CHICAGO – Jerry West may have done it again.
The famed model for the logo for the NBA may have helped turn the league upside down again July 4 when West’s arguments, arguably, could have been the final motivating force for Kevin Durant leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to sign with the Golden State Warriors later this week.
Unless he talks to DeAndre Jordan first.
No, this one seems final, and it’s an Independence Day of another sort on the day that is the United States’ celebration of its independence from Great Britain in 1776.
Then the U.S. just had to fight a war, and for Durant and the Warriors it’s just to go after another NBA title, which seems most likely in 2017 as the Warriors have quickly put together arguably the most celebrated team in NBA history at one time. They have the last three NBA Most Valuable Player award winners in Stephen Curry (twice) and Durant, and now four players with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson who were voted All-NBA this season.
That’s four of the top 15 players in the NBA on one team at one time, a virtually unprecedented arrangement that seems to assure — now all they have to do is play the games — the Warriors of reclaiming the championship trophy after losing it to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7.
That wasn’t long for LeBron to dominate the headlines.
So here’s the big question: Can a 73-win team improve?
It seems as if it did.
No one owns the worldwide sports media like the NBA. There’s never been an NBA summer like this with the amazingly large contracts and players routinely changing teams. And now Durant to the winningest regular-season team in history.
Of course, there’s some changes to be made for the Warriors, who have to offload their two centers, Andrew Bogut likely going to Dallas, and Festus Ezili, and let go Harrison Barnes, who also is likely going to Dallas — now Golden State Junior — to create salary cap room to sign Durant. Durant will sign a two-year deal with an option to leave after next season.
That presumably is so Durant can take advantage of his 10-year veteran status and the increased salary cap again next summer and sign a contract worth at least $50 million more than he could have this summer. But, of course, that’s more drama for next season with Durant’s future destinations regularly laid out with every loss.
Curry was without question the most popular and celebrated player in the NBA this season. Now he’s probably the second most on his team.
But the pressure — and the questions — are going to hover around Durant.
Hey, the Warriors won a title and were a minute away from a second without you. Not getting at least to the seventh game of the finals is a failure not only for you, but perhaps which you caused for the team.
How fair is it to play a season like that?
Durant will be regularly accused, as James was, of being less than Jordan and Magic and Bird and Isiah. Be tough enough to beat the best. Don’t run to join them.
I thought Durant would do so for one more season because with the acquisition of Victor Oladipo, the Thunder with Durant and Russell Westbrook have probably a better overall roster than Golden State. And they had a 3-1 lead in the conference finals over Golden State. Take one more shot. And bring a title to a city that never won one (the franchise began in Seattle, which won in 1979).
Durant will be getting heck for that all season.
But there were as many good reasons to move on.
One big one was San Francisco-Oklahoma City. People take offense when their home is less regarded.
But among American cities, San Francisco is as good as it gets for scenery, weather, food, culture, activities.
Oklahoma City is as bad as it gets, an awful climate, a city center probably ranking last among all NBA cities in diversity and recreation, little or no culture or entertainment. It’s one of those good places to raise your kids, though Durant is single.
San Francisco is South Beach with class.
And the Warriors are building a new, world-class arena in San Francisco with a free spending and generous ownership.
Then there’s the Westbrook thing.
Though you’ll hear about all this love and respect Durant had for him, it was not so much. Those who know Durant well know he was ready to get away from Westbrook and his manic, undisciplined game. It was becoming too much for Durant to endure Westbrook’s frenzy play after play. And the coaching change didn’t help. Durant was close to Scott Brooks, but accepted the change to Billy Donovan in hopes of having someone to corral Westbrook.
But Donovan backed off as Brooks had.
Plus, there may not be a better combination of team environment with a coach than in Golden State.
The players are obviously unselfish and play with a joy rarely seen in sports, Kerr is unique in both creating an enjoyable and workable atmosphere and also being able to hold players accountable, sort of a combination of the best of Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich.
And then there’s West, the NBA patriarch now a key Warriors advisor and board member. He spoke with Durant and the story he told Durant — his story — may have resonated as much as any.
West was an all-time loser in a sense, losing in the NBA Finals eight of nine times, losses which he says haunt him to this day. Get a chance to be with a winner. No one condemned the many Hall of Famers with the Celtics or later the Lakers under Magic.
It was West who helped put together many of those Lakers champions after he couldn’t get by the great Celtics teams of the 1960s and Bill Russell.
West was coach, scout and then general manager when the Lakers put together the Kareem, Magic, Worthy group, and it was West as chief executive who made the trades and signings to pair Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Perhaps no one knows winning and losing better that Jerry West.
And he may have helped steer Kevin Durant to an amazing legacy of winning in one of the most significant and lucrative offseasons in NBA history.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”