Isiah Thomas’ surprisingly astute observation about Kevin Durant’s decision

That’s Isiah Thomas talking for the majority of the video above — the guy who led the CBA into bankruptcy and the Knicks into their worst stretch of basketball since winning a title — talking about Michael Jordan joining forces with the Pistons on NBA TV’s crack for the hoop head’s, “Open Court.”

“We would have welcomed him,” Thomas said with a laugh when Ernie Johnson asked him Tuesday night what his reaction would have been if Michael Jordan had tried to sign with the Pistons after failing to get past them in the Eastern Conference during the late 1980s.

NBA TV

The comment brought the same uproarious laugh from Chris Webber, but also a chuckled disagreement from Steve Smith, “I thought you were gonna say ‘no’ Zeke!” Kevin McHale looked a little uncomfortable (remember, he was rivals with Thomas), and it’s clear Grant Hill wasn’t going tochime in much on the subject. But the quip was meant to throw the audience in the studio off, as well as the audience watching at home. It was like Zeke had flipped the entire Kevin Durant narrative on its head because he’s considered by so many past NBA players, and current NBA writers, to be one of the most pathologically competitive people in the game’s history.

More interesting even than that was what Zeke said (emphasis mine) after the laughter subsided and he was tasked with explaining — or more like defending — Kevin Durant’s decision to change employers.

“On the real, I probably wouldn’t have gone and joined someone else’s team, only because there was a family bond and a city bond. I think Kevin Durant had bonded with his city (OKC); I think he had bonded with his teammates; I don’t know if he was bonded with management. And when I say that, it seemed like something was amiss there, so what are his choices? Golden State or San Antonio, if he wants to win an NBA championship. Given the scenario, he picked Golden State. I’m excited that he’s going to be in Golden State. I think it makes our league more interesting. I think dominance is good — when you have super teams, everyone wants to watch. I think it’s good.”

I think it’s good for the league, too, just like LeBron’s decision to go to Miami and team with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. I don’t agree that every franchise should try and compose a super team, it’s just not realistic, but dominance shouldn’t be denigrated to the degree Durant’s decision has, even if it’s considered shirking the struggle that defines sports for a lot of fans — certainly anyone outside of the Oakland and San Francisco area. But the most interesting part of what Thomas said is in bold, and it conjures up Sam Presti’s biggest folly since becoming the general manager of the Thunder: the James Harden trade.


Lets not forget that the Thunder never again returned to the Finals after appearing in 2012 against LeBron’s Heat, then dealing Beard (along with throw-in players to make the money match: Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook) to Houston for Jeremy Lamb, Kevin Martin, and two protected, first-round picks (which became Steven Adams and Mitch McGary) that next fall. Martin left after one season in OKC; Lamb never reached the potential many — including Presti, probably — thought he had (he was decently effective coming off the bench for Steve Clifford in Charlotte this past season); Steven Adams has become a foundation piece as OKC’s starting center, but McGary has been suspended for the first 15 games of this coming season for a failed drug test (originally it was just five, but he failed to comply with their mandatory drug policy, which is when the league tacked on the extra 10) and it’s unclear if he’ll ever be a rotation piece in the NBA — let alone on a Thunder team that still has playoff aspirations even with the loss of Durant.

The Thunder lost that trade. Badly. Now, Sam Presti also drafted Durant, Russell Westbrook (a surprising selection at № 4 that’s paid off in a huge way), Harden and Serge Ibaka, creating the blueprint for small-market growth through the draft (he also smarty selected BC guard, Reggie Jackson). And Presti also dealt the biggest defensive piece of OKC’s regular season dominance the last few years — Ibaka — for a secondary ball handler on draft night this past summer after Ibaka’s sinking production under new coach Billy Donovan. Victor Oladipo is said to be buddies with Durant, too and KD applauded the decision.

But Thomas’ comments about how Durant bonded with the city and his teammates in Oklahoma City, but not the management group, still feels like a compelling reason for why he left in free agency — certainly more so than wilting at the thought of competing against the Warriors again in the playoffs. Kevin Durant isn’t afraid of competiton. That’s a silly line of thinking. He could, however, still harbor some distrust because of the Harden deal.

Here’s what Paul Solotaroff wrote in his Rolling Stone feature on Durant published Wednesday:

When a man has that sort of head-snap revival, every element of his life goes up for grabs. For Durant, it meant finally coming to grips with the verities in OKC. Try as it might with draft picks and trades, management there was never going to fix what it had broken with the Harden deal. And so Durant began eyeballing other teams, taking the temperature of the league.

And it’s not really Presti’s fault, either. James’ departure in the deal came about because the small-market Thunder couldn’t afford to go over the luxury tax to sign him to the max deal he was going to get as an unrestricted free agent that coming summer. So, instead of losing him for nothing, Presti pulled the trigger on the best deal he thought he’d get in the fall before the 2012–13 season began. Maybe he gets a better deal at the deadline that February, or some time at the turn of the year as teams become more desperate for a transcendent talent like Harden. Or, maybe not — because rivals know they could just sign him that summer.

Maybe Presti should have foreseen the new TV-rights deal with Turner and ABC (it was still two years away from being announced, but prescience is a part of the job, right?) that would make signing Harden to a max deal possible without going over the luxury tax more than once. Maybe that’s enough to have kept Harden in Oklahoma City to form a four-headed monster that would contend for a title for the next half decade. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

All these hypotheticals aren’t as important as the stunning realization that Isiah Thomas — yes, Isiah Thomas — might have inadvertently offered up the most cogent and rational reason for Durant’s decision to date.