So much for having the time to process the ramifications --both for the Spurs and for me, emotionally-- of Manu Ginobili declaring on his blog his intentions to return for another season. I've been on record for a long time that I thought last year was it, but I'm happily wrong. More on that in the weeks and months to come.
The next day, a holiday no less, while I was busy at work all hell went loose in the NBA, and again the Spurs were involved, both tangentially and in a sidebar sort of way. And it turns out I wasn't wrong at all about this stuff. Kevin Durant is joining the Warriors. Pau Gasol is joining the Spurs. So here are 10 thoughts about a crazy Fourth of July that no basketball fan will ever forget.
1. Donatas Motiejunas' sweat and Draymond Green's groin-punching temper will go down as the flapping butterfly wings that irrevocably changed the future of the league
If only Stephen Curry didn't slip in a pool of D-Mo juice and wrench his left knee moments before halftime of Game 4, he'd have been healthy enough to nuke the Cavs in the Finals like he's rained down death from above on everyone else for two solid years. If only Green could have controlled his temper, the Dubs probably would've finished off the Cavs in five, even with a limited Curry.
Instead, ten different things broke perfectly for the Cavaliers to spring the upset, freeing Durant to bolt to the Bay under the rationalization that he'll be "the missing piece" instead of a superfluous hood ornament on the gold-plated Porsche 918 Spyder that he is. I just can't see him making this move if the Warriors were two-time defending champs. They still would've pursued him --their ownership group and front office made that very clear to local beat writers and columnists all season long-- but I don't think their main guys would've been as committed to making a change and I believe Durant would've understood how bad it would look for him to join a team that clearly did not need him. Losing in the Finals, even if it was a fluke loss, opened the door just enough.
2. The signs were there on draft day
Or at least I knew, ahem.
Gotta think Presti has a feeling Durant is leaving. This is a re-build deal. You don't trade Ibaka for Oladipo otherwise.— Michael Erler (@MichaelErlerSBN) June 24, 2016
Right after the Ibaka trade went down, my pal Paul Garcia at Project Spurs made a savvy comparison to what happened a year ago with the Blazers trading Nicolas Batum on draft day to Charlotte, how it was the first domino to fall and a crystal clear indicator that LaMarcus Aldridge was leaving. Portland's front office insisted at the time that the trade wasn't related to anything else, but we knew better.
Fast-forward to the Thunder trading Ibaka, their best rim-protector and catch-and-shoot guy, for Victor Oladipo, Arvydas Sabonis' kid and Ersan Ilyasova. Everybody swore that it was a sensible basketball move that was somehow supposed to make the Thunder more of a viable contender for next season even though their defense would be markedly worse and Durant would've been the only guy on the club you'd want to cover outside of 15 feet. I read stories about how supposedly Durant gave his blessing for the move and just rolled my eyes. Thunder GM Sam Presti is no dummy. No one will ever convince me that he didn't have a pretty good inkling Durant was eyeing the door. I simply refuse to believe he'd make that trade if he was convinced KD was staying. Forget the Tiago Splitter thing from last year, where the Spurs want us to believe that they unloaded his salary on a hope and a prayer, with no assurances that Aldridge was going to sign with them. Trading Ibaka would be more akin to R.C. Buford trading Tony Parker for Dennis Schroder and then telling people, "We had no idea Durant was coming."
So yeah, knock me over with a feather and all that.
3. The Thunder apologists need to think again
It's a hard thing to comprehend and digest, because literally everything Durant has said the last eight years runs counter to this decision.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) July 4, 2016
Except when he literally said on June 20 that his free agency will be strictly a basketball decision.
Asked what he means by a "basketball decision," Durant said it's not necessarily about the spotlight or the money.
"I'm worried about basketball," he said. "That's what it is for me. It's a basketball decision.
Just who I'm going to be playing with and the people I'm going to be around every single day, that's what it's all about for me," Durant told ESPN.com in an interview at Stubb's Bar-B-Q in downtown Austin. "You tend to hear about the market and the opportunities you can get off the basketball court, but I'm blessed, man, to be making what I make as a basketball player."
Durant reportedly struck up a fast friendship with Curry and Andre Iguodala at the 2010 FIBA World Cup and has long admired the "spiritual" locker room the Warriors fostered under Mark Jackson (and where, incidentally, Andrew Bogut was always the noted outsider). Not only will their free-flowing basketball suit him to a tee --The Warriors used "The Logo" as their closer in that regard-- but so will his new teammates off the floor, I suspect.
One thing that has to be said: The league made this possible. The lockout was supposed to help small markets. It didn't.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) July 4, 2016
And yet Spurs signed two future Hall-of-Fame big-men in two years.
It never fails to amuse me when supposedly player-friendly millennial basketball writers harangue fans on Twitter for feeling hurt and betrayed when their local stars leave town, lecturing them about guys having the right to earn a living wherever they want and then crying about the financial injustices of the system to small markets. Which is it: do you want players to have free agency or not? Or do you want it to be "freedom" in name only, where technically guys can switch teams, but they'd be stupid to do so?
The CBA is set up so incumbent teams can give players an extra year and $40-plus million more than other suitors. If a dude is willing to throw that aside and still leave, then we just have to accept it. Can't blame the CBA when the shoe companies who pay stars so much that their actual NBA salaries amount to walking around money.
The Warriors got lucky that Curry had rickety enough ankles back in 2012 that he took a below-market extension. They then got Green and Klay Thompson to agree to below-max deals. There was good fortune involved --something Spurs fans can relate to-- but also sacrifice and smart management.
What would've been awesome is if the other 29 owners got together to prevent this super-team from happening, with all of them deciding to avoid trading for Bogut no matter how many picks the Warriors offer and preventing the Dubs from clearing the cap space necessary to sign Durant. It would've been the most blatant case of owner collusion since all the baseball guys agreed to not sign Barry Bonds after 2007. Alas, Mark Cuban already ruined that idea because of course he did.
Enjoy Harrison Barnes at the max, Cubes.
Instead, the new CBA forced OKC to trade Harden, then the inability to prepare or smooth the new cap allowed the Warriors to sign Durant.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) July 4, 2016
The CBA didn't "force" OKC to trade Harden. Clay Bennett bought the Thunder for $325 million. Forbes currently values them at $950 million. Bennett could have found enough money to cover the luxury tax to keep Harden in his couch cushions. When you have young stars you move heaven and earth to keep them, period. Trading him away forced the crunch time offense into the predictable Iso "my turn, your turn" mess it's been the last four years. Neither Scooter Brooks or Billy Donovan could convince their headstrong stars to trust their lesser teammates when it mattered and that's an indictment of all of them.
4. We will never look at Durant the same way again
For good or ill. On one hand, even if he wins the next six titles --and he might-- he'll never be regarded as an All-time great, not after joining a core that came within a handful of points of repeating, and won 73 games in the regular season. This isn't nearly the same thing as LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining the Heat in 2011. That Miami team was Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and everyone else was scrapped. The Warriors have three All-NBA guys plus Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. They'd have been favorites to win next year just bringing their same team back. In that sense, Durant will be regarded as a soft ring-chaser and his reputation will take a hit, even if it's 25 percent less than it would've been had the Warriors won Game 7.
Also, even with Wade aboard, it became apparent that James was the guy in Miami. He still took that responsibility, especially after that first year. With the Warriors, they'll always be Curry's team. Durant will just be the hired gun, Joe Lacob's Ray Allen.
At the same time, I respect him for leaving. I wasn't sure he had the guts to do it. I didn't know if he could face doing it to Presti, Westbrook and the community. It would've made a lot of sense for him to give them at least one more year and then to go out with Westbrook if they lost again next season.
Credit to Durant for understanding that this thing with him and Russ has a ceiling and that it was never going to get any better. I would've respected him more for making a new path somewhere like Washington or Boston, but I don't blame him for leaving one bit.
5. The Players Tribune is insulting P.R. drivel
I mean, look at this awful thing.
Among the words you'll find in the short piece are "cognitively," "invaluable," "mandate," and "deliberation."
Let me be perfectly clear: I'm not challenging Durant's intelligence in any shape or form. Vocabulary and smarts are two different things with very little, if any, correlation to one another. Hell, I just had to look up how to spell correlation just now. But I've watched and listened to Durant speak enough to know these aren't his words.
The job of the ghostwriter is to write in the voice of the subject as closely as possible and to clean up the grammar and syntax here and there if necessary. It's not to show off how many ten-cent words you know. And ten cents is about how much some lowly intern probably made for this considering the phrase "I understood cognitively" was involved.
The whole premise of The Players Tribune is for athletes to bring their opinions to fans with no media filter, but it speaks to how easy and pointless they feel writing is that they can hash out things like this and not expect anyone to notice how phony and plastic it is.
Just say what you want to say and have someone transcribe it. It'd be more authentic.
6. We have the ultimate heel team to root against now
This is "The Heatles," times one thousand. This is like if LeBron James joined the 1980 Soviet hockey team. Fans turned on the Warriors during the playoffs to the point where James became a cuddly, lovable underdog by comparison. And there's no going back now. A huge cross section of NBA fans will be HATING these guys for being too good and insufferable. They'll get booed and taunted for only winning by 20 instead of 40. We'll meme and clown them to death if they ever actually lose a regular season game. The idea of them actually losing a playoff series will seem cathartic, like the ending of The Truman Show, a whole nation collectively rooting for something to happen.
The Spurs, the Cavs, the Heat, the Clippers, it doesn't matter. All the villains of the past will be considered good guys against this unholy monstrosity. It's gonna so much fun, hate-watching every game, the basketball version of rooting for terrible things to happen to Ramsey Bolton.
7. I love the Gasol signing for the Spurs
About time I mentioned them, huh? Jesus Gomez already wrote to explain why Gasol doesn't solve the Spurs biggest needs. I'm here to tell you to completely ignore him.
Pau Gasol is effing rad. He's long been one of my favorite players in the league and I couldn't be more thrilled he's joining the Spurs, even if he's 35. He's one of the most skilled big-men in NBA history, he can shoot from outside, pass, post-up, drive, the whole gamut. He probably blocks more shots from his tippy toes than anyone but Duncan and he rebounds very well. (Note: Gomez will use devil stats to inform you that he does not, actually, rebound very well. Beware.)
The knock on Gasol is his defense, but by the numbers he had one of his best defensive seasons last year and the Bulls allowed more points per possession with him off the floor than on, per NBA.com. ESPN.com's Real Adjusted Plus-Minus has him as the 10th-best defensive center and sixth-best overall, being worth 10 wins more than a replacement player. Meanwhile Basketball-Reference.com's Defensive Box Score Plus-Minus and VORP ratings loved Gasol's D.
Will we get frustrated at times with his pick-and-roll misadventures in his own end? Surely. But Gasol will help the cause more than hurt and he'll give Ginobili another guy to speak Spanish to on the bench, which he has surely missed.
And at seven feet, Gasol will literally be a massive upgrade over David West and Boris Diaw, neither one of whom could rebound, protect the rim or finish over anyone with size.
Mainly Gasol will make the Spurs more fun and interesting, on and off the floor and I'm pro-fun and pro-interesting.
8. I will love the Gasol signing less if Duncan retires
As optimistic as I am about the defensive numbers above, the idea of Aldridge and Gasol as the Spurs main two bigs isn't thrilling. I'd still prefer to have Duncan in there as a defensive buffer for 25 minutes a night. I don't really see the point of him retiring if Ginobili isn't, but I get that they're not connected. Mainly I just want to see Duncan play more, even if I don't have any expectations of it affecting the outcome of the season one way or the other. That I don't probably has something to do with why he's reportedly leaning toward retirement. Maybe he thinks Durant joining the Warriors would make him even less of a factor in a potential playoff series.
9. Durant joining the Warriors heightens the Spurs' championship chances
That may sound like crazy talk, but it's true. Now instead of two monster teams to beat, with two diametrically different styles (i.e. the Thunder as the best "big" team and the Warriors as the best "small" team), the Spurs will mainly just have to worry about one main gestalt, no matter how unstoppable it looks on paper. Without Durant, the Thunder are crippled. They'll be lucky to make the playoffs. The Clippers are the only other team the Spurs have to worry about in the West.
10. It's okay if the Spurs don't win
The whole point of being a fan is because the games are fun, right? For the first time in forever, no one will give the Spurs a shot to win a title. No one will give anyone besides Golden State a shot to win the title. So what? You either enjoy the sport or you don't. If it's all about the end-game, if a season has to end in a celebration or else it's a massive failure, then you're gonna feel like you wasted your life watching and reading about this stuff.
The Spurs will probably be better than most teams next year, as they have been the past 40 years, give or take. The odds are they won't be the *best* team, just like they haven't been more often than not. That's fine. My advice is to take this season and the next few after it and treat them like a free-roll in the casino. If they pull off a stunning upset, it'll be that much sweeter. If they don't, they've still brought you more joy and glory than most fan bases ever get, and we should always be grateful for that.