plus-one contract and cannot be moved until after Dec. 14. Green must demand relocation for Golden State to remotely consider busting up a three-peat candidate on the fly.
Still, by acting at all, by deciding Green deserved not just a hush-hush fine but public suspension, the Warriors have chosen to acknowledge that, yes, Durant's free agency is an issue. And, yes, they fear his departure.
And, yes, they're prepared to let that fear dictate how they approach this season.
That, by itself, doesn't seem like it will be the Warriors' undoing. Teams exist in perpetual states of superstar anxiety. Losing a top-five player, an MVP, in his prime is more than a setback. It is oftentimes impossible to overcome without a long, arduous rebuild.
The Warriors are supposed to be different. They are different. Durant is the Hall of Fame accessory they didn't need.
They made two NBA Finals without him. They won a record 73 regular-season games without him. One of their past three titles came without him. Their dominance predates his arrival. It will supersede his departure, too. Maybe they surrender their status as championship locks, but Green, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson guarantee at least another few years of viable contention.
Golden State's disposition is not reflecting that unique position of power. It reeks of insecurity—understandable concern given the stakes inherently tied to superstar free agency, but self-doubt this franchise is supposed to be above all the same.
Suspending Green is just the latest demonstration of that diffidence. The recent past is littered with other curious, if seemingly innocuous, anecdotes.
General manager Bob Myers has made some bizarre comments about Durant's future, both outwardly (at a championship parade) and more inwardly (at practice), as Sam Amick thoroughly outlined for The Athletic. Head coach Steve Kerr has been quick to laud Durant's legacy and impact on a basis far more regular than his praise for Curry, the only unanimous MVP in league history.
The latter speaks more to Curry—and maybe Durant—than Kerr's appreciation for either. Curry does not need to be cajoled or commended. To his credit, Kerr has done both.
But Curry is low maintenance relative to other superstars. He helped pitch Durant in 2016. He has ceded touches and status to him in some of the biggest moments without detectable fuss. He seems almost entirely devoid of ego, unbothered and unburdened by how many league and Finals MVPs Durant may have cost him.
Other marquee names would wince or wallow if a teammate who latched on mid-dynasty monopolized internal focus and adulation. Curry hasn't, and he won't. That has afforded the Warriors a luxury in how they butter up, protect and just generally handle Durant.
Except, their recruiting model not only rests on Curry's calm, but on no one else taking issue with the importance they've ascribed to keeping Durant and on the premise that they have the capacity to sway him.
Fissures are starting to show on both fronts. Durant's free agency, in particular, is something over which the Warriors have minute control. They can sell him on winning—and a fifth year no other team can offer—but raw ring counts have forfeited meaning to the context under which they come.
"The media landscape has changed," The Athletic's Ethan Strauss wrote. "In the past, might made right, and winners were worshipped sans many nuances. Now, a social media-driven conversation picks apart historic accomplishments while basking in a perpetual present. Coming here and winning big was supposed to make KD the face of Nike. Instead, to many jaded fans, that swoosh looks like a coattail. The quaint idea that you can silence your critics with a trophy is just one of a million norms that have fallen by the wayside over the past few years."
Oddly enough, Durant's willingness to engage on social media might hint at what he seeks other than championships: validation beyond repute. Co-headlining the best team ever assembled won't earn him the near-universal stamp of approval that drove him to Golden State in the first place.
To many on the outside, he is forever unnecessary—excess amid excellence. His reported free-agency leanings echo that sentiment. He holds the New York Knicks in high esteem, not unlike LeBron James' affinity for the Los Angeles Lakers, according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes.
If The Big Apple's situation is what strikes a chord with Durant, the Warriors should count him as a goner. They cannot compete with decades of incompetence. Yes, that feels weird to say. It's also not the least bit irrational.
New York is approaching the latest transition from a more even-keeled stance, but with all due respect to the injured Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks remain a franchise seeking rescue. Winning one title with them, an organization for so long entrenched in ruin, immortalizes Durant in a way five, six, even seven championships with Golden State could not.
This "We're not bad enough to retain Durant" reality shouldn't crush the Warriors. He was found transcendence, the happy accident borne from Curry's below-market contract, a conveniently timed salary-cap spike and a perfect storm of a million other circumstances.
The prospect of losing Durant, or actually losing him, is only gutting if the Warriors indulge it. Subtly, overtly and recently, with Green's suspension, they've elected to do just that. And it seems to be taking a toll on the team.
"According to multiple sources, Green then went on to make it clear he's been making plays for years," The Athletic's Marcus Thompson II wrote of Monday's dustup. "He reminded Durant the Warriors were winning before Durant showed up so he wouldn't stand for Durant talking to him as if he were a scrub. Green accused Durant of making the whole season about him even though he was going to leave after this season. Green let out his frustrations about how Durant has handled free agency—keeping his options open and keeping the story alive, consuming the Warriors and their season with talk of what Durant will do next."
Though Green is the one who unloaded on Durant, he is not alone at the core of his feelings. Other players on the Warriors "have made it clear privately they aren't on board for another Please-Stay-KD tour," per Thompson.
Green's outburst is significant in that, first and foremost, it happened, but also because he's been billed as a potential goner before now. He turned down a three-year extension over the summer, per Strauss, and sources told Haynes, then of ESPN.com, he has no plan to take a discount on his next deal.
Instead, Green has his sights set on a larger payday. He will qualify for a five-year extension this summer worth roughly $221.3 million if he earns an All-NBA bid or wins Defensive Player of the Year. Hence why 2020, the year said agreement would kick in, has always functioned as the expiration date for Golden State's core.
Curry will have two years left on his supermax in 2020-21. If he doesn't take a discount this summer, Durant will command a max worth 35 percent of the salary cap. The same will hold true for Thompson if he makes an All-NBA team this season. The Warriors cannot pay all three of them and Green. Their luxury-tax bill would be something worse than untenable.
All along, Green has seemed like the best bet to become collateral damage. Paying him so much money into his mid-30s feels like more of a risk than it does for the other three, and he has the aplomb of a player who might want to measure his mettle by leading a team of his own.
Durant leaving would ostensibly simplify the Warriors' decision-making process. Then again, maybe not. Committing supermax money to Green remains a steep investment no matter what. The idea of these agreements, while aimed at helping incumbent teams retain stars, has scared some into trades.
Staring down an extension that would take Green past his 35th birthday, Golden State could follow that lead, with or without Durant under lock and key. More importantly, without or without Durant, Green could flat-out orchestrate his own exit.
Coupled with the latest drama, the slightest hesitation to pay him this summer might be treated like a personal affront and one burned bridge too many. Green may already be at that point. The Warriors' response to Monday night's fiasco exceeds their reaction to his altercations with Kerr and his suspension from Game 5 of the 2016 Finals.
Maybe all of this blows over. Perhaps it's invariably spun into a wrinkle that became essential to their maintaining a sense of urgency and camaraderie, winning 77 games and going 16-0 in the playoffs en route to a third straight title.
This could also be the point of no return. Worse, the best-case scenario could play out, and it may not matter. Durant might still leave for more challenging pastures. Green might never recover from being tabbed as a lesser priority after helping Golden State afford Durant. The Warriors might find the importance they've seemingly attached to Durant's future rankles players other than Green:
In the meantime, this team will win games and probably another title, and the relationship between Durant and Green will exist under a microscope. As of now, without a convincing reconciliation, it's hard to envision both of them remaining in Golden State beyond this season, championship or not.
And while the Warriors haven't necessarily chosen sides by suspending Green and indulging Durant's uncertain future, their treatment of both has done something arguably just as divisive: created them.