Tuesday, July 05, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Bolting for Oakland is easy way for Durant

Leader sportswriter

If you can’t beat them, join them. Kevin Durant did just that Monday when he announced he’s leaving Oklahoma City to sign with Golden State, the team that overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat Durant and the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

Since it happened, Durant’s decision has been the hottest topic of the sports world, but only because he made the very tough choice of leaving the organization that drafted him to join the most successful regular-season team in the league’s history – a team that has already proven it can win a championship without him.

Durant took the easy path to a championship; which is fine, if winning a championship is his ultimate goal, because in all likelihood that will now happen, and happen soon. But just because it’s the easy path to a championship, that doesn’t mean everything will be easy for Durant going forward, at least off the court.

If Durant would’ve chosen to stay with OKC, which is what he was reportedly leaning strongly towards when his free agency began, it would’ve been a mere blip in the news feed. That’s because it would’ve been the easy decision to make, and one that might have been expected by Thunder fans and the NBA fan base that had this delusion of Durant – a person with an undying love and devotion for Oklahoma City and the Thunder organization.

That delusion is at least in part Durant’s doing. When LeBron James left Cleveland for South Beach six years ago, Durant tweeted: “Now everybody wanna play for the heat and the Lakers? Let’s go back to being competitive and going at these peoples!”

Nine days before that Jordan-esque tweet (because it sounds like something people think Jordan would’ve said), Durant signed a five-year extension with the Thunder, putting his loyalty to the franchise in ink. Based on that tweet and extension, both of which took place in July 2010, Durant and the Thunder quickly became viewed by many NBA fans as the ‘good guys’ of the league.

When the up-and-coming Thunder, a team that looked poised for multiple championship runs with Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden leading a very talented cast, took on James and the Miami Heat super team in the 2012 NBA Finals, there was one poll question on a popular ESPN show that asked if the Thunder vs. Heat matchup was good vs. evil. It’s obvious who the ‘good’ team was in the poll question.

The idea of that matchup as good vs. evil is a bit dramatic and ridiculous, and a good example of how all-too seriously fans can take their sports. But regardless of how ridiculous that view/question was, it’s how many fans did indeed view that matchup.

When Miami ousted the Thunder in five games, it appeared to the bulk of the NBA masses outside of Miami that evil had triumphed.

That Thunder team, especially Durant, got off the hook relatively easy for losing four-straight games in the Finals, because they were the likeable ‘good guys’ of the league and were a team that appeared destined to get back to the big stage sooner rather than later. But then things took a turn.

After Harden and the Thunder failed to come to an agreement on a contract extension the next season, Harden was, of course, traded to Houston. Several other players and multiple draft picks were included in that trade, but the big fish in that deal was Harden, and at least part of that decision made by the Thunder organization was so the small-market franchise wouldn’t have to pay the luxury tax penalty that would’ve come with keeping him.

Harden’s departure turned out to be far more costly than any luxury tax penalty, because when he left, so did OKC’s dynasty dreams. After Harden left for Houston, it was reasonable to think that if the Thunder couldn’t capture the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him, then they probably weren’t going to do it without him, especially since it was an annual requirement to scratch and claw through the ultra-competitive Western Conference just to go against a LeBron James-led team in the Finals.

The Thunder did everything they could to make up for letting Harden get away. When Durant and Westbrook were both on the floor and healthy, OKC remained among the top teams in the Western Conference, but the Thunder could never get over that hump and get back to the big stage.

The closest they came to getting there again was when they had the defending champion Warriors on the brink of elimination. If it were a best of five series, they would’ve done it. But that’s not the case, and they couldn’t get it done.

Their best chance of ousting the Dubs came in game six at Chesapeake Arena, when OKC had them on the ropes. The two-time league MVP had gone cold, but the other Splash Brother kept the Warriors in it, draining a playoff record for 3-pointers in a game. Steph Curry woke up toward the end, and he and the Warriors did just enough to escape OKC with a hard-fought win and force a game seven.

The Thunder gave all the effort they had left in game seven, but the better team prevailed.

The case could really be made that OKC overachieved in this year’s playoffs. The Thunder beat a legendary Spurs team that was considered the favorite in that series, but history has shown the Spurs tend to lose those types of series a year or two after winning a championship and the Thunder have always given San Antonio fits. So that wasn’t much of a surprise.

The shocker was OKC winning three of the first four games against Golden State, but like they did against the Spurs, the Thunder provided several matchup problems for the Warriors that showed throughout that series. Still, not many would’ve predicted the Thunder ever being up 3-1 against the winningest regular-season team in league history.

That leaves many wondering why Durant chose to leave a very good Thunder team for a team they had on the cusp of elimination. As good as Oklahoma City was, especially in these playoffs, it just wasn’t good enough to win a championship.

The Warriors’ pitch to Durant couldn’t have been better, either. Included in that meeting were the owner, execs, coaches, their top three players and Andre Iguodala, who played an integral role in the recruitment of Durant, but the X-factor was Jerry West. The Logo, Laker legend and current adviser for the Warriors called Durant on Saturday night and probably hit the 2014 league MVP the hardest with his message.

West, who talked Shaq into joining the Lakers in 1996, spoke to Durant from the perspective of an all-time great player who continuously fell short of winning a championship. West, 78, lost in his first seven trips to the Finals with the Lakers before finally winning his first and only championship in 1972. West also came up short in his last Finals appearance, finishing his playing career with a 1-8 record in the Finals.

West told Durant that those losses in the Finals still bother him and he pitched the obvious to him – that playing alongside Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and company would make things easier on him and that he’d be more appreciated for his all-around game, rather than just his scoring.

The Thunder led the league in rebounds this past season, and their leading rebounder was Durant. It’s doubtful that many people knew that.

Making things easier for a nine-year veteran is one appeal, but what had to impact Durant the most was West’s talk of coming up short of a championship time and time again – something that had to sound all-too familiar to the former league MVP.

Falling short of an ultimate goal year after year takes its toll on a person, and sometimes a change of scenery feels necessary, especially if that change can in all likelihood lead to that ultimate goal in much easier and quicker fashion.

Had Durant chosen to stay in Oklahoma City, the Thunder would have been contenders for the next several years, but actually winning the championship would’ve been very difficult, and Durant doesn’t have all the time in the world at this point in his career. So, if Durant’s goal is to win a championship for himself, then this was the right move for him.

Durant’s a veteran now. These are his best years, and it appears as though he got tired of coming up short time and time again. He likely took West’s words to heart, and realized if he was ever going to make this move, now’s the time, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it.