LAS VEGAS — The two voices persisted, in spite of each other, as Kevin Durant looked back and forth at the reporters, waiting patiently for one or the other to prevail. But there was no flinching in the game of chicken: both were determined to prod the NBA off-season’s biggest newsmaker and both were willing to risk any awkwardness that might result.
“You’ve spoken already,” one of the reporters finally snapped at the other, with the media-on-media jab prompting a “Whoaaaa” from its target and a rolling tide of eyeballs throughout the scrum that tightly surrounded a seated Durant.
“We can sing-along,” Durant quipped, interjecting to cut off any further escalation. “But we can’t talk at the same time.”
More than two weeks have passed since Durant announced he was leaving the Thunder for the Warriors, and yet the frenzy around his league-altering decision still shows no sign of waning.
Before stepping in to officiate two reporters Tuesday, Durant snaked around UNLV’s practice gym with more than a dozen people following his every step. Although USA Basketball has gathered a National Team stacked with All-Stars and a Select Team loaded with young stars for a pre-Olympics minicamp, Durant is unquestionably the center of attention.
There’s no LeBron James, no Stephen Curry, no Russell Westbrook and no Chris Paul, so it’s Durant who will lead Team USA on the road to Rio, it’s Durant whose image graces a two-story banner at the nearby Nike store and this week’s Sports Illustrated cover. Carmelo Anthony might have more experience with international basketball and others (like his new Warriors teammates) might have championship rings, but this summer belongs to Durant and it’s just getting started.
If the reporters are having trouble playing nice, and Durant’s new teammates are still openly struggling to believe that they succeeded in recruiting him, what will happen once the Oracle Arena crowd gets its first crack at him next week? What will happen if and when USA Basketball plays to expectations and plows through the Rio field, returning Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to the Bay Area with gold medals and month’s worth of bonding time?
Looking back at Oklahoma City
Before the daydreams get too deep and the expectations get too inflated, Durant realized that he had some explaining to do. The bland and vague Players’ Tribune essay that announced his decision read nothing like him, and it failed to answer the most important questions like, “Why?”
For Durant, the answer to the “Why?” boils down to this: the MVP and gold medalist has nothing left to prove individually. He desperately wants to win, and win big.
He never considered the rebuilding Lakers because he felt they were “a couple of years away from being where I wanted to be.” He was impressed that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was at the Celtics’ pitch meeting, but he said later that he, “knew I couldn’t let that distract me.”
“Establishing yourself and winning goes hand in hand, especially for a player like me who comes in with a lot of hype, a top-two pick,” Durant said Tuesday. "[At first], you feel like you want to stay and stick. As time goes on, you taste winning a little bit, it starts to become infectious. You want to feel it all the time.
“As you get older and older, that’s all you really want to do. I know what I am as a basketball player. I know what I bring, how I am, what type of teammate I am. That stuff is a given for me. As far as winning, I want to be a part of being a great teammate, [having a] long-lasting impact on my teammates for the rest of our lives. That’s my goal.”
The surprise is that Durant chose to seek that type of impact with a new cast of teammates rather than the group that had been built around him in Oklahoma City. Stripping away the emotions and the personal experiences, the decision makes sense. Compared to the Thunder, the Warriors can claim to own a better ownership group, front office, coach and roster—and that’s before the conversation turns to market size and desirability, as it inevitably does.
But Durant’s return to Oklahoma City was long viewed as more likely than not. After all, he was the city’s favorite son, he had gone above and beyond to leave his mark on the community, he had just come within five minutes of making his second trip to the Finals, and he could sign a flexible, short-term contract to align his free agency decision with Russell Westbrook’s next summer.
As it turned out, popularity, loyalty, familiarity and revenge were flexible concepts rather than firm ideals. Durant, long tagged as a people-pleaser, decided to prioritize his own happiness when making what he called, “the hardest decision I had to make in my life.”
“I can’t make a decision on my life because everybody else is going to be upset about it,” Durant said Monday. “I told myself to put me first, to really think about what I wanted. This is what I wanted. ... It was simple. That’s where I want to play basketball.”
“This” has the potential to be one of the greatest basketball teams in NBA history next season and, potentially, even more than that as the next half-decade unfolds. “This” was only possible because Durant chose to end an era of Thunder basketball that produced dozens of memorable playoff moments, four conference finals trips, one trip to the Finals—but zero championships.
Durant’s final home game ended with the fans leaving early, aghast at another late-game Thunder meltdown, and his first words during the free agency periods—the news of his decision—led to burning jerseys and videos of crying children in Oklahoma City.
“Having the chance to play in Oklahoma City for eight years, to see the city come together to support the team, I understand where they’re coming from,” Durant acknowledged Monday. “It hurt me. I was hurt for a few days because I know I hurt so many people in Oklahoma City.
“Of course they’re going to say what they have to say because everyone is emotional. Sports are a way to get away from the real world for a second. We provide that experience for them. I understand how they feel. I can’t really say anything to make them feel any different. [I have to] still go out there and be who I am as a basketball player and as a person. Life goes on.”
Durant did want to clear the air on one point: although he hasn’t talked to Westbrook “in depth” since his decision to leave, he dismissed speculation that the rift between the Thunder’s two stars drove him to the Warriors.
“It wasn’t [true],” Durant said. “Now that I’m gone, all these reports are going to come out. I can’t really control it. … I’m sure [I will talk to Westbrook] at some point. I wish him nothing but the best.”
Looking ahead to Golden State
On paper, the Warriors look as marvelous as can be. Durant fits perfectly into the starting lineup’s biggest hole and gives Golden State four All-Stars in its opening five. Zaza Pachulia, arriving on a budget deal, leads a pack of veteran bigs that can buy minutes before the Warriors go to their preferred, deadly small looks. The Warriors’ up-and-down style will make full use of Durant’s athleticism, while the team’s pass-heavy offense will generate the best looks of his career.
As with any Superteam, though, there are pecking order issues to work out. While this might come as a surprise given their reputations, Stephen Curry actually took more shots per game while posting a higher usage rate and a lower assist rate than Westbrook last season. Something (or somethings, plural) will have to give: Curry, Thompson and Durant all ranked in the top 10 in field goal attempts last season.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr will almost certainly figure out how to strike the right balance, like Heat coach Erik Spoelstra before him, but the single defining question of the 2016-17 season will be how quickly these A-listers mesh together as they settle into their new roles.
“I’ll figure that out when we get there,” Durant told SI.com, when asked about how he envisioned his new partnership with Curry. “When you have two players who love to play the game, enjoy winning, enjoy teamwork and camaraderie—obviously, it’s going to be a transition, but everything new has a transition. It will be alright.”
If Durant sounded confident and a bit sober, Thompson was more willing to gush at the prospect of the game’s top two scoring threats flanking him in the starting lineup.
“They’ll be great together,” Thompson told SI.com. “Both those guys can fit in any system with their skillset. The best part about them is they both love basketball. They’d do this even if they didn’t get paid, that’s how much they love the game. I can’t wait. It really is surreal.”
Thompson said he sees Durant fitting in for a few reasons. He has the right sense of humor: he can dish out wisecracks and take them in return without being “sensitive,” making him a natural fit in a locker room full of “jokesters.” He was willing to “sacrifice numbers or playing time” in pursuit of a title. And, despite his many accomplishments, “he doesn’t walk around [the gym] like he’s better than anybody.”
When it came time for Thompson to make his pitch to Durant in the Hamptons earlier this month, he focused his message on the competitiveness that would result from the collection of so many talented players under the same roof.
“Me and Steph work out on the same court every day, and I try to take his moves,” Thompson said, when asked to repeat his recruiting effort. “If [Durant] came, now I get to look at both him and Steph. It motivates me to get better and get on their level. I had no idea what I was going to say to him [beforehand]. I just spoke from the heart and it worked.”
Kevin Durant at peace
Anyone in Las Vegas searching for signs of regret from Durant over his career-altering move—whether on the court or off—would come up empty-handed.
His game during the practice sessions is as smooth and as unfair to opponents as ever. He glides to his spots, tears past defenders going either direction, pulls up at a moment’s notice, and alternates between pure jumpers and forceful finishes.
The edginess that has ebbed and flowed in recent years—manifested in frustration over his foot surgeries, shots at the media over its negative coverage, and subtle jabs at Curry during the playoffs—is nowhere to be found. Even when the subject of critical comments from TNT commentators Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley was broached, Durant brushed aside the negativity as if he was crossing up an elementary schooler.
“I respect the hell out of them two,” he said Monday. “I don’t ever say a bad word about them two. They can say whatever they want about me. I chose to do something, I chose my own path. I chose what I wanted to do. They had their own careers [and] they did what they wanted to do. … I can’t control how they think and how they feel.”
A day later, he wasn’t biting when asked whether the Warriors’ aggregation of talent had transformed Golden State into the NBA’s latest bad guys.
“[Being] villains and all that stuff, that’s for people that look at us as just entertainers,” Durant said. “This is basketball, this is life for me. I always enjoy the love, always enjoy people who love the game, the pure basketball fans.”
Durant’s “live and let live” happy-go-lucky mantra is very Warriors-esque. When Green and Thompson haven’t been marveling at Durant’s arrival this week, they’ve been firmly focused on winning the 2017 title rather than reliving the tougher moments from late in the 2016 Finals. For the foreseeable future in Golden State, there will always be “another title shot” to look forward to. That’s a powerful peace of mind.
While Durant and the Warriors are firmly in the honeymoon period for now, they will only remain there—let’s be honest—until they suffer their first loss. Nevertheless, their summer coup gives them a massive margin for error and a significant leg up over the rest of the Western Conference. Those conditions seem to have the Warriors taking the long view—flirting with “dynasty” talk—rather than getting caught up in the small stuff.
Indeed, when those two reporters had trouble taking turns Tuesday, Durant reached a peace accord by calmly answering a question from one before turning to the other and quietly instructing, “Go ahead.”
As bystanders were exchanging “What just happened?” glances, Durant, smooth as ever, was already on to the next one.