Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forced a trade from the Bucks to the Lakers, where he won five of his six NBA titles. Shaquille O’Neal signed as a free agent with the Lakers and won three of his four titles with them. Wilt Chamberlain was traded from the San Francisco Warriors to the Philadelphia 76ers and won a title, and then he forced a trade to the Lakers and won another title.
In fact, you could say the Lakers were like a destination resort for NBA superstars and benefited from their desire to play on the West Coast. But no one begrudges the Lakers any of the 11 titles they won after moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles.
Yet, modern commentators have devalued what the Golden State Warriors have accomplished since Kevin Durant joined them as a free agent last season. The Warriors are one victory away from winning back-to-back titles — and their third title in four seasons — after their 110-102 win over the Cavaliers in Game 3 of the NBA Finals Thursday night.
The Cavs held Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to 21 combined points on 7-for-27 shooting and still lost because Durant poured in 43 points on 15-for-23 shooting, including 6-for-9 on three-pointers. It was Durant’s 33-footer with 49.8 seconds left for a 106-100 lead that put the dagger in the Cavs’ heart.
Durant undoubtedly is the second-best player in the NBA behind Cavs superstar LeBron James. But critics deride Durant as “weak” for leaving Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook to join the Warriors’ all-star cast that includes Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green.
When did the desire to win a title become “weak?” When did it make a difference if the move of a superstar from one team to another was orchestrated by a general manager or by the player as a free agent?
James left Cleveland as a free agent and went to Miami, where he joined stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win two titles. James was criticized for the manner in which he left — announcing his move in a TV show called “The Decision” and saying, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.” But no one criticized him for the desire to win.
Yet, Durant still is being criticized as some kind of opportunist, and critics say it’s no fun to watch the Warriors when victory is assured. That is utterly ridiculous.
The Warriors won a record 73 games in the 2015-16 season and then became the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 Finals lead to James and the Cavaliers. But when the Warriors acquired Durant as a free agent after that loss, critics treated their championship almost like cheating.
One person who respects what they did is James. Following the Cavs’ Game 3 loss, he was asked how Durant has changed the dynamic between these two teams and said, “You guys asked me last year what was the difference between the Warriors the previous year and this year, and what was my answer? Kevin Durant was my answer. He’s one of the best players that I’ve ever played against that this league has ever seen. So there it is.”
Comparing the 26-foot go-ahead jump shot Durant hit last year with 45 seconds left in the Warriors’ Game 3 win to the one he made at crunch time in Game 3 this year, James said, “The one he made tonight was about four or five feet behind the one he made last year . . . That’s what he does. He’s a scorer. He’s an assassin, and that was one of those assassin plays right there.”
So, yes, Durant makes a big difference. And yes, he’s an assassin in crunch time.
But more importantly, he’s not just along for the ride. Durant has carried the Warriors when they needed him the past two years. He earned last year’s ring and will have no apologies if he earns another ring this season.