The Finals Countdown

The battle for Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant this summer not only has overshadowed the Raptors-Warriors title duel, but it also could upend everything we know about how NBA superstars work.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJune 7, 2019

Jubilation filled Scotiabank Arena, the plaza outside the arena, the street that led to the plaza and several blocks beyond, a swirling sea of delirious fandom. They sang, chanted and bounced, their spirits moved by visions of an NBA championship.

Chris Bosh could only soak it in and smile last week as the Toronto Raptors seized a victory in the opener of the Finals, the first in the franchise's history. This was Bosh's dream not so long ago as the Raptors' heart and soul for seven seasons.

His moment never arrived. Bosh's teams never had enough talent—nor the raucous adulation now seen nightly in Jurassic Park.

So Bosh left. He chased his dreams in Miami with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He made four Finals, won two rings. No regrets.

But if he'd had this? This talent? This support? This opportunity? He'd surely have stayed.

"For sure, absolutely," said Bosh, who is working as a TSN commentator for this series. "That was my mindset the whole time. I wanted to win. I wanted to win a championship. And at the time, I didn't feel that we could win here with the current surroundings and where I was at the time. And Miami made a pretty good offer."

This is the value system that's guided superstars throughout modern NBA history: Give me the best chance to contend or I'll go find it elsewhere.

It's what drove Bosh and James to Miami in 2010, Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2011, Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012, James back to Cleveland in 2014 and Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors in 2016.

Given the chance, superstars opt for winning. This is the defining ethos of the superteam era. And it's possible it's about to be shredded. Inverted, even.

The two biggest stars in the 2019 FinalsDurant for the Warriors, Kawhi Leonard for the Raptorsmight be playing their last games in these uniforms. Both are free agents in July. Both are considered likely to leave. Both could be joining unproven (or even rebuilding) teams.

Rampant superstar migration has become the norm in today's NBA. But ditching a contender for a lesser team? That's a jarring new wrinkle. 

"That is strange," said Celtics legend Paul Pierce, who is covering the series for ESPN. "But that's the landscape of the NBA we have now."

For years, Pierce stuck it out on inferior Boston teams, waiting for help. He got it in 2007 when the Celtics acquired All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in a pair of blockbuster trades. Garnett, who had remained stubbornly loyal to the Minnesota Timberwolves until then, accepted the deal because of the opportunity to win a championship.

The Celtics did win, in 2008, kicking off the modern superteam era. Since then, nearly every move by a top starvia free agency or forced tradehas been aimed at increasing the chances of contention.

Until now, it seems.

Durant has been widely linked to the New York Knicks, a team that won just 17 games this past season, has missed the playoffs for 12 of the last 17 years and lacks a single established star. Leonard is most often linked to the Clippers, a team that did make the playoffs this season and has some recent success—but also lacks an All-Star talent.

Season-long speculation that Kevin Durant would join the Knicks this summer in free agency has not quieted down even with the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Season-long speculation that Kevin Durant would join the Knicks this summer in free agency has not quieted down even with the Warriors in the NBA Finals.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

The Knicks and Clippers both have the means to sign a second star this summer, so there's a chance each could make a quantum leap next season. Still, considering where they are today, Durant and Leonard would indisputably be taking a stepor severalbackward.

"It's a very interesting dynamic," Bosh said. "It's unprecedented."

Indeed, no NBA superstar has left his team immediately after winning the Finals in the league's modern history. And, in fact, few stars have even left the losing team.

If this is a paradigm shift, maybe it's a healthy oneaway from "ringzzz" culture and toward a broader definition of career happiness.

We don't know for certain the motives potentially driving Leonard and Durant away from their title-contending teams. We only have a vague outline, sketched by sources around the league.

Durant, it is said, wants to break free of Curry's powerful orbit to re-establish his standing as a supreme celestial force in his own right. Saving the woebegone Knicks could provide a new challenge, and a new kind of glory.

The calculus for Leonard is simpler. He is presumed to want to go home to Southern California to be closer to family, friends and sunshine.

Indeed, Leonard vaguely hinted at his own happiness matrix during a recent press conference.

"It's just basketball at this point," Leonard said. "Win, lose or draw, I'm still gonna be living, still got a family. And this is all for fun."

"All for fun." It's not a slogan one could have imagined coming from Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or James, whose careers were defined by an unquenchable, sometimes torturous, lust for titles. It's not that Leonard or Durant don't value winningthey never would have become elite if they didn'tbut their goals as mid-career stars might be broader than simply chasing rings.

"NBA players are more like everybody else than people might think," Commissioner Adam Silver told B/R. "And they are complicated. There are lots of things that affect them. Money is one of them, opportunity to win championships is part of it, desire to be happy, to create ideal situations for their families, to play in organizations that they feel speak to them. So I'm not surprised."

"Obviously, we're speculating a lot about moves that players might make," Silver added. Meaning: It's also possible Durant and Leonard stay with their contending teams.

Pierce was quick to note that both stars already have ringsDurant claiming two with the Warriors, Leonard one with the San Antonio Spursessentially liberating them to make career decisions based on other factors: lifestyle, weather, family, brand-building, laying a post-career foundation.

"Before it was like, 'I don't care; if I can play for a title it doesn't matter where,'" Pierce said. "But now, there's so much that goes into a free agent now, especially of that caliber, those things don't matter anymore."

With an NBA championship already on his resume, Kawhi Leonard has the freedom to choose where he'll play this summer without the burden of trying to chase the title by which NBA greats often are judged.
With an NBA championship already on his resume, Kawhi Leonard has the freedom to choose where he'll play this summer without the burden of trying to chase the title by which NBA greats often are judged.Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Once again, James can be seen as the trendsetter here. He kicked off this era of superstar empowerment by leaving Cleveland for Miami, and he punctuated it four years later by leaving a deteriorating Heat team to rejoin a younger, better Cavs team, each time prioritizing title contention.

But when James moved a third time, to the Lakers last summer, he chose a franchise with no proven stars, an inexperienced front office and no clear path to contention. Around the league, it was viewed more as a life choice—to be closer to his burgeoning media empire and to live in a city his family enjoyed. If he wanted to keep chasing titles, James could have gone to Philadelphia or Houston.

"Everybody sees where LeBron went to L.A.," Pierce said. "That was more a business decision than a basketball decision: 'That's the place where I want to live, I'm gonna grow my brand and life after basketball.' Especially for guys who have already been to the promised land."

Happiness, it seems, involves more than jewelry and some vague concept of "legacy"even for a player regarded as one of the greatest of all time.

"It's a sense of evolving, too," said Warriors veteran Shaun Livingston, alluding to the shift in player priorities. "You gotta look at it from an evolution standpoint of, like, we're not just going with the status quo anymore. Players, it's important as an expressionas an expression of themselves to be themselves, be true to yourself. What makes you happy, you do that."

And happiness itself is more elusive than we, or the players, sometimes believe.

A year ago, Durant confessed that winning the 2017 championship, his first, felt a bit hollow.

"I thought it would fill a certain (void)," he told ESPN. "It didn't."

It wasn't enough for Kyrie Irving, either. Two years ago, he forced a trade from Cleveland to Boston, despite making three straight Finals and winning a title alongside James. The Celtics have the talent to make a Finals run. And yet Irving could be on the move again in July, possibly to the Knicks or Nets, neither of whom are ready to contend.

"The only thing I can really (say) on that is nobody knows what's gonna make those guys happy but themselves," Livingston said of Durant and Leonard. "As a player, I understand that. ... Yes, we're here in the Finals. Yes, they got there with the teams that they could supposedly leave. All those things ring true. But the decisions that they make, they earned them. They've both earned those decisions because of the work they put in, of what they've given to their franchise."

It's yet another perilous twist for today's team executives, who already have a difficult time acquiring and retaining elite talent. To wit: If building a championship-worthy roster isn't enough to satisfy your star, what is?

Or maybe this is, as one rival GM said, just an odd confluence of events, involving two mercurial stars who just happened to meet in the Finals at a time when both had major free-agency decisions to make at a critical stage of their careers.

"These two guys are just different dudes," said the GM.

There's another subtle lesson in all of thisthat a superstar's free agency isn't necessarily a destabilizing force. After all, both of these teams are playing in June, despite Leonard's lack of commitment to the Raptors and despite widespread, season-long reports that Durant plans to play for the Knicks. Draymond Green even called out Durant over that very subject when they famously squabbled on the bench earlier this season.

Shaquille O'Neal was one of the few superstars to leave a title contender when he departed Orlando to sign with the Lakers in 1996.
Shaquille O'Neal was one of the few superstars to leave a title contender when he departed Orlando to sign with the Lakers in 1996.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"You gotta have a stable foundation," Warriors coach Steve Kerr told B/R. "If you have that, then you can withstand that stuff. ... And you don't have to listen to all the drama. Or you don't have to act on it. You can hear it, but you don't have to do anything."

Rather than shy away from the issue, Kerr said the Warriors discussed Durant's free agency openly as a team.

"We've talked about it, several times during the year," Kerr said. "It's kind of a good life lesson, too: Who the hell knows what's gonna happen tomorrow? So you enjoy today, and whatever the hell happens is gonna happen, but let's take advantage of this situation, which I think we really have. We've had a fantastic season, great run, and here we are in the Finals with a chance to win another championship."

Stars have left contenders before, of course. But it's been rare, and often under unique or adverse circumstances. Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando for L.A. in 1996, just a year after making the Finals. But the Lakers offered more money (there was no max salary at the time) as well as the allure of Hollywood. Eight years and three titles later, O'Neal was shipped to Miamiamid a feud with Kobe Bryant and a contract squabble with the Lakers.

But two superstars, in the same Finals, each possibly leaving within weeks of the championship ceremony? This is all new territory. And it has cast this series in an awkward light, making the futures of Leonard and Durant as much a subplot as Klay Thompson's hamstring strain and Drake's trash-talking.

On Monday, ESPN's Jay Williams stated outright about Leonard, "If he wins a championship, he's leaving. If he loses a championship, he's leaving. He's leaving." On Tuesday, a Toronto radio station reported that Leonard had purchased property in Torontoa sign, perhaps, that he was staying. And last week, the Clippers were fined $50,000 for tampering after comments coach Doc Rivers made about Leonard.

The noise surrounding Durant has been muted by his calf injury, which has so far kept him off the court and away from media interviews. Yet his absence also lent another seven layers of intrigue to his free agency: What if he doesn't play and the Warriors win anyway? Would that push him further toward the door? What if they lose? Would it prove they need him and move him to stay? What if he returns and they lose anyway? What if he returns and they win?

It's a fun but ultimately pointless parlor game with no answers.

"We're assuming nothing," the rival GM said.

The deeper the series goes, the louder the speculation will likely become. July could overshadow June.

Silver isn't concerned, believing basketball itself is still winning the day. And, he added, "There's a part of me that appreciates the fact that people are interested enough to be talking about us."

So the series and the speculation go on, each game bringing us closer to a championship ceremony and the ultimate moment of truth for these two superstars. Eventually, as the confetti flutters and the Champagne pops, amid the smiles and tears, we'll perhaps get a hint of what's to come.

Regardless of the outcome, Bosh knows what he would do if he were on this stage now.

"Keep the band together," he said. "And yeah, it's hard. You know what else is hard? Not winning."

    

Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017.

 Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.

 Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.


Longtime Warriors and NBA writer Marcus Thompson joins Howard Beck to discuss the Finals, Kevin Durant's future and Thompson's memories of Oracle Arena. All that and more on The Full 48.

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