The changes that led to Kevin Durant's OKC departure

ByRoyce Young ESPN logo
Wednesday, July 6, 2016

OKLAHOMA CITY -- On June 15, 2015, Kevin Durant was in a walking boot, watching the NBA Finals, thinking about the upcoming season.

He had just met newly hired Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan. Durant was pushing through rehab and edging closer to returning to the court. He was fired up.

He sent Donovan a text.

"It's our year next year!" he said.

He sent another.

"Then Ima sign back and build a sick ass house and keep stacking chips!! That's [the] goal."

He was going to stay. He was going to plant his flag. He was going to finish what he started. Anyone who was around the team saw Donovan's hiring as the start of a new era, a fresh start and the first step in retaining their franchise player. Durant felt it, too.

Rehabbing his foot in Oklahoma City meant Durant spent a lot of time around Donovan. That's all it took. Durant was enthusiastic about Donovan's arrival and the new direction he represented.

Durant went about his usual business of ingraining himself even more into the community. He restored basketball courts at elementary schools. He donated significant money to inner-city school programs. He was inducted into the state's Hall of Fame to stand alongside the likes of Will Rogers and Gene Autry.

On July 4, 2016, Durant agreed to join the Golden State Warriors, leaving behind the only franchise he's ever known.

What changed?

To listen to Durant talk over the past eight years, leaving Oklahoma City seemed unlikely. Leaving for the Warriors -- a team that eliminated the Thunder in the Western Conference finals and that had just won a record 73 regular-season games -- seemed even more improbable. Professional athletes say things, though, and as those close to Durant often say, he has a bad habit of telling people what he thinks they want to hear.

At his MVP speech in 2014, Durant galvanized Oklahoma City. "You get knocked down, but you keep getting back up, keep fighting; it's the perfect place for me," he said. "The grass isn't always greener somewhere else." As road writers baited for compliments about their cities, Durant affectionately referred to Oklahoma City as home. He said he wanted to have his jersey retired there.

Even on the topic of ring chasing, Durant wasn't moved by the need for a championship to validate greatness.

"Our world revolves around championships," he said in a recent Sports Illustrated feature. "Who won the championship? Who will win the championship? If you're not the champion, you're a loser. If you're not first, you're last.

"Don't get me wrong, I want to win a championship more than anybody, but if you go through the journey we've gone through, you can also appreciate other things."

Durant repeated a phrase often: "I'm no front-runner."

The question many are asking in the aftermath of Durant's decision is whether he was simply placating to the media, or whether he was persuaded by Golden State's irresistible allure of championship success.

The Thunder tried to sell a legacy bigger than basketball. The Warriors pitched Durant on a dynasty -- a promise of dominance unknown to the NBA -- and the opportunity to maximize the amount of fun he could have along the way. Ultimately, that was too much for Durant to turn down.

In some ways, it's ironic that two of the key figures tasked with recruiting Durant were Tom Brady (for the Celtics) and Jerry West(for the Warriors) -- sports icons identified with one team. To the Thunder, and to Oklahoma City, Durant wasn't just Tom Brady: He was Tom Brady, Larry Bird and Ted Williams all wrapped into one.

But Durant's inner circle had bought the Warriors' message. His camp begged him to leave. Oklahoma City's pitch wasn't resonating. Not anymore, at least.

On Sunday morning, Durant and his personal security guard took off on bicycles to ride around the sunny beaches of the Hamptons on Long Island, about 80 miles east of New York City. Wearing a shirt with Kurt Cobain on it, Durant rode with a song playing -- Logic's "44 Bars."

The whole setup in the Hamptons was what you'd expect for a superstar athlete vacationing on July 4. It was a mansion on sprawling acreage, too many rooms to count, immaculate interior decorating.

A meeting with the Miami Heat was on tap and a final word for the Thunder was coming later that afternoon, but Durant was already closing in on his decision. He had spoken with West the day before, and he wasn't just leaning anymore. He was pretty much there.

"It's kind of funny how life changed and rearranged," the song went. "No matter what happens, everything ain't gon' be the same."

Thunder general manager Sam Presti could see the writing on the wall when he walked out of the swanky house on Sunday afternoon. The entire Thunder contingent could read what was happening in front of them. Even with the white-rimmed designer glasses and perfectly coiffed hair, Presti is unflappable.

He's resolved. He's a New Englander, born in Concord, Massachusetts, and a product of Emerson College. He carries himself with a quiet, steely confidence. He remained calm and even-keeled throughout the process, assured that the Thunder had already done their part to re-sign Durant. Other teams were recruiting him for two hours. They'd been doing it for nine years. It was just up to him to see that.

The Warriors were the clear and present danger, and with pressure pulling at Durant, tugging at a desire to supposedly validate his career with a title, the Thunder could see their franchise player slipping away.

Three days before, the Thunder had made their initial pitch to Durant, a meeting that lasted five hours and had the organization optimistic about their chances of keeping him. Presti and assistant general manager Troy Weaver met Durant at the front doors of Chesapeake Energy Arena with a massive banner across the street: "Taking on Tomorrow -- Today."

They shook hands and hugged, and the duo not-so-subtly tried to usher Durant through the door with his picture hanging overhead. An obvious symbolic message -- this is your building, your franchise. Durant walked in through the door next to it, under Steven Adams' picture.

Fellow "founding fathers" Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison had met with Durant prior to that, having dinner with him. They tried to reinforce how important staying together is, how they are on the verge of something truly special. Westbrook largely led the charge.

The Thunder had hoped they could sway Durant to drop his planned meetings in the Hamptons and agree long term on the spot. They came armed with the idea of chasing big man Al Horford, believing if Durant would commit, they could be on the phone with Horford and his agent at midnight to start lining up a deal. Presti knew the Thunder weren't landing Horford without Durant standing by his side; and he feared the opposite. Durant was unwilling.

He left the arena through a back door and was off to the Hamptons in a private jet.

But there was always concern that Durant would be persuaded -- that outside forces would sway him. Those close to him talk about how he's impressionable and impulsive, and the moment Durant agreed to meetings in the Hamptons, his future hung in the balance. In reality, he had one foot out the door.

Even up until the final moments before Durant started informing teams of his decision, the Thunder hoped he would change his mind. Eight Thunder staffers, plus owner Clay Bennett, went to the Hamptons and met with Durant around 3 p.m. They weren't all front-office executives. They were the people Durant worked with every day, from trainers, to equipment managers, to support staff, to public relations.

The buzz was building, the noise was growing. Every whisper had Durant heading to the Bay Area, but the Thunder wanted to believe he'd come back.

As Presti said Monday in the aftermath, there was an indication that it wasn't going to go their way. But they stayed anyway. They'd been at everything for Durant the past nine years -- his college jersey retirement, promotional appearances, surgeries, his MVP speech, charity events -- everything. They were going to be there for this, too.

They didn't have anywhere to stay, and with the Fourth of July weekend a hectic time in the Hamptons, lodging was hard to come by. So the Thunder holed up at a Holiday Inn Express, located one mile away from Durant's compound, and waited.

There were only six rooms available for nine people, so they shared. Clay Bennett, a multimillion-dollar owner, in a Holiday Inn Express, sharing a bed. Nothing was open, so they settled on a T.G.I. Friday's for a late dinner.

And then they waited for the inevitable.

Durant had spent the past nine years telling everyone, both publicly and privately, that he was wholly committed to the Thunder. He was angered when former teammate Reggie Jackson wanted a trade. "I never liked guys that didn't want to be here," Durant said.

He never held a grudge about the franchise trading James Harden, instead asking, not even 10 minutes after the deal went down, "All over five mil?" Durant took it personally that someone didn't want to remain part of what he and the franchise were building.

It frustrated Durant that the media would overlook the team's injury issues when talking about their failures. There were completely reasonable, justifiable reasons, he said, why they had fallen short of a title.

But that pressure is relentless, and Durant couldn't escape it. Especially as The Guy -- as the franchise cornerstone. Little things got to him, such as when he made an offhand tweet about Kawhi Leonard excelling in San Antonio's system when he won Finals MVP. He took flak for it, in his mind, because he was a non-ring holder criticizing a ring holder. If he was a champion, his opinion would be validated. He felt like he was on the outside looking in on the cool kids' clique.

Durant was also drawn to the idea that the Warriors are an inclusive team, not a two-headed super-duo leading a franchise. He often talked privately about the media drawing battle lines between teammates, rebuking the narrative that someone had to be the alpha. The Thunder tried to sell him on driving a franchise alongside Westbrook, with the two stars as the flag bearers, reinforcing the idea that as long as they were together, the parts could move around them. The Warriors just said come be a part of us.

Durant pushed back against OKC being his team or Westbrook's team. He talked constantly about being "the leader," almost repeating it to a point so that he would believe it himself. He sarcastically texted friends, wondering why the same wasn't asked about Curry and Klay Thompson. The pass-happy, rhythm-and-flow offense is one Durant has always longed for, but the Thunder struggled to adapt to that. Under Donovan, the Thunder improved their movement and spacing; they still ranked last in the league in passes per game, while the Warriors ranked first.

After a game in December when Oklahoma City's offense finally clicked under Donovan, snapping the ball all over the floor, racking up catch-and-shoot assists, Durant was ecstatic.

"I feel a breakthrough," he said. "Nobody can beat us when we play like that. F---ing beautiful."

When the Thunder fired Scott Brooks last summer -- a move Durant was in favor of -- he talked to friends about wanting a coach who would change the team stylistically. A coach he referenced? Golden State's Steve Kerr, who he labeled as a "difference-maker."

The Thunder culture -- one that Durant had a hand in crafting as much as anyone -- was often rigid and stifling. It's buttoned up, it's professional. It's "first-class," as a lot of incoming players like to say.

The Warriors run counter to that. They're fun and flamboyant. They're loose, they're confident. Durant was drawn to that, sources say.

He said his decision would come down to "who I'm going to be playing with and the people I'm going to be around every single day." Most assumed that meant he'd choose the people he'd known the past nine years. Westbrook. Collison. Presti. Weaver.

Instead it was Curry, Thompson and Green.

Durant didn't want to be the leader anymore. The Warriors' "Strength In Numbers" mantra wasn't just a catchphrase. It was what he wanted.

Privately, Durant was annoyed with a perceived media infatuation with the Warriors and Curry. He joked about how the Warriors were suddenly the "poster child" for the league. He expressed angst to friends about how the Warriors could seemingly do no wrong. He had come off a 2014-15 season from hell -- three surgeries on his foot in the wake of his triumphant MVP, an award he desperately wanted. He was supposed to be Curry -- the aw-shucks golden child who plowed his way through the league and dethroned LeBron James. Instead, he was in a boot watching Curry win an MVP and a championship.

Durant's star had fallen, something that bugged him. He had said he was tired of being second. He thought he had affirmed his place in the league, but he was slipping from the conversation.

"If you talked about the best players," Durant said at the end of that regular season," my name, still today, is still not in that conversation. And I feel as though I went out there and proved it to you, you know what I mean?"

His last two signature shoes -- the KD7 and KD8 -- didn't sell well. His jersey sales slipped. Durant has never sweat market size, but those around him were beginning to. The phrase that kept getting used: "Shake it up."

The walk from Durant's restaurant in Oklahoma City's Bricktown district to Chesapeake Energy Arena takes about 15 minutes, and on a sweltering Monday plenty of Thunder fans were making the final pilgrimage. They were taking pictures in front of the neon signage and then heading for the arena to get a few final snaps in front of that picture Presti tried to walk Durant under.

Hours after news of Durant's decision broke, a family was returning to the parking lot after they'd made their walk. A young boy, probably around 10, was wearing a Thunder hat and a Durant jersey. He tugged his hat down over his eyes, embarrassed about his tears. "I don't get it, Mom," the boy said. "Why'd he leave?"

Less than 24 hours later, an orange-and-yellow scissor lift was under the picture, and an arena employee slowly peeled Durant's face off the glass. What was left between Westbrook and Adams was a wide, empty hole.

There's confusion in Oklahoma in the aftermath, because Durant wasn't the guy who would leave.

He was the guy who talked often about love and loyalty.

He was the guy who asked for teammates to join him on magazine covers.

He was the guy who played video games with neighborhood kids.

He was the guy who randomly showed up in Stillwater to play some flag football. He was the guy who signed a full five-year extension, leaving out a player option to pledge loyalty and stabilize the franchise.

He was the guy who donated $1 million not even 24 hours after tornadoes shredded the OKC metro area in 2013.

He was the guy who tweeted this six years ago.

Oklahomans know where they live. They know the perception. Who'd want to play there? Why is there even a team there? It's a little man's state with a sensitivity to the stereotypes. But it's one with relentless optimism despite other shoes always dropping.

Most feared the worst with Durant -- because why would he stay here? -- but they talked themselves into believing he was different.

Durant gave Oklahoma City a new identity. As he grew, so did the infrastructure. As the oil and gas industry boomed, so did Durant and the Thunder. Locals' chests would swell with pride when they'd see a No. 35 jersey in Paris or Beijing. Durant was an ambassador for the state on a global scale, and he represented them.

Durant shared the values of Oklahoma: the humility, the blue-collar mentality, the kindness. As free agency neared, outsiders would poke and prod at Oklahoma City, saying Durant probably couldn't wait to get out of there. "No, not Kevin," locals would say. "He's not like that."

The oil and gas industry has sagged in the past year, with layoffs hitting all the major companies. And now Kevin Durant is gone.

The Thunder will move on. Still, the franchise has been planning for this day since it relocated from Seattle. Not for Durant to leave -- for him to stay.

The Thunder had been working to align a young core that could grow into their primes together. It started with Durant in 2007, then Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in 2008, then James Harden in 2009. Now, only Westbrook remains.

The Thunder are the dynasty that never was, the shining beacon of small-market hope the NBA touted. The message from the league was that with sharp management and committed ownership, a team didn't need a recognizable zip code to succeed.

Now, with Westbrook's free agency less than a year away, the Thunder are looking at the harsh reality of being burned to the ground by the cruel world of professional sports. They say they're going to take their time to evaluate their options from here, but their first move is trying to hand the keys of the franchise to Westbrook, and hope that he'll commit to a long-term deal. If not, if he wants to test the free-agency waters as Durant did, they'll be forced to consider trading him.

This was always about Durant being persuaded. The impulse decisions, like proposing to girlfriend Monica Wright on a night he was just "feeling it" in 2013, or when he signed that extension in 2010 and later came to regret it, made these meetings dangerous for OKC.

But he was the franchise, and they were willing to take the risk. Westbrook, though, they feel differently about. One source said in February that Durant leaving would only make Westbrook more resolute to stay.

Durant's departure is a crushing blow, but the Thunder are well-acquainted with adversity -- with jarring bad luck and devastating tragedy. Injuries to Westbrook, Durant and Serge Ibaka derailed promising seasons. Durant was always rational about the close calls, quickly pointing out the facts of what happened. The 2016 postseason was their chance. The roster was fully healthy for the playoffs. Durant himself downplayed the idea of championship or bust, but that's clearly what it was.

They got through the 67-win Spurs and went up 3-1 on the 73-win Warriors. The Thunder had Game 6 at home, the moment of coronation, the light finally shining at the end of their tunnel. They led by seven with six minutes to go. They led by three with three minutes to go. They lost 108-101. In the fourth quarter, Durant scored four points on 1-of-7 shooting with two critical turnovers. The Thunder fell in Oracle Arena in Game 7.

The Thunder had weakened the Warriors, with Draymond Green picking up costly flagrant points by kicking Steven Adams in the groin. After another low blow in the NBA Finals, Green was suspended for Game 5, a Cavs' win, and then Cleveland shocked the world, winning Games 6 and 7.

The Warriors, the runners-up, now had a pitch to sell to Durant: "With you, this wouldn't happen." Because of a hit to the groin, an all-time block by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving's Game 7 dagger, the Warriors suddenly weren't the greatest team of all time. They could claim they needed help.

Oh, and of course, there's the logistical bad luck. With an influx of new television money, and since the league and players were unable to agree on a smoothing process for it, the salary cap took a leap to astronomical levels, enabling the Warriors the opportunity to add a player of Durant's caliber without blowing up their core.

The 2011 lockout was supposed to prevent this kind of team being assembled. Instead, the new cap made it happen.

There's no question the Thunder made missteps. Trading Harden will be panned even more in hindsight. A title window is a precious thing.

Their inability to lure a free agent like Pau Gasol -- who in 2014 chose Chicago largely because of the city -- frustrated Durant. He lamented privately after they missed out: "Nobody wants to play in OKC." Durant often chirped at Presti about signing more veterans, believing the Thunder's plan of developing youth as a secondary wave wasn't the formula for winning in the postseason.

But through all of it, the Thunder built one of the most sustainable and successful teams in professional sports. They've won as many games as any NBA team since 2012 (post-Harden) except the Spurs. They went to four of the past six conference finals. They weren't some midtier team, scraping to find a way into the postseason.

They were a power.

Even with the adversity, they were positioned to keep building. They made a stunning draft-night trade to acquire Victor Oladipo, a trade Durant raved about to friends. They were executing a plan they felt had them positioned as strongly as ever to keep him. A year ago, Durant was saying he was coming back. And that was before this postseason, when the Thunder impressively rolled through the 67-win Spurs in six games and went up 3-1 on the Warriors. Their case had been made -- stay here, and we can finish this job.

The past couple of years, Durant butted heads with the media. It all began with an out-of-context quote at All-Star Weekend in defense of Brooks in 2015, and it escalated to the point that Durant shamed the media for their treatment of Kobe Bryant earlier this season. Durant was privately frustrated with the perception of his comments. He felt his message wasn't getting across. He felt misunderstood.

Some saw it as the evolution of Durant from the superstar you can take home to mom to NBA villain: a brand turn. Everybody kept asking the same question: Has he changed? He rejected the idea. He swore he was the same person, just older, wiser, more mature.

He said in his letter that this is the next challenge, the next step in that evolution.

The meeting with Collison and Westbrook gave hope that Durant would come back. The first meeting with the Thunder was positive. The word from Durant's inner circle all season -- and everything he had said and done -- had him leaning toward Oklahoma City.

So what changed? He did.

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