When Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors in the summer of 2016, everyone could see what was coming: destruction.
Golden State instantly became one of the most dominant forces in NBA history, rampaging through the league and capturing back-to-back championships. Durant had multiple titles, Finals MVP awards and a seemingly perfect basketball situation.
And yet, when Durant chose to leave the Warriors behind and join the Nets last year — Brooklyn acquired him via a sign-and-trade and agreed to a four-year, $164 million deal with Durant — his decision didn’t come as a surprise. Durant’s time with Golden State appeared to be coming to an end before his unfortunate Achilles injury in the 2019 NBA Finals, a series that marked the end of an incredible Warriors run.
So why would one of the greatest players in NBA history wave goodbye to arguably the best team ever assembled?
MORE: NBA predictions for 2020-21 season, including Finals picks
Why did Kevin Durant leave the Warriors for the Nets?
In Durant’s mind, choosing Brooklyn as the next stop in his career was easy. He said he had a brief conversation with close friends Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan around 4:15 a.m. when free agency opened, and all three players were immediately on board with heading to the Nets.
“I felt like it was time for a change. I wanted to play for a new team,” Durant said at the team’s 2019 media day. “Simply put, I just did it. I didn’t really think about what I was leaving behind or what we accomplished. I put that up on the shelf already. When it was time to make a decision on my future, I just thought solely about me.”
In addition to being ready for a new opportunity in Brooklyn, Durant told The Wall Street Journal’s J.R. Moehringer that, despite feeling accepted by the Warriors, he knew he would never really be “one of those guys.”
“Steph Curry, obviously drafted there. Andre Iguodala, won the first Finals, first championship. Klay Thompson, drafted there. Draymond Green, drafted there,” Durant said. “And the rest of the guys kind of rehabilitated their careers there. So me? S—, how you going to rehabilitate me? What you going to teach me? How can you alter anything in my basketball life? I got an MVP already. I got scoring titles.
“As time went on, I started to realize I’m just different from the rest of the guys. It’s not a bad thing. Just my circumstances and how I came up in the league. And on top of that, the media always looked at it like KD and the Warriors. So it’s like nobody could [give] a full acceptance of me there.”
How Warriors experience impacted Kevin Durant’s decision
As Durant openly admitted, there were always issues regarding how he was viewed as separate from the rest of the team because he was added to the roster after a record-setting 73-win regular season.
When he won his first championship in 2017, Durant believed a title would change his standing in the league and turn the haters into admirers. That didn’t happen.
“He didn’t have a great summer,” former Warriors consultant and current Nets coach Steve Nash told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “He was searching for what it all meant. He thought a championship would change everything, and found out it doesn’t. He was not fulfilled. He didn’t work out as much as he normally does.”
In a February 2019 story for The Athletic, Ethan Strauss reported that Durant believed defeating LeBron James’ Cavaliers would force fans and analysts to reach a consensus and admit that he was the best player alive, even if they originally called him out for his “weak move” to the Warriors. That didn’t happen.
Instead, there was no grand reordering of rankings, and only so much credit to be had for a dominant playoff run. KD, who was “tired of being second” way back in 2013, was still stuck there reputationally, even in ultimate victory. He was still behind LeBron in the eyes of pundits, basketball Twitter, and perhaps most importantly, at Nike, who’s employed Durant longer than any team. Then, the next Finals unfolded in much the same way, with much the same result, all while Warriors fans cheered loudest for the smaller MVP’s baskets.
Strauss expanded upon Curry’s popularity and the tension it created in his book, “The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty”:
[Durant] accused me of “trying to rile up Steph’s fans.” He expressed that this was a constant theme in the Bay. All of us local guys just wanted to kiss Steph’s ass at his expense. This was KD’s constant lament. He would frequently squabble in direct-message conversations with the Warriors fans of Twitter, frequently accusing them of favoring Steph at his expense. In one such exchange that foreshadowed things to come, he was asked by the WarriorsWorld account whether two-time MVP Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving was the better player. “I gotta really sit down and analyze it,” Durant demurred.
And then there was the argument with Green. During a November 2018 game between the Clippers and Warriors, Durant and Green exchanged words after Green pushed the ball up the floor on the final possession of regulation instead of passing to Durant.
Green reportedly called Durant a “bitch” and was suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
Tensions ran high between KD and Draymond after going into OT with the Clippers. pic.twitter.com/J1EX86uNSz
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 13, 2018
When ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith asked Durant about that incident in October 2019, Durant said it did play a role in him leaving the Warriors.
“I mean, your teammate talk to you that way, you think about it a bit,” Durant said. “But you know, like I said, we talked about it. But definitely. For sure. I’m not going to lie about it.”
“Definitely. For sure. I’m not gonna lie about it.”
–Kevin Durant on if his heated exchange with Draymond Green was a factor in his decision to leave the Warriors
(via @firsttake) pic.twitter.com/luuS6Fd22C
— ESPN (@espn) October 31, 2019
“I just felt like I needed a switch. I felt like a lot of stuff in Golden State had reared its head,” Durant continued. “I felt like that was just going to be the end no matter what, especially for that group. Shaun Livingston was retiring. Andre Iguodala was getting older. Our contracts were going to stifle the team and put us in a hole to get other players.
“It was time for all of us to kind of separate.”
What about Kevin Durant’s injury?
When Durant took the floor for Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, there were questions raised about the Warriors rushing him back after he had suffered a calf strain earlier in the playoffs. Durant ended any speculation about injury management potentially affecting his perception of the franchise.
“Hell, no. How can you blame [the Warriors]? Hell, no,” Durant told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes. “I heard the Warriors pressured me into getting back. Nobody never said a word to me during rehab as I was coming back. It was only me and [director of sports medicine and performance] Rick [Celebrini] working out every day. Right when the series started, I targeted Game 5. Hell, nah. It just happened. It’s basketball. S— happens.
“Nobody was responsible for it. It was just the game. We just need to move on from that s— because I’m going to be back playing.”
That time is upon us. After missing the entire 2019-20 season, Durant will make his return with the Nets in the first regular season game of the 2020-21 campaign.
His opponent? The Golden State Warriors.