Ahead of a summer where many of the NBA’s top superstars are entering free agency, the 2019 NBA Finals will refreshingly feature the two best players in the NBA, both of whom have been more honest than any of their counterparts about what they want out of basketball.
When Kevin Durant joined the Warriors, we heard about Draymond Green’s text message, we all watched the Thunder’s 3-1 lead unravel, listened to Durant on the Bill Simmons podcast a half-dozen times. There’s a sticky air of distrust that lingers around Warriors and NBA fans when it comes to Durant because of the way he handles social media and reporters. It doesn’t always feel like he’s being open about his feelings, but he doesn’t have to be — Durant has never veered from the truth about his priorities in the NBA.
The biggest controversy offline of Durant’s Warriors tenure was not talking to the media because he was perturbed about questions relating to his potential move to the Knicks this summer. It was stubborn and senseless, sure, but nevertheless a byproduct of Durant’s steadfast commitment to ignoring the sort of noise that gets other superstars into trouble.
Take, for example, the continuing saga of Jimmy Butler. No one would bash the man for seeing the supporting cast and management situation in Minnesota and wanting a restart. But as he looks ahead into the summer, the 76ers proved to him they are probably the best winning situation as things stand now. The Clippers, Nets or Knicks may flex their big-market biceps and spit up a super team, but it’s hard even to say any of those squads will have a significantly better shot at a title than Philly over the life of Butler’s first contract.
Butler repeatedly saying he only cares about winning was a farce. People who want to make the most of a situation don’t burn it to the ground the way he did in Minnesota. That situation had no heroes, to be sure, but despite Butler’s concerns about his workload and the team’s mismanagement, it was difficult this year to believe that winning was his primary motivation when he constantly locked horns with teammates, media and suits.
Lower in the East bracket, Kyrie Irving finally got the chance to lead his own team and failed. The Celtics lost to the Bucks in five games, the same amount of games it took the Irving-less Celtics to beat Milwaukee in last year’s second round. For Irving, leaving Cleveland and getting out from under the shadow of LeBron James was about leadership. Still, the end goal of leading is to have success. It’s hard to find a franchise more stable and built for long-term success than Boston in a league where things in about 25 of the other markets turn on a dime. Yet Irving may still leave in July, his priorities seemingly wrinkled up after this tough season.
Gauging Butler and Irving day to day this season was impossible. Their mercurial approach to controlling their own destiny is representative of many stars, but not of the two teams playing in the Finals. No, the Raptors and Warriors feature players who have actually been more honest.
The fascinating part is what their truth tells us about the league: at the very top, for the guys who dictate wins and losses most, winning with a given team may not be all that important in how they see themselves.
Durant’s Warriors teammate, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, figure to get paid market value the next two summers, particularly if Durant leaves, and likely won’t miss much of a beat after five straight appearances in the NBA Finals. No one would expect them to leave absent a severe blow-up.
Their loyalty solidifies Durant’s purpose in joining the Warriors. He has won, won and won some more, but he also got to play with great teammates, grow himself as a person through the tribulations of being a front-runner and sacrificing for the whole. That’s what he’s been telling us he wanted the whole time.
On the other bench will be a guy who hasn’t told us much at all, Kawhi Leonard. He is the tipping point for the whole summer, in part because of his greatness and in part because we know so little about his priorities. People seem to think the Clippers are the favorites, but that seems to mostly be because they have been aggressively pursuing him and are far more stable than the other Los Angeles NBA team.
We don’t even know whether joining a winning roster is all that important to Leonard. Rather, finding an organization that will prioritize his health and comfort seems to be tantamount for the 2014 Finals MVP. Leonard has shown this spring that the roster around him doesn’t need to be littered with Hall of Famers like it was in San Antonio for him to lift them to the top.
Would winning the championship this year sway the man who says so little? It’s hard to tell.
This standoff will determine the NBA’s immediate future. These James-less finals are giving us a tasty new matchup to sink our teeth into, with many new tidbits and tactics coming from either side. And when it’s all over, it’s more likely than not that the best player on the winning team leaves in free agency. The NBA is defined by its player movement as much as the feats of athleticism on-court, but these finals will truly put to the test whether winning at the highest level is much of a factor at all anymore for the league’s best.
When players have the power to orchestrate entire roster overhauls and coaching changes, the jersey they happen to be wearing when they get handed a trophy seems beside the point. That’s tough to stomach for fans who develop loyalty to the guys who take them to the promised land. This summer, it may become a new reality.