When I was younger, ESPN aired a show on its alternate networks called “The Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame….”.
The show was an engaging and contrarian look at events in the history of sports, and it tried to take a different look at conventional wisdom in order to exonerate certain sports pariahs. The first episode in the series, which aired from 2005 to 2007, attempted to absolve Steve Bartman of the blame for the Chicago Cubs not advancing to the World Series in 2003. My personal favorite episode, though, is the one dedicated to former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.
Buckner, of course, booted a ground ball in the tenth inning that enabled the New York Mets to win Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and force a Game 7. Many blame Buckner for the Red Sox losing the series, as his error is believed to be the reason why the Mets won the championship. However, the show goes into great detail about relief pitcher Calvin Schiraldi’s implosion in the tenth inning of Game 6 as well as the truly inexplicable and baffling managerial decisions of John McNamara.
Many also forget that Buckner had been playing with multiple debilitating injuries and may not have even beat Mets speedster Mookie Wilson, the man who hit the ground ball, to first base anyway. Additionally, McNamara had defensive replacement and backup first baseman Dave Stapleton on the bench; the Red Sox turned to Stapleton in every one of their playoff victories to replace the hobbled Buckner and close out the game at first base. John McNamara, for reasons only known to John McNamara, left Buckner in for the tenth inning of the most important game of the season. Buckner shouldn’t have been in a position to botch the grounder in the first place.
Why am I bringing this up now? Today, the Golden State Warriors are NBA champions, at least partially because they signed the game’s second-best player, Kevin Durant, away from the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer. The Warriors had made back-to-back NBA Finals without him and one could argue that they would have won it all this season even if they hadn’t acquired another superstar. But the addition of Durant basically made the Warriors’ second title in three years a fait accompli, and many were critical of his decision to leave the Thunder, who lost to the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals after leading them 3-1 in the series.
Joining the Warriors, of course, was likely the best professional decision Durant could have made. While the Thunder were also a championship contender, the Warriors already had three stars on the roster and the addition of Durant made their offense virtually unassailable. The professional and basketball implications of the decision, though, are not the only reason why KD jumped ship.
In late 2014, the NBA announced a new deal with its television partners, ESPN and Turner Sports. The nine-year, $24 billion extension would begin with the 2016-17 season and would affect what was at the time a $63 million salary cap. The NBA’s proposed remedy for this imposing spike was to have the cap artificially smoothed so that a dramatic increase would not occur from one year to the next. The Players’ Association, spearheaded by executive director Michele Roberts, vehemently rejected that idea. The reasoning makes sense on both sides; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wanted the cap to grow exponentially while Roberts wanted to maximize the profits for the players she is in charge of.
Because of the Players’ Association’s rejection of the proposal, the salary cap jumped from $70 million to just over $94 million from last year to this year. Durant, an impending free agent in the summer of 2016, now had more options to choose from; while eight teams were able to sign him before the cap spike, 28 teams were able to sign him after it. One of those teams was the Golden State Warriors, who happened to be coming off the best regular season in NBA history and were one game away from winning their second straight championship the year before.
Durant, of course, decided to sign with the Warriors, helping to form quite possibly the most talented team in the history of the NBA. His move to Golden State, for all intents and purposes, made the regular season academic. The Warriors were clearly the best team in the league, and even Durant’s six-week absence near the end of the regular season didn’t derail the team from winning 67 games and breezing through the Western Conference playoffs without a loss. The addition of Durant made what was already an outstanding team one of the best in the history of the NBA, and his presence made sure no one would seriously compete with the Warriors for the NBA championship.
So, Durant left the Thunder and won a championship in his first season with the Warriors. The team also has the potential to become a dynasty, provided that their stars stay with the organization. Seems like a good decision, right?
Well, according to the sports media world of lambasting people for doing the right thing, Durant is a snake who doesn’t value loyalty and sold his soul for a ring. The idea is that Durant somehow owes something to the Thunder for employing him for the first nine years of his career. Of course, that’s not the case, and the idea of being able to freely choose who you play for has gone back nearly 30 years. Tom Chambers, the 1987 All-Star Game MVP who later became the author of the single most underrated dunk in NBA history, was disgruntled with his organization, the Seattle SuperSonics, for building a frontcourt that wasn’t exactly centered around him. While there was free agency at the time, it was only restricted, and if a player was good, his team would almost always re-sign him. However, the Players’ Union was able to agree with the league that one could become an unrestricted free agent if he met certain conditions, and so Tom Chambers became the NBA’s first unrestricted free agent and later signed with the Phoenix Suns. He later became the Suns’ sixth man when they went to the NBA Finals in 1993. Oddly enough, no one was angry at him for making the move from Seattle to Phoenix.
Many were upset with Durant for making the NBA season less interesting, and you can bet his decision did just that. But you have to remember that he made his decision for himself and not for us, and if you were in his position, you’d probably do the exact same thing.
One of the most vocal critics of Durant has been ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith; Smith famously spouted off on Twitter, a medium often noted for its users’ contemplative reason and thought, merely minutes after Durant announced his decision on July 4 of last year. What’s interesting about this is that Smith himself once left the Philadelphia Inquirer to join ESPN, and did so for possibly the exact same reason Durant left the Thunder: the opportunity to advance himself professionally and financially. While sports is different from the real world, what Durant did is what people do in real jobs all the time: take a position at a more prestigious company to gain exposure and experience with the hopes of progressing onward in their professional lives.
But, instead of looking at it that way, many have derided Durant as a traitor and a villain. And it’s not just the sports world that feels this way, either. Last night, Jeopardy! savaged KD with this clue:
After a loss to the Warriors in the 2016 Western Finals, this Thunder stud didn’t beat ’em, he joined ’em
It’s clear that not many people are willing to defend Durant on this one. I can see the logic in being angry at his decision, but you have to remember just that: it’s his decision, not yours. If you were in his shoes (hopefully not the KD 9 Birds of Paradise), you’d probably do the same thing. And, after all, the move paid off, as Durant is an NBA champion today.
Kevin Durant’s move also should have never been possible. Had the NBA put its foot down and forced the players to accept a smoothed cap, the Warriors would not have had the cap space to reel in Durant. Instead, they, like just about every other team in the NBA, had the money to pull it off, and it did create an unfair advantage for the Warriors.
And that is not Kevin Durant’s fault. Like Bill Buckner, he should’ve never been in a position to do what he did in the first place.