The new era began at the end of Game 3 in last June's NBA Finals. LeBron James finished with 39 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds, and the Cavs were unbelievable for most of the night. But Kevin Durant was fresh after picking his spots for the first three quarters. He was gliding all over the floor. He scored 14 of his 31 points in the final nine minutes, and with the Warriors down two, Durant hit a three in LeBron's face to take the lead and seal the win in the closing moments. LeBron was exhausted and a step slow to close out when it mattered, and that was the end. "I've played against some great teams," LeBron said afterward, "but I don't think no team has had this type of firepower."
That Durant shot was a torch-passing moment. Not necessarily because Durant was suddenly the better player, but because KD took LeBron's playbook and beat him at his own game.
Just as LeBron did with Miami in 2010—and again with Cleveland in 2014—KD used free agency to give himself the best chance possible to secure his legacy. He chose a team with young, unselfish superstars to ease his workload and an elite coach to optimize his talent. It wasn't an accident that Durant was peaking at the end of a Finals game just as LeBron was beginning to look mortal.
There are important qualifiers to consider here. 1) Again, LeBron is probably still better than KD if we're analyzing everyone in a vacuum; 2) Steph Curry and Draymond Green are both more valuable than Durant in Golden State; 3) What Durant did—join a 73-win team and a unanimous MVP that were one year removed from a title, and also join the team that had just beaten him in a playoff series that was more humiliating than most people remember—was several measures more extreme than any of the power-plays LeBron ever made.
That last point is the important one, because that's what gave us this summer. It's true, teams all over the NBA watched the Warriors in the Finals and realized that they would have to "up their risk-profile" to compete, but that was only half the equation. Durant's decision was so bold, and so effective, it freed superstars to try anything.
Chris Paul forced his way to Houston, the team that humiliated the Clippers a few years earlier. Paul George forced his way out of Indiana with his agent openly pining for the Lakers. Jimmy Butler got traded to become a 21-year-old sidekick in Minneapolis, and he was genuinely thrilled. Carmelo Anthony embraced Oklahoma City, and Dwyane Wade embraced Cleveland. Kyrie Irving watched Warriors in the Finals, heard LeBron rumors, and demanded a trade. All of them were making career decisions that would have seemed insane even two years ago, but they were mostly insulated from skepticism this summer. After KD, nothing feels that crazy.
The same way LeBron's Decision empowered a generation of superstars to go build their own empires with varying success—CP3 to LA, Carmelo to New York, Dwight to the Lakers—Durant's decision seems to have ushered in an era that's rendered all NBA alliances more fluid than ever. For teams like the Celtics and for stars like Kyrie Irving, every move on the board is now in play.
It's fair to have concerns about what's changed. For one thing, it seems unhealthy for the NBA if players like Paul George, Jimmy Butler, or Anthony Davis can't make it halfway through contract extensions before their incumbent teams are overwhelmed with trade rumors. Kyrie Irving had two years left on his deal, and that still gave him enough leverage to scare off suitors like the Nuggets and Bucks as he forced his way to Boston. Likewise, it's definitely not great that, just as the NFL was losing its grip on the mainstream and the NBA was building momentum, last year's playoffs were flat-out terrible.
The absence of drama hurt the NBA in some tangible ways. With the Cavs and Warriors barnstorming through the league, the NBA had the fewest playoff games since expanding to a best-of-7 format in 2003, culminating in an estimated-$70 million revenue shortfall, which made for a smaller salary cap this summer. Then, consider that the tighter cap will make it harder for Golden State's competition to level the playing field. Recall that Durant gave the Warriors a significant discount when he re-signed this summer, and that Klay Thompson is apparently considering doing the same in 2019. If you think the Warriors are a problem, they might not be going away away anytime soon.
"It’s pretty f***ing sick to see," Draymond Green told GQ this month. "Everybody is just in a f***ing panic about what to do. You sit back and think, like, these motherf***ers, they know. That’s the fun part about it: They know they don’t stand a chance.”
Two reactions there. First, a personal note: Every time I start to complain about the Warriors, Draymond Green reminds me not to take any of this too seriously. And second, if we're talking panic: I've worried about the Warriors' effect on the league to varying degrees over the past year, but I'm less concerned than ever.
If the Durant-era Warriors produced the offseason we just had, they deserve credit, not blame. This summer's anarchy should be part of the NBA's business model. But what's great about the Warriors is that they haven't only changed the calculus for teams and superstars. Fans are adapting, too.
Nobody is following this year's NBA to see who will win the Finals. Fans are watching to see what Kyrie Irving will do in Boston. Also: How will LeBron and Wade look in Cleveland? What does a Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons pick-and-roll look like? Will Westbrook, George, and Carmelo find a way to make it work? What about Paul and Harden? Is Karl-Anthony Towns ready to take over the world? And where will Anthony Davis end up?
This is how hardcore fans have always consumed basketball. Everyone has a favorite team, but if you love the NBA, you're following the entire sport. The trades, the draft picks, the personalities, J.R. Smith dapping up Jason Terry in the middle of a game, Giannis going nuts to win you over with a game-winner in the middle of January—the full spectrum of characters and subplots is what makes basketball great.
My guess on the Durant-Warriors era is that a lack of drama at the top of the league will force more mainstream fans to watch the NBA the way hardcore basketball fans always have. And that shift will come just as every league-wide subplot becomes twice as entertaining in the chaotic era that Durant helped forge.
There will always be Twitter eggs who claim that Warriors dominance has made the entire sport a waste of time, but I don't think the real world agrees with the comments section. Compare basketball and football. Bothsports have seen TV ratings suffer in recent years, but everyone is consuming media differently today, so that's not necessarily indicative of health. More relevant: When is the last time you had a heated argument about NFL news that actually happened on the field? Are you more interested in following the next three months of Andrew Luck or Kyrie Irving? How many stars does football have who are more famous Joel Embiid? And how many of those NFL stars are under 30 years old?
Basketball is already winning in the modern era. Durant and the Warriors will just sharpen the focus on what fans are actually following. The same way soccer fans follow superstar players all over the planet, younger basketball fans are learning to watch the entire NBA and follow the offseason as obsessively as the playoffs. Whenever Golden State stops winning titles, parity at the top of the league will add one more advantage to a sport that's already well-positioned to own the next decade.
In the meantime, this season features more superstars than the NBA has ever seen, and it feels like half of them will be in new uniforms. Then next summer will feature LeBron James, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Paul George all hitting free agency at the same time, with Anthony Davis looming as the most talented trade target since Kevin Garnett. None of this is slowing down. And as for the Finals MVP who lit the fuse on this new era, he's in a strange spot.
After the summer of the burner accounts and staged ESPY reactions and Nike trash talk, Durant's not less popular than LeBron was after Year One in Miami, but he seems less fulfilled. And what's interesting is that what KD seems to be looking for—broad appreciation of his game and his decisions—is everything LeBron eventually found on the court in Game 6 against Boston, the Finals against San Antonio, and obviously, the Finals against Golden State.
LeBron won over critics by winning games he was supposed to lose. The current version of Warriors is so incredible that it's unclear whether Durant will have the chance to give us those moments. He has, however, given the rest of the NBA the chance to take more risks, avoid scrutiny, get weird, and lean into everything that made basketball great in the first place.