NBA Finals appeared light years away for Warriors, Celtics after exits of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving

·Columnist
·4-min read

On the afternoon of June 30, 2019, Kevin Durant posted on Instagram that he would be leaving the Golden State Warriors. The next day, Kyrie Irving made it official that he would depart the Boston Celtics as an unrestricted free agent.

The destination for both: Brooklyn.

The NBA was abuzz, of course. Durant and Irving were considered two of the 10 best players in the league. Maybe top five.

Now they were united in making a so-called super team and possible champion out of a forlorn Nets franchise that lived in the shadow of the New York Knicks despite that franchise’s decades of playoff frustrations.

It was supposed to be just a matter of time before Brooklyn was competing in, let alone winning, the NBA Finals.

And, in turn, there were huge questions about what each left behind. Golden State’s roster was full of aging role players and an injured Klay Thompson. Boston had a bunch of promising young players but no leader – just two years prior, the Celtics traded three players and three draft picks to Cleveland for Irving.

It was a dark day for both teams.

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 24:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses with two Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophies and two NBA Finals MVP trophies during the Golden State Warriors media day on September 24, 2018 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The Warriors' championship run appeared over after Kevin Durant left the Bay Area for Brooklyn. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Well, a funny thing happened en route to the dynasty in Brooklyn and the rebuilds of the Celtics and Warriors.

The Nets have won a whopping one playoff series in three seasons plagued by injuries, vaccine debates and drama.

Meanwhile, Golden State hosts Boston on Thursday (9 p.m. ET) in the opening game of the Finals.

The reasons are varied, but you couldn’t blame either franchise for enjoying a bit of schadenfreude at the turn of events.

This really isn’t about laughing at KD, Irving or the Nets. These Finals are actually the story of an old — and often unfairly mocked — NBA adage.

“Players and coaches alone don’t win championships; organizations win championships.”

That was from the late Jerry Krause, who was the general manager of the Michael Jordan-led 1990 Chicago Bulls. The idea enraged and motivated MJ, but Krause’s theory, while perhaps clumsy in its utterance, was correct.

There was a measure of concern surrounding each franchise when its star players departed. Some fans may have even panicked.

Inside the front office of the Warriors and Celtics, there was resolve.

“We made a risk … I’ll never regret that,” then-general manager Danny Ainge said of trading so many assets for Kyrie. “ ... you just move on to the next deal.”

Ainge didn’t panic. No one with the Celtics did. They just stuck to the program and built around the young talent they had already drafted to support Irving. Maybe Kyrie headed to Brooklyn in part to play with a superstar in Durant, but he either didn’t know or didn’t care what he was leaving behind.

That includes Jayson Tatum (now 23), Robert Williams (24), Jaylen Brown (25) and Marcus Smart (27). Even as the 2021-22 season got off to a rocky start, the Celtics' front office, now led by former head coach Brad Stevens, didn’t alter the plan. Tatum became a superstar. Smart the Defensive Player of the Year.

Boston - April 17: The Celtics Jayson Tatum (right) as well as the fans erupt after his basket at the buzzer defeated Kyrie Irving (left) and the Nets 115-114. The Boston Celtics hosted the Brooklyn Nets in Game One of the NBA first round playoff series at the TD Garden in Boston on April 17, 2022. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
The Celtics' Jayson Tatum as well as fans erupt after his basket at the buzzer defeated Kyrie Irving and the Nets on April 17, 2022. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Golden State general manager Bob Myers admitted he was “sad” when Durant left. He harbored no ill will though and, meanwhile, continued the team’s tradition of strong draft picks.

The Warriors plugged holes around the core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and a now-rehabbed Thompson. He drafted Jordan Poole in 2019 and traded for Andrew Wiggins and a future first-round selection that became Jonathan Kuminga. All three players are now essential pieces.

Six of Golden State’s top eight contributors in these playoffs (including big man Kevon Looney) were drafted by the franchise. None went higher than seventh overall. Golden State's average draft pick spot was 19.6.

The Warriors are older and more experienced — 123 Finals games to Boston’s collective zero – but both clubs are now set up to be contenders for the next few years. They are rich with talent, well-coached and represent extremely well-run franchises.

They are the antithesis of the super team concept that seemed to be taking hold in the NBA only to yield mixed results.

It was Milwaukee after all, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo (the star the Bucks drafted 15th overall), who won it all last year.

And now it’ll be either a reboot of the Warriors' dynasty or the start of a potential new Celtics one this year.

One of these franchises will win a championship, just three seasons after they lost seemingly irreplaceable talent and simply shrugged it off.

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