You can't affix an asterisk to a championship. NBA titles require too much precision and will, irrespective of the talent on the roster. Over the course of a season, players and coaches routinely proclaim some variation of, "It's hard to win in the NBA," and that aphorism holds a lot of truth.
The Golden State Warriors understand this firsthand after seeing a 73-win regular season vaporize in seven days in June 2016. Stephen Curry stumbles into the NBA Finals at less than 100 percent. Draymond Green loses his head and gets suspended for Game 5. LeBron James reminds the universe he still reigns supreme, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a drought-ending NBA title. The basketball gods lay down a trip wire. It's hard to win in the NBA.
So Kevin Durant's ring doesn't come with a discount or dull under the halo of the Warriors' almost perfect postseason. It isn't diminished by the fact that, as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, he fell to the Warriors 12 months prior. Golden State's star forward asserted himself as the most dominant player on history's most dominant postseason team in a series crowded with stardom.
If joining the Warriors allowed Durant to do less of the heavy lifting, as some suggested, then he certainly didn't get a notification. He won the Finals MVP Award going away. As much as Durant has been deflecting praise to his teammates from the podium these past two weeks, nobody on the Warriors believes his Finals performance was the product of anyone else's coattails.
The scrutiny of Durant's free-agency choice to join an already elite team too often focused on the misperception that he wasn't willing to carry a team to a championship, that he wanted it to come easy. The notion that it was easier to leave Oklahoma City for Oakland fails to consider any factor other than supporting cast. In many regards, it would've been easier for Durant to stay put, to make a popular decision based on how it'll be received in a business where perception governs daily life.
NBA players want what we want: a workplace that speaks to their sensibilities and accommodates their priorities. Like many of us, they grow curious after several years at the same outfit about what else is out there. As a result, Durant chose something new, because novelty is exciting to someone in his late 20s who has been on a hard-and-fast career track since adolescence. He liked the compression level of the Warriors' locker room, the principles of their offense, the work flow. He also saw Oakland as a place he could improve individually. He opted for personal happiness, even if it meant accepting less control and the glare of fans who want superstars to struggle for their individual glory. He was looking for a level of trust at the office, and he found it.
As superstars have discovered a new power of self-determination -- elevated by James in 2010 -- we might see more of them concentrate their talents on a single team. These superstars drive the value of the NBA, so why not leverage that power to find the most appealing situation? James conceded that the practice of elite players joining forces is itself part of the gamesmanship of the NBA. "You have an opportunity to sign one of the best players, and you can do it, go ahead and do it. Why not? If I become an owner, I'm going to try to sign everybody."
If the Warriors had come up short this postseason, Durant would've been pummeled -- a ring chaser who couldn't even find his car keys when it was time to drive the bandwagon. Instead, he deferred to a system that worked better than the one in which he thrived in Oklahoma City.
When Green got in Durant's face in January after Durant dribbled and dribbled before shooting a long 3 while teammates stood stagnant, Durant absorbed all the criticism, external and internal. When the Warriors caught fire after he sprained his knee and fans celebrated their reacquaintance with the good ol' Warriors they knew, loved and missed, Durant worked harder to return from what was initially feared as a season-ending injury.
By the time the horn sounded in Oakland on Monday night, Durant had elevated a team to a championship, and the fact that there was a backstop of exceptional talent doesn't change that.
The premise that the Warriors' victory was inevitable due to their stacking the deck ignores an indisputable fact: Only one of these teams features four top-five picks in the starting lineup -- including a pair of No. 1 overall selections -- and it isn't the Warriors.
Even if you believe the Warriors' sheer dominance with Durant rendered the 2017 postseason a fait accompli, and therefore deprived you of suspense, in its place you witnessed something truly extraordinary.
In the end, it was about the work. For two months, the Warriors have exhibited basketball in its ideal form, and Durant has been one of the artists in residence. In the process, he accomplished something unimaginably difficult -- he joined one of history's greatest teams, and delivered them to even greater heights.