Two days after Stephen Curry agreed to terms on a landmark five-year, $201 million deal that will be the richest in league history, NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant has gone all in on altruism, agreeing to a two-year, $53 million contract. (For reference, his $26.5 million annual salary would be roughly $150,000 less than C.J. McCollum’s, and only about $3 million more than Harrison Barnes, the guy he replaced.) It’s a deal that will pay Durant nearly $10 million less annually than a max contract would, and nearly $7 million less than what he was expected to sign for. Durant’s pay cut essentially footed the bill for Shaun Livingston’s new annual salary of $8 million and ensured that Andre Iguodala (who has reportedly agreed to a three-year, $48 million deal) would not be lowballed for his contributions to the organization.
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.
Teamwork — and pay cuts — makes the superteam dream work: The Big Three–era Heat team is a famous example, with all three of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh leaving $15 million on the table each over the course of their respective deals to ensure that they’d be able to play together in Miami. But Durant’s contract is only for two years — the sacrifice he’s making more than doubles what each of the Heatles had to give up annually. And apparently Durant was willing to give up more, if came down to it:
Of course, the tension within the Warriors franchise in how to navigate free agency with a lower-than-expected salary cap estimate for the upcoming season was in part of their own doing: The $99 million salary cap (which dipped from what was originally expected to be $101 million) was partially due to the low number of postseason games played as a result of the Warriors and Cavs dancing over the corpses of their in-conference competition.
There is a player option on the second year of the new deal, which means Durant will almost certainly look to do this all over again next summer. The Warriors have two of the five best players in the world with two different mind-sets on what it means to take advantage of the system in place. Curry is getting every ounce he can out of a pay model that, according to LeBron James, should pay him twice as much as he’s earning.
Durant, conversely, has sacrificed as much money as a star would realistically give up (though, he’ll recoup that money easily through his various sponsors). Where you stand on KD and how he’s impacted the league since July 4, 2016, probably won’t change with KD’s decision to take a pay cut, even though finding a way to fault him for this runs contrary to the way most aggrieved sports fans tend to think about an athlete’s monetary worth. Durant is living out old-time sports axioms in real life: You have to sacrifice for the greater good; winning is everything. He backtracked on the curious "Servant" nickname a few years back, claiming he was joking. But actions don’t lie — this is his truth. And because of that, the Warriors aren’t going anywhere.