championship or bust
Kevin Durant dunks over the Spurs' Marco Belinelli. (Richard Rowe Photo)

Here’s what we really know about Oklahoma Thunder forward Kevin Durant’s pending 2016 free agency decision: Nothing.

We can report on Durant’s financial incentive to wait for an increase in the salary cap before signing a new, much-larger contract. We can opine about the possible impact of a new coach and new system on his decision. We can say any number of thoughtful things within the realm of common sense.

But as the Thunder prepare to face the San Antonio Spurs tonight to open the 2015-2016 season, we know approximately nothing about Kevin Durant’s real free-agency motives.

Unfortunately, “nothing” doesn’t help feed the daily news cycle.

In a way, media are a lot like that one friend to whom the phrase “comfortable silence” has never meant anything. To such a friend and to the media, silence is deafening. When faced with silence, media will mutter nearly anything into the void just to hear the sound of their own voices. And the bigger the void, the longer the silence, the more those mutterings hold true.

Such is the case with the Kevin Durant free-agency story, which features that awful combination of intense interest and limited information. The Oklahoma City Thunder forward becomes a free agent in July 2016 and appears willing to keep his options open until it’s time to make a real decision. On top of that, he’s made it abundantly clear that neither him, nor members of his inner circle, are talking about his strategy.

As a result, fans, reporters and talking heads alike are filling the void with all manner of ridiculous things, from speculation based on Durant’s clothing choices, to this ultimate troll of Oklahoma City (and Seattle?) fans by Nike.

And Heaven forbid we make enemies of Stephen A. Smith, national beef-jerky salesman and ESPN First Take blowhard, who famously feuded with Durant over a report that Durant might consider Los Angeles, if he decides to leave OKC. (Way to double-hedge, Stephen. Bravo).


To a certain extent, we’ve come to expect the silliness. It’s just part of the age in which we live. What’s troubling, however, is the nature of the prevailing media narrative about Durant’s future in OKC: Primarily that the Thunder have one chance to win a title and keep Kevin Durant, or risk losing him forever.

‘Championship or bust’ in the news

The Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel penned one of the most recent examples with this piece on OKC’s “Big Shot”:

The 2015-16 season will be known as OKC’s Big Shot. The Thunder’s best opportunity to win a precious NBA championship and show Durant that there’s no better place for him to play ball.

Or there is the same, yet more subtle, implication from Marc Stein’s Basketball Power Rankings on ESPN:

No team has more riding on the outcome of this season than the Thunder. And no fan base is sicker of that snap take than this one. The good news: Kevin Durant shot nearly 60 percent from the floor in his preseason comeback and couldn’t have looked much better. As stressful as the next nine months will be for everyone in OKC … inspiring start.

Thanks for the inspiring words, Marc.

And one of the boldest pronouncements of them all, Zach Buckley for Bleacher Report:

This isn’t simply a championship-or-bust season; it might hold championship-or-demolition implications. OKC’s best negotiating ploy would be putting a ring on its superstars’ fingers, and it’s counting on a rookie NBA coach to make that happen.

Plausible assumptions

For a reporter looking to harvest something fruitful from an otherwise barren landscape, championship-or-bust is the easiest possible assumption to make: If the Thunder win a championship, Durant would have to stay and cement his legacy, right?

Sure. Makes sense.

But if you accept that basic premise, then you have to ask the next obvious question: What if the Thunder don’t win a championship? If the Thunder fail to win a championship — or at least compete in a heated finals battle — does it then become logical for Durant to leave? Is that really the choice he faces?

Some certainly seem to think so.

In fact, the number of “championship or bust” stories built on that assumption is rather comical. A simple search for the phrase “OKC championship or bust” yields pages and pages of recent material from sports outlets like SBNation, Bleacher Report, Yahoo Sports, Inside Hoops and Rant Sports, some dating as far back as far as the 2014 NBA preseason. Most didn’t even bother to hedge. They just put it right there in the lede.

It’s also worth noting that the “championship or bust” assumption isn’t without precedent. LeBron James, now back with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, walked away from the Miami Heat after he and his team flamed out in the 2014 Finals. The popular reading says he didn’t see ongoing championship potential in Miami and therefore took his talents back to Cleveland — or at least that was a prevailing narrative.

At best, the “championship or bust” narrative is purely speculative. At worst, it’s a perverse brand of self-fulfilling prophecy in which media define the landscape and pose one big false choice for the NBA’s biggest free agent.

We have no idea what Durant is actually thinking. Until we do, I’d caution media members and fans alike against driving this narrative and creating a false choice for a player who will have many options after a season with many possible outcomes.