Four years ago, the NBA world was shocked when Kevin Durant decided to join the Golden State Warriors. The team that had just won 73 games and came a few plays away from back to back championships just signed one of the best players in the league.
In the weeks leading to the signing, the Warriors were one of the favorites to land Durant, but reporters and fans alike dismissed the notion that a player of Durant’s greatness could possibly leave the only franchise he had ever played for to a rival team. After all, the Warriors had defeated the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals after coming back from a 3-1 deficit.
However, all the denial was put to rest on that fateful July 4th morning in 2016. Kevin Durant’s three years with the Warriors were controversial depending on what kind of fan or even player you talk to. At the time, everyone seemed to hate Durant for joining an all-time great team and throwing the league balance out of order.
Since Durant’s decision, the Warriors have solidified an NBA dynasty with five straight NBA Finals appearances and three championships in four years. Durant became an NBA champion for the first time in his career and earned two Finals MVPs to validate his greatness on the biggest stage in the world.
The impact that Durant’s decision has had on the league is undeniably profound. Both the past and futures of NBA franchises like the Thunder, Warriors, Rockets, Cavs, and Lakers have been heavily influenced by Kevin Durant in one way or another.
Star players’ careers like LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Paul George were drastically affected by Durant for either good or for bad. But how would these players’ and teams’ pasts and futures be different if Kevin Durant didn’t join the Warriors?
To not overcomplicate things, lets assume Durant did not join another team at all and stayed with the Thunder for these last four years. For starters, the NBA Playoffs have been significantly worse since Durant joined the Warriors. KD threw the league balance away at the top and the Warriors dominated in the playoffs when fully healthy.
The expectations and playoff predictions were nothing but the Warriors winning the championship for any honest NBA analyst or fan. And the Warriors did what everyone thought they would do when fully healthy, as they went 16-1 in the playoffs in 2017 and swept LeBron and the Cavs in the finals the very next year.
If Durant had stayed with OKC, it’s safe to say the top of the league would have been more competitive. We could have seen better NBA Finals match-ups without pretending to be surprised or excited when the Warriors won.
Durant and Westbrook could have ran it back against the Warriors the following year with the winner getting to play LeBron and Kyrie in another epic and entertaining Finals series.
What would have happened to the Warriors if Durant hadn’t joined them to stack the deck against the rest of the league? Well, one thing is for sure, the Warriors would still be squarely in the NBA Championship picture. They would still have Steph Curry coming off back-to-back regular season MVPs with All-Stars at his side in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
Despite their deep roster, winning another championship would be more difficult than ever. Not only was Durant’s play at an all-time great level with the Warriors when it mattered most, but he also served as their security blanket. The Warriors didn’t have to worry about last year’s painful ending because of Durant’s arrival. They knew they were too good for the rest of the league, and they played like it.
Without the arrival of Durant, it is fair to question their ability to truly recover from blowing a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. While the Warriors would still be in great shape to compete in those four years, they would not be guaranteed to win the title like they were with Durant. The fact is the Warriors would still be a great team, but would not be good enough to create an NBA dynasty.
Steph Curry’s peak of his career was in 2015-16 with two MVPs and one NBA title. Since Durant joined, Curry hasn’t been able to replicate the same kind of individual success, but in the process, he has come out with two more titles on his resume.
Without Durant, Curry would have been able to put up MVP numbers and be the clear cut best player and leader of the Warriors. In fact, his legacy could have reached new heights if he had been able to avenge 2016 by winning a title and Finals MVP over LeBron’s Cavs. Without Durant, Curry would have had the chance to create an all-time great narrative and cement his legacy as a top 10 great in the history of the NBA.
On the flip side, Curry also could have not been able to get it done against either the Cavs or Thunder moving forward, and his resume would be stuck with one championship without a finals MVP that he deserved.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been through a lot since Kevin Durant left. Westbrook averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons and won an MVP the year after KD left. Paul George was traded to OKC after Westbrook’s MVP season to form one of the league’s best duos.
Unfortunately, the duo was never able to get out of the first round of the playoffs for the two years they were together. Now OKC has turned in Westbrook and George for a truckload of future assets to rebuild. While they are still competitive this season with Chris Paul at the helm, their future lies in their ability to draft well moving forward into the 2020s.
The question remains if KD stayed in OKC, would he and Westbrook win a championship in those four years? The two main barriers in their way would obviously be the Cavs and the Warriors. Despite their WCF loss, the following year would be the Thunder’s best shot to overcome the Warriors.
The Warriors would be demoralized from the previous NBA Finals loss and Durant and Westbrook would be entering the best years of their careers. Sure some of this can be due to circumstance and the fact that they didn’t have each other to hold them back from individual greatness. Even still, Durant took steps on the defensive side of the basketball to improve as an overall player, and he showed a killer instinct on the biggest stage.
Westbrook wouldn’t be able to become as great as he was without Durant, but all of his efforts would be to a championship cause rather than a statistically great season. The Thunder did have an all-time great team down 3-1, so it’s not too far fetched to suggest they could have defeated the Warriors and Cavs in the following years.
Durant winning a ring with OKC and a Finals MVP would also boost his legacy more than two championships in Golden State because he would have outplayed Curry and Lebron to get the title instead of playing with Curry to beat Lebron. So if Durant stayed with OKC, what would happen to Paul George and the Indiana Pacers.
In a recent interview, George suggested that the Pacers had a chance to trade for the “best big in the league”. Nobody knows who George was referring to for sure, but could it have been the likes of Anthony Davis? Maybe the Pacers go forward with the trade if Durant stays and the landscape of the league doesn’t seem overpowered by one team.
Another option for George would be to officially go to Los Angeles and join the Lakers. Either way, the George and Westbrook duo would have never happened and both players could have had a better career legacy if chips had fallen a different way.
LeBron James has been the player who has suffered the most because of the Golden State superteam. Despite getting blown out both times, LeBron has been the best player on the floor by averaging a triple-double in the 2017 Finals and putting together one of the greatest individual playoff runs of all time in 2018.
The Warriors’ firepower has simply been too much for even him to defeat. But what would happen to Lebron James if Durant stayed in OKC? LeBron James and the Cavs were coming off the greatest championship the sport has ever seen. LeBron fulfilled his destiny by bringing a long-awaited championship to Clevland in all-time great fashion by beating the Warriors in three straight games to clinch the title.
Moving forward, the Cavs would be the favorites to win the championship again as there would be no super team in Golden State. The Cavs would have done exactly what they did in real life to the Eastern Conference; decimating them with their big three and an even more motivated LeBron James.
James would be highly motivated to keep winning in Cleveland because he would recognize the opportunity to repeat and even threepeat, which is something he couldn’t do in Miami. In the Finals, the Cavs would either face the Warriors or Thunder and be favored to defeat both. If Lebron put up a great performance, as he did in the 2017 Finals, the Cavs would have been in another competitive Finals series.
The Warriors vs Cavs could have become a classic rivalry with one all-time great on each side and supporting stars to aid them. Or LeBron vs Durant could have become an incredible head-to-head duel with the outcome depending on which player was better and not which team around them was better.
Either way, Lebron would not only have had a chance to win more than three championships, but he would have also been looked at as the GOAT if he delivered. The incredible stats and moments he put up in 2017-18 would be accompanied by a championship instead of a Finals loss.
How would Kyrie’s future with Lebron change if they were able to win back-to-back championships? It’s safe to say that if they came up short against the Warriors or Thunder, Kyrie would have most likely requested a trade and would have been shipped to Boston as he was in real life. However, if they won another championship, would Kyrie really want to leave Lebron’s side just to lead his own team?
Let’s say he didn’t request a trade, Boston could have had Isaiah Thomas paired with Tatum and Brown to compete in the East. Even if they still did trade Thomas, Boston could have received assets that would have helped them long term as Kyrie left after two years. Additionally, Lebron winning multiple rings with the Cavs would have most likely meant that LABron would be just a figment of the imagination.
The Lakers’ future would change without the acquisition of LeBron. They could have Paul George, as he wouldn’t be on OKC, and they could keep the young core of Lonzo, Ingram, and Kuzma. Even though this future isn’t a bad look, the Lakers should be happy Durant joined the Warriors as they are competing for a championship because of Lebron and Anthony Davis.
A couple of other teams that were directly affected were the Rockets and Spurs. The Rockets have spent the last few years doing everything they possibly can to beat the Warriors at their own game but have come up short every time. They nearly did it in 2018 by pushing the Warriors to seven games and were at one point holding a 3-2 lead over them.
With the Western Conference more competitive due to the lack of a superteam, could the Rockets have gotten over the hump? First of all, with no superteam standing in their way, Daryl Morey might not have felt the need to trade for Chris Paul. No second star with James Harden would make it very difficult to overcome the Warriors or Thunder, but if the trade had happened, the Rockets would have been in excellent shape to make a title run.
Two years after Durant’s hypothetical decision to stay in OKC, there would be three evenly matched teams at the top of the Western Conference vying for a shot at the Cavs in the Finals. Even though the Rockets could have had an even better shot, they still could have just as easily fallen short because of Harden’s inability to close a big game.
By far one of the most impacted teams by the Durant move was the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard. Let’s go back to 2017 when the Warriors and Spurs faced off in the WCF. Kawhi got hurt in game 1 as Zaza Pachulia stepped under Kawhi’s foot when he was landing after a jump shot from the corner of the court. That injury changed everything for Kawhi and the Spurs, as he demanded a trade and refused to play for the team in the following year.
From there, Kahwi has impacted both the Raptors and the Clippers organizations, but what would the future and the past look like for those teams and Kahwi if he never got hurt in that game because the game never took place? The Spurs would have had Kawhi, who continues to improve his game year after year.
San Antonio would have challenged the top teams in the West and Kawhi would have had trust in the Spurs organization for years to come. The Spurs-Raptors trade would never have taken place; meaning the Raptors would not be 2019 NBA Champions and would most likely still have the same core that could never beat Lebron every year.
Two teams that are in great positions right now, the Clippers and Nets, could potentially not be a factor in this what-if scenario given the fact that Durant and Kyrie could have been in more satisfying spots in their careers by the 2019 free agency and never would have thought about joining forces.
The Clippers could be in a very different place right now with no opportunity to obtain Kawhi or Paul George. We will never know what exactly would have happened if Durant stayed in OKC, but overall, it could have looked something like this:
One of the best rivalries ever in the Cavs vs the Warriors with truly competitive series in the NBA Finals and leading up to the NBA Finals. Durant and Curry battling in the West with the Rockets and Spurs posing legitimate threats to them as well.
Also, teams like the Celtics, Raptors, Lakers, and Clippers could have had many different paths and outlooks into the future. Lebron, Curry, and Durant could have had chances to prove their greatness again, but this time all against each other with no team holding a clear cut advantage.
These four years in NBA history would be etched in a much different tone than the one that is currently in the history books. They could have been seen as some of the best years in NBA history with great players dueling head to head in epic match-ups that could have been remembered forever.
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