- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2017

When the question was finally yelled from the back of the room, Scott Brooks smiled. He knew it would be coming. In fact, he was surprised it took so long.

Brooks was able to counter last April with a practiced answer. He appreciated being asked at his introductory press conference, his first as Washington’s new coach, about Kevin Durant. There were no details after that.

Monday, Durant was an unavoidable topic. He and a band of marksmen from Golden State are coming to Verizon Center on Tuesday to face the Washington Wizards and their recently stubbed toes.

Durant’s arrival will bring cheers and ire. For two years, the Wizards massaged their cap space and roster in order to have a chance at signing Durant last summer. They were set to pitch him, to woo him with the benefits of a growing team and hometown hero worship for the District native who was raised in Maryland. The hiring of assistant coach David Adkins two years ago, who coached Durant for a period in his youth, was suggested by outsiders as part of the plan to snag Durant. Bringing in Brooks, Durant’s longtime coach in Oklahoma City, was portrayed by many as clearly a move predicated on signing Durant.

Washington aligned everything. Then, Durant chose not to even meet with Washington’s brass, altering the team’s path since in ways both bad and good.

Not signing Durant led general manager Ernie Grunfeld to spending decisions that put the Wizards‘ roster flexibility in a lockbox. They had to include a first-round pick to jettison Andrew Nicholson’s maligned contract as part of the trade to acquire Bojan Bogdanovic. They paid a heavy amount for backup center Ian Mahinmi and third-string center Jason Smith. Washington finished its offseason bench-filling without a viable wing scorer. Everything that happened around the roster was a trickle-down from not being able to even garner a meeting with Durant.

What happens going forward is also a byproduct of his absence. After a bumbling start, the Wizards vaulted themselves toward the top of the Eastern Conference with a powerful two-month run within which they won 18 of 21 games. Otto Porter blossomed into the league’s best 3-point shooter. His minutes would have been cut if Durant was in Washington. Porter’s success also means that next summer the Wizards will need to bestow a contract on him for around $100 million, or more, in order to retain the restricted free agent. Keeping him together with John Wall and Bradley Beal have the Wizards modeled as a built-from-within franchise, no matter the outcome. If Durant was in Washington, those maneuvers disappear.

The Wizards have pushed themselves into the NBA consciousness with their play since December. If Durant was in town throughout, they would be projected as the largest foil for LeBron James and Cleveland since James returned to his childhood team. Instead, the Wizards are up-and-comers who are also like every other team in the Eastern Conference: Unlikely to beat Cleveland. They remain a national television afterthought.

Durant comes back to the District with a different reputation than last season. His presence last year was hounded by the idea he may come to Washington. The #KD2DC hashtag flew around social media. It was the main topic before he played against Washington. Area fans cheered him even though he was the opposition. Observers groaned at the behavior. Durant took notice.

His decision to join Golden State has been derided since the Warriors beat the Thunder last season in the playoffs. Monday, Beal said it was not the choice he would have made, also noting that Durant is a grown man allowed to make decisions as he sees fit. Beal also never thought Durant would be coming to Washington.

“From the very beginning,” Beal said. “I don’t know [why I thought that]. I don’t know. I guess being at home, his family is here. He probably has a million family members here. Probably just extra stuff on his conscience he probably doesn’t need. Lot of factors into that decision. It’s probably tough to play at home.”

Brooks said Durant never came up during his extended job interview with Grunfeld last summer in California. He did not wink when speaking. Brooks did say that Durant was a topic after he was hired, since the Wizards and every other team with salary cap space would take the eight-time All-Star and 2014 NBA MVP then skip down the street.

“Obviously I have a relationship with him and he was about to be a free agent, but I wasn’t hired — it wasn’t a package deal,” Brooks said.

As much as strictly pinning the hiring of Brooks on what became the organization fool’s errand of pursuing Durant is off base, his relationship with Durant has deep roots. They first met when Durant was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007. Durant was the No. 2 overall pick. Either he or Greg Oden was going to Seattle that year. Portland had the No. 1 pick. Seattle was taking whomever Portland did not. It just wasn’t sure which player it was going to be, so Seattle made one Sonics game jersey with “Oden” on the back and another with “Durant” stitched across it.

Portland’s choice introduced then-Sonics assistant coach Scott Brooks to a 19 year old out of Texas who was supposedly going to be derailed by lack of strength. Brooks found that silly when working Durant out in Furtado Center, the Sonics’ now-razed practice facility, in 2007. He found it humorous still on Monday.

“If we are in the strong man competition, you don’t want Kevin on your team,” Brooks said. “But, the ball, not that heavy. He can pick that up pretty good.”

When they met, Durant was buying 30-packs of T-shirts at Wal-Mart and spending summers on his friend’s couch back in Texas, a baby in NBA terms.

“He also would not wash his face every day either,” Brooks said with a laugh. “He definitely had the ‘sleepies’ in his eyes every day coming to practice.”

They will be on the same floor Tuesday night for the first time since Brooks was fired in Oklahoma City in 2015. Brooks will be the coach, Durant will be the star, the two playing the same roles they have since they met a decade ago. But, they will be on opposite sides for the first time, a situation Washington tried to avoid, but never had a chance to fix.



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