On Monday NBA superstar Kevin Durant announced his intentions to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and sign with the Golden State Warriors. A decision met with surprise, anger and understanding across the sports world. Durant’s decision to spurn the franchise he’d been with for eight years to join a “super team” in California evoked many emotions from fans in OKC and across the NBA.
Juxtapose that with NHL star Steven Stamkos’ decision last week to re-sign a long-term deal with the small market franchise that drafted him eight years ago. Stamkos turned down offers from blue blood NHL franchises like Toronto and Buffalo, pursuing him with loads of money and young talent, to return to the Tampa Bay Lightning long-term.
In this article I hope to ask more questions than make sweeping statements. The “Please Like My Sport” crowd will probably hate this piece. My intentions are not to lift up Stamkos as some hero for the sport of hockey and frame Durant as a selfish NBA villain, because neither are remotely true. I’m simply fascinated by the parallels and differences of their free agency decisions, and the cultural differences that can exist between two sports.
Both players were drafted by small market franchises. Stamkos to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008, and Durant to the Seattle Super Sonics in 2007 (the Sonics would move to Oklahoma City and become the Thunder one year later). Both have one league finals appearance on their resume. Both lost in that final, and are still searching for their first championship. Both are heralded as one of the most talented players in their league. Both have played on incredibly talented teams in the past few seasons. Durant has had guys like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams around him. While Stamkos has enjoyed Tampa’s youth movement, supplying him with young guns like Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov.
With seemingly so many similarities in place, what is the reasoning for them to make such different decisions? Was it money? Stats? Culture? Championships?
The answer is probably a little bit of everything.
In the NBA, players’ legacies are predominately judged by championships. A player like LeBron leaves Cleveland for Miami because going there gave him a better chance at adding a title to his legacy. Durant’s move to Golden State to join Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green has been chastised by many as him simply “chasing championships.” Well, isn’t that the point? The contrarian argument made by many is that Durant had a title ready team to play with next season in OKC, and while that may be true, there are never any guarantees.
A chance to join forces with the loaded Warriors team in Golden State not only probably guarantees a title to Durant’s legacy, but most likely multiple titles. Could Durant have won multiple titles with Westbrook in OKC? Would OKC have been able to make it past the Warriors each season in the playoffs? Regardless of what could have been, what we know now is that Durant exercised his option to join forces with the team that he couldn’t beat last season in the Western Conference Finals.
In the NHL, legacies seem to be more stats driven than championship driven. That’s not to say that Stanley Cups don’t mean anything, because they do. But the idea of “chasing titles” just doesn’t seem to exist in modern-day hockey, or in the past. Players like Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin are often above guys like Toews and Kane in the league’s pecking order despite zero Stanley Cups. They’re there because of their on-ice production (goals, assists, possession), not because of their number of titles or what their teams have accomplished. Championships, of course, would be nice, but they aren’t the NHL’s definitive barometer it seems. Did Stamkos really have a better chance to win a title in Tampa than Durant did in OKC?
The NBA has had many “super teams” assemble in the last decade or so. From the Celtics, to the Heat, to the Lakers, and now to the Warriors, “The Big __” teams have become commonplace. Compare that to the NHL, the league with probably the best parody in North American sports. You don’t see stars like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, and Steven Stamkos using free agency to join up with each other on the same teams. Why is that? Is it because of different salary caps? Different values?
Could it be because the NBA is a more star-driven league than the NHL? Stars are on the court going head to head in almost every NBA game. In hockey, offensive stars are rarely on the ice at the same time against each other. In hockey, teams must roll different lines and defensive pairings all game long, and for very short shifts. In basketball, one star can change the outcome of an entire game, and maybe be on the floor for 80% of the time if necessary. The NBA has used its star power to market the league into the forefront of American sports. The NHL is still figuring out how to market their stars to a broad audience.
Two stars made two largely different choices, but both for very similar reasons. Stamkos and Durant are still looking for their first championship, and each made the choice to pursue it in a different way that fit their sport.
Stamkos felt he didn’t NEED to go join a big market to enhance his brand, or join up with other NHL stars to pursue a championship because one is already attainable, even in a small market like Tampa. Durant on the other hand chose to leave OKC in favor of a super team in Golden State that will surely win multiple titles. Championships that Durant will gladly pin to his legacy.
In the end, as I said above, both players moved in different directions looking to attain the same goal. Stamkos rejoins a wildly talented Lightning team that will be a Stanley Cup contender for years to come. Durant moves on to Golden State where he, Steph Curry and the Warriors will form one of the greatest assemblages of basketball talent in the history of the game. While Oklahoma City is left to pick up the pieces, and prepare for the franchise’s next chapter without their cornerstone player…