It’s old news at this point — Kevin Durant took a massive pay cut to return to the Warriors, signing for $25 million per year, rather than the $34.5 million maximum allowed. Durant’s willingness to take less helped the team stomach paying for critical free agents in spite of the punitive luxury tax payment implications. But now we are getting a few more interesting details on the nuts and bolts of how this has all shaken out, and what it could mean moving forward.
First off, let’s start with Durant. As Bob Myers told Tim Kawakami and Marcus Thompson on a recent Warriors plus/minus podcast it was actually Durant’s agent who put in the initial call and instigated this whole dance:
When the FA began, we had heard what you had heard: that he (Durant) was open to taking less to sign Andre and Shaun. So they had made that clear right from the jump … from when free agency started. Just to be clear, this is where we are — we don’t need the full max. Which, if they had said that you can say goodbye to pretty much most of our bench. And by the way, if they had said that, they would have gotten that … (Durant’s agent said) if we were to go with this number — of $25mil — would that help you? … To go to these lengths, I felt pressure. For a guy at this level to sacrifice to these lengths. I have the responsibility, we have the responsibility to bring back a team as good, or better than last year …
Coach Steve Kerr also sang the praises of Durant in an interview with Anthony Slater, while pointing towards the importance of this concession. It’s not just that Durant took less. He took a lot less, and he did so for the greater good of the team. I won’t get into a philosophical debate about whether true altruism exists, but this is the sort of thing that moves the needle in team sustainability:
A remarkable gesture. I told him it reminded me a little bit of Tim Duncan and his time with the Spurs. He made max money and then at key times in his career he took a little less so they could add a player here and there. The way the league works, the way the CBA works, it really kind of is up to the star player at key times to take a little haircut here and there. Whether that’s fair or not, I don’t know. But I do know that Tim knew it was dramatically helping his own career and KD understands the same thing.
As soon as Durant signed, fans and foes alike were eager to pounce on this move to support their preferred NBA narrative. On the one hand, it opened the door to maintaining this fledgling Warriors’ dynasty. On the other, it allowed the already-stacked odds to sway even further towards Golden State, skewing the already-screwed competitive balance. The Ringer fed into this narrative, parroting what is pretty much the boilerplate language of opposition to this sort of discount:
It’s noble in a way, but taking demonstrably less than his full market value hurts the players union as a whole (since most players don’t have the same access to alternative avenues of income that Durant does). Durant’s decision makes it painfully clear that it will always be the players who have to make “sacrifices,” never the owners.
What many are unwilling to admit, however, is this situation — the financial give and take at the heart of the Durant discount — is there by design. The whole point of the luxury tax and soft cap approach is to put pressure on players and ownership to decide how much they’re willing to give up in order to win. It’s easy to imagine players not ceding any money in their contract negotiations, and even easier to imagine a team owner balking at the ever-steepening penalties that every dollar over the tax threshold brings.
As Kerr told Anthony Slater yesterday, this ownership group doesn’t just talk the talk — they are willing to walk the talk by backing up their lofty language with their wallet:
How much do you credit Joe Lacob for paying for all of this?
It’s unbelievable. The bill that we’re going to have to pay is off the charts. So I give Joe and Peter (Guber) a ton of credit. They stepped up to the plate just like they said they would. We’re lucky. We have an organization that backs up the talk about being all about winning.
None of this would have been possible without Durant’s initial sacrifice. This isn’t a condemnation of capitalism, as much as it is an admittance of the business realities at play here (again, from the Plus/Minus podcast, transcribed by Business Insider):
“Here’s the thing to know about Joe: He’s really competitive, and he wants to win,” Myers said. “And so you have to balance that, like anyone does, with running a business. ... You have to balance spending with running a business with trying to win championships. ... But Joe is good in that we had a number heading into free agency as to what the budget was, and we’re way over it.
Some may argue that the ownership only went this far into the luxury tax due to an agreement made with Durant, which only proves my point: Durant would have never taken this pay cut without assurances from ownership that his sacrifice would be met with reciprocity.
And that, my fellow fans, is how you build a dynasty.