We’re more than two years removed from the sign-and-trade deal that sent Kevin Durant to the Nets, but it’s still easy to drift back into hypothetical land and ask the big question: What if Durant had decided that he wanted to stay with the Warriors?

From 2016-19, Golden State experienced basketball nirvana. Durant seamlessly slid into Steve Kerr’s rotation, and the Warriors proceeded to capture back-to-back championships, coming up just short of a three-peat after Durant (Achilles) and Klay Thompson (ACL) both suffered season-ending injuries in the 2019 NBA Finals.

While that campaign ended in disappointment, Durant still seemingly had the perfect situation sitting in front of him as he entered a free agency. The Warriors would give him any type of contract he wanted, and he would have time to go through the rehabilitation process in a familiar setting. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green could hold down the fort, then resume their domination of the NBA when Durant and Thompson returned.

But the situation wasn’t perfect — far from it, actually.

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Why did Kevin Durant leave the Warriors for the Nets?

In Durant’s mind, choosing Brooklyn as the next stop in his career was easy. He said he had a brief conversation with close friends Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan around 4:15 am when the free agency opened, and all three players were immediately on board with heading to the Nets.

“I felt like it was time for a change. I wanted to play for a new team,” Durant said at the team’s 2019 media day. “Simply put, I just did it. I didn’t really think about what I was leaving behind or what we accomplished. I put that up on the shelf already. When it was time to make a decision on my future, I just thought solely about me.”

In addition to being ready for a new opportunity in Brooklyn, Durant told The Wall Street Journal’s JR Moehringer that, despite feeling accepted by the Warriors, he knew he would never really be “one of those guys.”

“Steph Curry, obviously drafted there. Andre Iguodala, won the first Finals, first championship. Klay Thompson, drafted there. Draymond Green, drafted there,” Durant said. “And the rest of the guys kind of rehabilitated their careers there. So me? S—, how you going to rehabilitate me? What you going to teach me? How can you alter anything in my basketball life? I got an MVP already. I got scoring titles.

“As time went on, I started to realize I’m just different from the rest of the guys. It’s not a bad thing. Just my circumstances and how I came up in the league. And on top of that, the media always looked at it like KD and the Warriors. So it’s like nobody could [give] a full acceptance of me there.”

How Warriors experience impacted Kevin Durant’s decision

As Durant openly admitted, there were always issues regarding how he was viewed as separate from the rest of the team because he was added to the roster after a record-setting 73-win regular season.

When he won his first championship in 2017, Durant believed a title would change his standing in the league and turn the haters into admirers. That didn’t happen.

“He didn’t have a great summer,” former Warriors consultant and current Nets coach Steve Nash told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “He was searching for what it all meant. He thought a championship would change everything, and he found out it does n’t. He was not fulfilled. He did n’t work out as much as he normally does.”

In a February 2019 story for The Athletic, Ethan Strauss reported that Durant believed defeating LeBron James’ Cavaliers would force fans and analysts to reach a consensus and admit that he was the best player alive, even if they originally called him out for his “weak move” to the Warriors. That didn’t happen.

From Strauss:

Instead, there was no grand reordering of rankings, and only so much credit to be had for a dominant playoff run. KD, who was “tired of being second” way back in 2013, was still stuck there reputationally, even in ultimate victory. He was still behind LeBron in the eyes of pundits, basketball Twitter, and perhaps most importantly, at Nike, who’s employed Durant longer than any team. Then, the next Finals unfolded in much the same way, with much the same result, all while Warriors fans cheered loudest for the smaller MVP’s baskets.

Strauss expanded upon Curry’s popularity and the tension it created in his book, “The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty”:

[Durant] accused me of “trying to rile up Steph’s fans.” I have expressed that this was a constant theme in the Bay. All of us local guys just wanted to kiss Steph’s ass at his expense from him. This was KD’s constant lament. He would frequently squabble in direct-message conversations with the Warriors fans on Twitter, frequently accusing them of favoring Steph at his expense. In one such exchange that foreshadowed things to come, he was asked by the Warriors World account whether two-time MVP Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving was the better player. “I gotta really sit down and analyze it,” Durant demurred.

And then there was the argument with Green. During a November 2018 game between the Clippers and Warriors, Durant and Green exchanged words after Green pushed the ball up the floor on the final possession of regulation instead of passing to Durant.

Green reportedly called Durant a “bitch” and was suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team.”

When ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith Durant asked about that incident in October 2019, Durant said it did play a role in him leaving the Warriors.

“I mean, your teammate talk to you that way, you think about it a bit,” Durant said. “But you know, like I said, we talked about it. But definitely. For sure. I’m not going to lie about it.”

“I just felt like I needed a switch. I felt like a lot of stuff in Golden State had reared its head,” Durant continued. “I felt like that was just going to be the end no matter what, especially for that group. Shaun Livingston was retiring. Andre Iguodala was getting older. Our contracts were going to stifle the team and put us in a hole to get other players .

“It was time for all of us to kind of separate.”

Kevin Durant recovers from injury, rediscovers his form with Nets

Brooklyn agreed to a four-year, $164 million deal with Durant knowing that he wouldn’t be available for the 2019-20 season. During an appearance on ESPN’s “First Take” in October 2019, Durant made it clear that he expected to sit out the entire season, even if Brooklyn reached the playoffs. I have reiterated that stance after play was temporarily suspended amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s just best for me to wait,” Durant told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears in June 2020. “I don’t think I’m ready to play that type of intensity right now in the next month. It gives me more time to get ready for next season and the rest of my career…. I was putting pressure on myself in previous injuries, wanting to hurry up and come back. I saw my teammates having fun and wanted to be out there.

“This time, I felt like I was more patient throughout the process mentally and not rushing myself mentally, not get too excited when my team plays well or I have a good [rehab] day. I’m taking things second by second, and I’m trying to look out for what is best long term.”

Durant officially made his Nets debut on Dec. 22, 2020, scoring 22 points in a 125-99 victory over, of course, the Warriors. He struggled with injury problems throughout the 2020-21 campaign, most notably missing nearly two months with a hamstring strain. He averaged 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 35 games.

But he took his game to another level in the playoffs. With Kyrie Irving sitting out and James Harden hobbling around on one leg, Durant almost beat the Bucks by himself in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He posted 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks in a Game 5 win. Oh, and he didn’t sit for a single second.

He finished with 48 points, nine rebounds and six assists in the Game 7 loss, but he didn’t play all 48 minutes of that contest — because he was on the floor for all 48 minutes, plus the five-minute overtime period.

Rather than taking it easy after elimination, Durant committed to Team USA’s basketball program. He capped off an incredible Olympic stretch with 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting against France in the gold-medal game, ending the tournament as USA Basketball’s all-time leader in points, free throws and 3-pointers.

Durant has carried that groove into the 2023-22 season, averaging a league-leading 29.3 points per game while shooting a sizzling 52.0 percent from the field. He is arguably the best player on the planet, and he was firmly in the MVP conversation until he suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee.

The Warriors, meanwhile, are once again a title contender. Curry and Green have been terrific together when both players are fully healthy, and Thompson has returned to the court after a long journey to recovery.

Perhaps the Durant-Warriors breakup was inevitable, simply a part of an NBA in which superstar movement has become common. Still, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been.