In the end, Kevin Durant chose the best basketball team. He chose the roster with teammates that maximize his chances of beating LeBron James and winning the first championship of his career. He chose an ideal roster fit and a shot at playing for the highest-scoring offense the NBA has seen in decades. He chose life alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the greatest shooting backcourt in history, and he chose to go against Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, two elite defenders, in practices rather than in Western Conference finals games. He chose to play for a coach with decades of NBA experience as a player, executive and coach, and to work under an ownership group and front office that won a title and then constructed a record-setting 73-win season. He chose a bigger market, prettier jerseys, more endorsement opportunities, and an organization that has made it a priority to keep the ball moving and to keep the miles off of its star players.
It’s a tantalizing pitch, delivered directly by everyone from the NBA’s first unanimous MVP (Curry) to The Logo himself (Jerry West), and yet Durant’s career-defining decision to leave the Thunder for the Warriors still qualifies as absolutely, positively shocking.
“It really pains me to know that I will disappoint so many people with this choice, but I believe I am doing what I feel is the right thing at this point in my life and my playing career,” Durant wrote in an essay published on ThePlayersTribune.com. The 2014 MVP added that he was searching for “growth as a player” and “evolution as a man” as he “[moved] out of my comfort zone.”
Reading those words is shocking for two reasons: Because Durant consistently put the Oklahoma City community and the Thunder organization before himself over the last nine seasons, and because he never dropped serious bread crumbs that he was leaving.
Durant was a loyal soldier during his rookie year in Seattle, keeping his head down during ugly relocation efforts and maintaining a bond with SuperSonics fans that exists to this day. He didn’t bother to take a player option when he signed his full five-year rookie extension, as is customary for players of his caliber. He publicly defended the Thunder’s decision to trade James Harden for years after the fact. He repeatedly posted on his Twitter account that he didn’t approve of stars teaming up and that he wanted to stay with the Thunder for his entire career. He donated $1 million to the Red Cross when a Tornado ravaged an Oklahoma City suburb. He stood by former coach Scott Brooks as criticism mounted for multiple seasons, snipping at reporters during the 2015 All-Star break because of it. He maintained a brotherly relationship with co-star Russell Westbrook even when critics spent postseason after postseason trying to split them apart. He famously thanked every single one of his teammates during his memorable MVP speech.
And on. And on. The bonds between Durant and Oklahoma City—evident in massive posters, his eponymous restaurant and thousands upon thousands of No. 35 jerseys—were as tight as any player and community in the NBA.
There was no easy, gradual letdown. When HBO Sports and Roc Nation teamed up to make a documentary feature called “The Offseason,” Durant was shown working out with his Thunder teammates and talking about how it was a hassle to deal with the attention when he returned to the Washington, D.C. area. Yes, it was clear from the film that Roc Nation had big plans for monetizing Durant’s ability and fame, but there were no direct indications that he wanted out. Throughout the season, Durant shut down virtually every question about his free agency decision, passing on the opportunity to lay groundwork for an exit. Back in May, Durant called himself a “small-town kid” and spoke positively about Oklahoma City’s economic growth in a profile by Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. He dished out hug after hug to his younger teammates following Oklahoma City’s loss to Golden State in Game 7 of the West finals. As recently as last week, he used the words “we” and “us” while approving Presti’s trade for Victor Oladipo and wishing former teammate Serge Ibaka well.
Even the biggest moments of his 2016 postseason run seemed like they would pull him back for another go-around. In Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Spurs, Durant saved the day and swung the series with a heroic fourth-quarter performance. During Games 3 and 4 of the West finals against the Warriors, Durant and Westbrook blew a 73-win team completely off the court, and the superstar duo looked poised for a Finals rematch with James.
Then, there was Durant’s last home game at Cheseapeake Energy Arena, which featured a 1-of-7 shooting performance in the fourth quarter of a stunning Game 6 collapse. Thunder fans hid their faces as turnovers mounted down the stretch, and thousands filed out of the building in silence before the buzzer. “It was Kevin’s fault, just write that,” one fan told a row of media members on his way out. Could a top-three player, a local icon and am immensely proud competitor really bounce on those terms? After nine seasons, four trips to the West finals, and one trip to the Finals? Would Durant, just five minutes away from knocking off the Warriors, really leave an entire state hanging?
Yes, he could. Yes, he did.
Within hours of Durant’s decision, Presti had issued a classy press release hailing Durant as a “founding father” and thanking him despite the “clearly disappointing” news. One fan swallowed the bitter pill differently, burning Durant’s jersey in a flashback to James’s 2010 decision to leave Cleveland.
Once the dust settles, Presti and owner Clay Bennett will be forced to reckon with a startling new reality. The Thunder will enter the 2016–17 season as non-contenders for the first time in a half-decade. They failed to even make the playoffs in 2015, the one season in which Durant was limited by injury during his career. They're stuck with incredibly limited incumbent options on the wings and a total lack of A-list difference-making free agents to pursue. Serge Ibaka was traded for Oladipo, a player who made lots of sense with Durant in the mix but less sense without him. Worst of all, Westbrook can become an unrestricted free agent next season, potentially setting up a second consecutive heartbreaking fall from grace.
The Thunder’s worries are no longer Durant’s burden for the first time since he was the No. 2 overall pick in 2007. Instead, he can dream his new life: 30 MPG instead of 36 MPG, a pass-heavy offense that is far more fun than isolation ball, a committed and tested team defense, plenty of wide–open looks, plenty of kick-out options when he attacks off the dribble, and enough A-list talent on all sides that he should never feel the need to put up 30 shots on an off night. His load will be shared like never before.
Durant is set to sign a two-year, $54 million contract with an option that puts him in position to sign a five-year deal worth $160+ million next summer. If things play out as expected, he’s in position to compete for championships for the next six seasons. After all, Golden State’s starting lineup will feature four All-NBA selections—Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green—who are all 28 years or younger.
The surprise isn’t that Durant would want to make his life easier and increase his odds at winning a championship, but that he would actually have the stomach to see it through. In one memorable scene from “The Offseason,” Durant could barely bring himself to call USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski to withdraw from the FIBA World Cup team. He clearly looked relieved and disheartened after hanging up, and one can only imagine how much tougher his final exchanges with Presti and Bennett were given their day-after-day, year-after-year shared history.
There will surely be heat from those who question his character and rightfully assert that he could have executed his departure better. That heat and those feelings will last for years and, perhaps, forever. As he processes those realities, Durant can seek comfort in this: While he had it good—really, really good—in Oklahoma City, he’s just signed up for nothing short of basketball heaven.