- Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.
Inside the Golden State Warriors’ practice facility in Oakland, California, Kevin Durant sat at the podium and responded to the first question of the 2018-19 season: How would he handle all the attention focused on his looming free agency that coming offseason?
“Wake up in the morning, come to practice and go home,” Durant said.
The tenor of the defending champions’ final season in the Bay Area was set.
Durant didn’t want the focus to be on his impending decision — yet his deal that included a player option in 2019-2020 made it difficult to avoid speculation. It was speculation that the other Warriors stars quashed: Stephen Curry signed a $201 million, five-year max extension in 2017, and Draymond Green was in the midst of a five-year, $85 million extension. And while Klay Thompson was also set to become a free agent at season’s end, there was never a question about whether he’d leave.
“It’s one of those things where you’re just confident in your skills and you just kind of want to take it year by year,” Durant said then. “And I think to keep my options up, it was the best thing for me. …
“This whole year is going to be a fun, exciting year for us all, and I’m looking forward to just focusing on that, and we’ll see what happens after the year.”
As hard as Durant and the Warriors tried to keep the focus on what they were doing on the floor, the uncertainty surrounding his free-agency decision hovered over everything the organization did in that final season — all through the regular season, all through the postseason and, ultimately, through the unraveling in the Finals as both Durant and Thompson fell to injuries.
Now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, Durant is set to face the Warriors for the first time at Chase Center (8:30 p.m. ET on ABC) in San Francisco. Here is a look back at the final year of his Warriors tenure and the fraying of the Golden State dynasty — through the words of Durant and the Warriors.
Nov. 9, 2018: Durant tours the future site of Chase Center
Durant: “My imagination is going wild right now with possibilities.”
The organization tried hard for the tour not to come across as a recruiting pitch, but it quickly became clear which way all the attention was going during a walk through the unfinished arena that was originally organized for media and team sponsors. After some of the construction workers told him that he was the first player to tour the premises, Durant, who attended the building’s original groundbreaking in 2017, walked around and asked a few questions as the tour progressed. He chuckled when a reporter asked if he wanted to commit to the Warriors on the spot. “What are we doing?” Durant asked, as Warriors staffers tried to move things along.
At the beginning of the 2018-19 season, the Warriors held out hope that Durant would re-sign after the season. Many inside the organization felt as long as the Warriors secured a third straight title, there’d be little reason the superstar wouldn’t want to transition into the state-of-the-art, $1.4 billion arena in San Francisco.
As he left the site, a Warriors official had Durant sign the construction boots specially ordered for him to wear that day. Stephen Collins, then the head of Chase Center’s construction, proudly carried the boots away. The Warriors were hoping to eventually display them once the new building opened and Durant signed a new deal. Now the boots are a reminder of what might have been. Officials know the boots made it to Chase Center, but no one knows exactly where they landed after the move.
At that point in the season, the Warriors were continuing the dominance that defined Durant’s tenure. The group won 10 of its first 11 games, including an Oct. 29 blowout over the Chicago Bulls during which Thompson set an NBA record with 14 3-pointers, breaking Curry’s previous mark of 13 set in Durant’s first season with Golden State. “It’s only fitting that those two hold the records,” Durant said.
Nov. 12, 2018: Durant and Green have words at Staples Center
Shaun Livingston: “Guys wanted a different outcome than what happened. Obviously, Dray had the turnover; guys might have thought they were open or wanted the basketball, didn’t get it. Things happen like that in sports. But it was good to see some fire, some emotion.”
Green, via Uninterrupted on April 20, 2020: “[Durant’s contract] was kind of the elephant in the room, and although [coach] Steve [Kerr] would kind of hit on it, [saying], ‘Let’s just enjoy this year for what it is because we don’t know what next year holds,’ it didn’t necessarily carry the same weight because what should have happened was Kevin come out and say, ‘Hey, man, this is it, so let’s do this,’ or, ‘This isn’t it.'”
With Stephen Curry home nursing a groin injury, the Warriors traveled to face the LA Clippers in a game that framed the rest of Golden State’s season. With the game tied and just a few seconds left in regulation, Green caught a pass and raced up the floor. Durant trailed, clapping at Green to pass him the ball. An ensuing turnover by Green led to a shouting match between the teammates on the bench shortly after. The Warriors lost in overtime, and the argument spilled into the locker room. Neither Durant nor Green addressed the media postgame.
Details emerged that several of Green’s teammates challenged his late-game decision-making and that Green verbally pushed back in an expletive-filled tirade, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears. According to sources, Green also questioned Durant’s loyalty with his free agency on the horizon. The Warriors suspended Green one game for conduct detrimental to the team.
Kerr, on Nov. 13, 2018: “Nobody ever talks about Kevin’s free agency. It doesn’t bother any of us. This is the NBA. There’s guys either under contract, they’re upcoming free agents. It’s the business. We’re focused on this year.”
The day after the locker room fireworks, Kerr tried to push the narrative that Durant’s decision wasn’t weighing on the organization. The reality was that the uncomfortable back-and-forth between Green and Durant at Staples only exacerbated everything.
While Green’s words warranted a suspension from the organization’s perspective, sources said that the general feeling was that the final play in regulation against the Clippers was a tipping point for all the tension centering around Durant and his future.
The Warriors went into an immediate tailspin, losing four straight games for the first time in the Kerr era. When asked where the relationship with Green stood following his return game on Nov. 15, Durant responded, “Don’t ask me about that again.”
Feb. 5, 2019: Durant rips the media
Durant: “I have nothing to do with the Knicks. I don’t know who traded [Kristaps] Porzingis. They got nothing to do with me. I’m trying to play basketball. Y’all come in here every day, ask me about free agency, ask my teammates, my coaches. You rile up the fans about it. Let us play basketball. That’s all I’m saying. And now when I don’t wanna talk to y’all, it’s a problem with me. I just don’t trust none of y’all. Every time I say something, it’s getting twisted up and thrown out and in so many different publications, trying to tear me down with my words that I say. So when I don’t say nothing, it’s a problem. I just wanna play ball. I wanna go to the gym and go home. That’s all. Is that a problem? All right then.”
Kerr, Feb. 8, 2019: “We’re all actors in a soap opera. We really are. So we have to deal with that part of it. And also understand that that’s a big part of the revenue stream. The intense interest and passion that fans have for who’s going where, what team’s doing what. It’d be nice if everyone could just pay attention to pick-and-roll coverage, but gossip is more interesting sometimes.”
The iciness between Green and Durant thawed as evidenced by a more congenial relationship on and off the floor, but the tension that appeared to be simmering around Durant ramped back up after he declined to speak to beat reporters for over a week.
Eventually, Durant chastised coverage of his impending free agency, pointing to a story speculating his move to New York at season’s end. One week prior, the New York Knicks traded star big man Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks, giving the Knicks enough salary-cap space to sign two max free agents that summer.
Privately, there was a subtle shift inside the organization, according to sources, from hoping that he might decide to stay to trying to enjoy one last ride together.
Andre Iguodala, April 4, 2019: “It’s something all the time. And especially with how there’s a microscope on [us], it’s always something. So I wouldn’t say this year is anymore than last year. All it is is just chatter. It’s more chatter about the future. And I think we’ve done a good job of not letting it seep inside.”
The focus that had defined much of the Warriors’ past two seasons was showing cracks: an uncharacteristic 33-point defeat at home to the Boston Celtics, a 35-point loss to the Mavericks in March. One particular loss to the Phoenix Suns, who to that point had not defeated a Western Conference team on the road, made Thompson so frustrated that he called out Oracle Arena fans for not showing up with more energy.
The Warriors went 57-25 — their worst record in the Kerr era to that point — and headed into the postseason as the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, still emboldened by the belief that despite the slog of the season, they could still turn it on when it mattered.
June 10, 2019: KD tears his Achilles in the NBA Finals
Kerr: “There’s going to be finger-pointing, and we understand that. And we accept that. This is kind of what you sign up for when you get into coaching, general management in the NBA. There’s all kinds of coverage, judgment, criticism, and it’s all part of it, so we accept that. The main thing is our concern for Kevin and these last couple of days just checking on him. Obviously, everybody feels horrible for what happened.”
General manager Bob Myers: “[Durant is] one of the most misunderstood people. He’s a good teammate, he’s a good person. It’s not fair.”
Durant missed over a month after injuring a calf in Game 5 of the 2019 Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, but the Warriors managed to hold on without him in six games, which included an epic 33-point second-half Game 6 performance from Curry to seal the win. The Warriors joyously celebrated in the visitors’ locker room as Durant, who was away from the team rehabbing, posted a picture on Instagram commemorating the win. A four-game sweep of Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers followed as the Warriors became the first team to go to five straight Finals since the Boston Celtics went to 10 from 1957 to 1966.
Much of the chatter centering around whether Durant should return in the NBA Finals if he wasn’t fully healthy. With Golden State trailing the Toronto Raptors 3-1, the Warriors’ medical staff and Durant’s inner circle signed off on him playing in Game 5. He looked unencumbered by injury, pouring in 11 points in 12 minutes. But with 9 minutes, 51 seconds left in the second quarter, Durant fell to the ground clutching the same right calf. The Warriors completed a last-second comeback to force Game 6, but the locker room was eerily quiet after the game. Myers tried to hold back tears at the podium and players dressed quietly in front of their lockers. Three days later, Thompson tore his ACL and the Raptors took Game 6 and the title.
June 30, 2019 KD signs with Nets
Owner Joe Lacob: “Today, as he starts a new chapter in his incredible career, we thank KD for all of his contributions, for being an integral part to one of the most prolific runs in NBA history and wish him well as he continues his Hall of Fame journey. As long as I am Co-Chairman of this team, no player will ever wear #35 for the Warriors again.”
Durant, on ESPN’s First Take on Oct. 31, 2019: “I felt like a lot of stuff in Golden State had reared its head. I felt like it was 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 start for the team and put us in a hole to get other players. It was time for all of us to separate.”
Durant signed with the Nets on the first night of free agency. His decision forced Myers, who had flown to New York in a last-ditch attempt to convince Durant to stay, to quickly change course. The Warriors worked out a sign-and-trade with Brooklyn that sent D’Angelo Russell to the Bay Area in hopes that he could form a new dynamic backcourt with Curry as Thompson recovered. To make room for Russell’s max deal, Iguodala was sent to the Memphis Grizzlies in a corresponding move. Livingston retired. So did veteran center Andrew Bogut, who had been added just before the playoffs. As the Warriors got set to finally open Chase Center, they did so with an entirely different team taking shape behind Curry and Green.
Kerr, on Sept. 30, 2019: “We want to maintain the culture that we’ve built, but we want to make sure our players are put in the best position to succeed. And the last four years we pretty much knew exactly what that meant. We don’t really know what it means this year. So that’s why we have a lot of work ahead, but it’s exciting, I’m looking forward to it.
The excitement Kerr displayed on Warriors media day faded quickly. Curry broke his left hand in the fourth game of the year. Now, on both coasts, Curry, Thompson and Durant were all rehabbing serious injuries.
KD, Warriors share insight on the end of an era:
Durant, via the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 10, 2019: “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 get a full acceptance of me there. … I came in there wanting to be part of a group, wanting to be part of a family, and definitely felt accepted. But I’ll never be one of those guys.”
Kerr, via All the Smoke on Oct. 15, 2020: “We all had a sense that Kevin was probably looking to move on and take on a new challenge. … You helped bring us two championships and almost another one. And you brought an incredible amount of joy to Oracle every night, and our fans got to watch one of the best basketball teams on earth. My feeling was, ‘Thank you and good luck and get healthy.'”
This was a transition point for both Durant and the Warriors. Curry played just one game before the rest of the 2019-20 season was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Durant, who was still rehabbing the 2019 Finals Achilles injury that forced him to miss the entire 2019-20 season, was one of the first NBA players to disclose that he tested positive for the virus.
Prior to the 2020 trade deadline, the Warriors sent Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for a package that included Andrew Wiggins and a lightly protected future first-round pick. Thanks to a league-worst 15-50 record, the Warriors landed the second pick in the 2020 draft, selecting Memphis big man James Wiseman. The excitement surrounding Wiseman’s arrival was tempered — just a few hours before the pick was made, Thompson tore an Achilles in a pickup game in Los Angeles and was ruled out for the entire 2020-21 season.
Dec. 22, 2020: Durant returns to the court; Nets host Warriors on opening night
Kerr: “I didn’t know what to expect given that it’s been really a year and a half since his last game. But I could not tell one difference between seeing him 18 months ago and seeing him the other night.”
Durant, on Dec. 21, 2020: “I don’t need this game or for me to play well or win this game to feel like I have closure on that situation. If winning a basketball game is gonna give me closure for three years, then I really didn’t have a good time there, I guess.”
When asked what it was like to face Durant again as an opponent, after having three years with him as a teammate, Curry offered a terse response: “Awful.” Durant and the Nets steamrollered the Warriors by 26 points, and Durant easily dropped 25 points in his first game in a year and a half. Before the game, Durant shared a few warm words with Curry.
Kerr, on Feb 8: “When we played Brooklyn on opening night, I talked to Klay a few days later. We talked about how great Kevin looked and how inspiring that was. And Klay noticed, and he definitely feels good about watching Kevin and his performance and how well he’s playing and how good he looks physically.”
Five days before the Warriors host Durant and the Nets, Kerr was asked if Thompson is using Durant’s strong recovery from his own Achilles injury as motivation that he can still return to an All-Star level. Durant’s reemergence as one of the game’s elite players made the Warriors happy on two fronts: proud to see him have success in his own career and hopeful that Thompson would follow in a similar path back to stardom.
Both the Warriors and Nets go into Saturday’s game in the midst of up-and-down starts. Curry has quickly regained his old form, averaging 30.0 points per game on 42.9% shooting from beyond the arc, but he hasn’t gotten the consistent help from his supporting cast the way he did when Thompson was healthy and Durant was still a teammate. The Nets are in the midst of their own roller-coaster season, trying to find a rhythm — most notably on defense — after acquiring former Rockets star James Harden in a Jan. 13 blockbuster. Durant enters the game averaging 29.5 points but missed time because of the league’s health and safety protocols. And Kyrie Irving has played well but missed a two-week stretch in the middle of January for personal reasons. Both teams still have high-powered talent, but each team has shown its flaws over the first two months of the season.
Source: Read Full Article