When Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder, the franchise with which he’d spent the first nine years of his career, to sign with the Golden State Warriors in 2016, he was never going to be applauded by the masses for his decision. Just a few months earlier, the Warriors had come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Final to eliminate the Thunder.
On the surface, Durant looked like a guy taking the easy way out, joining up with a 73-win juggernaut rather than staying in the fight with his own guys. You can understand that sentiment. Players understandably hate when people who’ve never been in their shoes judge their games, or certainly their life decisions.
Imagine having worked for the same company from the day you left college, then, at 28 years old, you get a call from the most successful company in your field. They want you. They’re going to pay you tens of millions of dollars to come work for them in California. Most people who say they wouldn’t jump at that opportunity are lying.
The point is, we forget that these athletes are, you know, real people, and when real people consider switching jobs, they think about real things like where they’re going to live, the money they’re going to make and the other people they’re going to work with. To hear Durant tell it, he loved the Bay Area. He also loved the idea of becoming part of that community and culture and playing in front of the Oakland fanbase. And, perhaps most importantly, he was ready to work with some new people for purely basketball reasons.
“In OKC, I played with a lot of athletes. I didn’t play with a lot of skill guys, not like shooters [and] ball-handlers,” Durant said while appearing on the “All the Smoke” podcast with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson. “So after a while, my game started to grow and I was like, ‘I need a change.’ This was before the [2015-16] season even started. I was tired of being the only guy who could make threes, make jump shots, and consistently make them.”
This could very well be read as a direct hit on Russell Westbrook. He’s the athlete, Steph Curry is the skill guy. Durant chose Curry. I wouldn’t call it a hit on a Westbrook; I would just call it the truth. Westbrook is a fantastic player. But he can’t shoot. The Rockets just uprooted their whole offense, going to P.J. Tucker at center to create space for Westbrook to drive, because relying on him to shoot is a dead end.
Beyond Westbrook, the Thunder rolled out with guys like Steven Adams, a non-shooting big, and Andre Roberson, another non-threat from the perimeter, and Enes Kanter coming off the bench. They were long and, to Durant’s point, super athletic. They turned into a defensive beast during those 2016 playoffs, and they presented all kinds of problems for the Warriors with their length and size. But it was an uphill fight, and Durant wanted to expand his game rather than spend so much time covering for everyone else’s. It is a reasonable explanation, even if people likely won’t treat it as such.