In an interview on the sports talk show “Mike and Mike,” Doc Rivers was asked about Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors in free agency. The Warriors, of course, had the best record in the NBA during the regular season and are now en route to the NBA Finals following a perfect 12-0 sweep of their Western Conference playoff opponents. Here’s the Rivers quote, via sportingnews.com:
"It is tough when you see a guy join a team — in Durant’s case what he did this year. That was tough for anybody, anybody’s that’s competitive, to watch. He lost, and then he joined. Having said that, it was his choice, I have no problem with him, but it’s something from a competitive standpoint, you would think you wouldn’t do.
"I have no problem with him doing it, it’s just something from a competitive point, for me, I guess when I played it would have been tough for me to join Detroit. Having said that, he has the ability to do it, guys are doing it, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Of course, the backlash to this comment was swift—didn’t Doc Rivers himself only win a championship because of a “super team,” when his 24-win Celtics team added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to form a “Big 3” with Paul Pierce? And shouldn’t the same criticism apply to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh for forming their “Big 3” in Miami?
Well, there’s merit to that point, certainly. There seems to be this notion from critics of every champion that past champions “didn’t need help.” Of course, the famous dynasties, from Russell’s Celtics, to Magic’s Lakers, to Bird’s Celtics, to Jordan’s Bulls, to Kobe’s Lakers (wow, can we get some variety in the dynasties, please?)—they all featured multiple superstars. Criticizing LeBron because he plays with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love is a little silly in that respect, as is criticizing Steph Curry because the Warriors spread responsibility more than most teams.
Still, the Kevin Durant situation is different. As Doc Rivers noted, he didn’t just switch teams, he switched to the team that had just eliminated him in a 7-game series. There’s an old saying that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” but I think it’s implied that if you go up 3-1 and end up losing in 7, you’re probably capable of beating ‘em.
Here’s the distinction between Durant and other examples of super-team building offered in the above-linked Sporting News article: the Celtics big 3 came together to form an entirely new team on the ashes of a 24-win 2007 Celtics team. Miami lost in the first round in 2010 with Wade, and then completely gutted their team and built a new identity around their big 3. Cleveland won 33 games the year before LeBron’s return, but he saw promise in their young pieces and chose to help them become great. The other Warriors—Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green—were all drafted into their situations and grew together to reach greatness. Guys like David West and Deron Williams are veteran role players, simply choosing to slot into roles on good teams instead of bad ones.
But Kevin Durant, in his prime and considered to be a top-3 player in the NBA, didn’t follow those paths. He wasn’t part of a new Super Team like Garnett and Allen, and he didn’t take matters into his own hands to team up with other free agents like James, Wade, and Bosh, and he didn’t even choose to help boost a younger team to contention, like James in his return to Cleveland. Instead, he slotted in on an already-great Warriors team, coming off of the greatest regular season of all time and a relatively flukey Finals loss.
Great teams are almost always Super Teams—the NBA is driven by star power. But where do we draw the line of respecting a star’s decision to be a part of one? For me, it’s right behind Kevin Durant’s heels. It’s one thing if you’re joining the team that eliminated you in the first round, or even the second in a noncompetitive series. But if you’re jumping ship from one semi-finalist to another, and if you’re joining what was already the greatest team of all time instead of building something of your own, it’s not a competitive move.
And as a result, we haven’t had much of a competitive league this season.