Thursday, February 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Steven Stamkos and Kevin Durant both made the right choices

He has spent the past eight seasons in one city, helping to turn an awful team into a really good one.

He has taken his team to multiple conference finals. He made it once to the championship round, only to come up just a little short.

Then he reached the end of his contract and had a decision to make.

Stay with the fans who loved, supported and cheered him for all those years and deliver them a long-awaited title? Or break their hearts and chase a championship in another city?

Wait, who are we talking about here?

Kevin Durant or Steven Stamkos?

It's remarkable how close the careers of KD and Stammer are. Yet their decisions could not have been any more different.

Durant left. Stamkos stayed.

Durant's stunning decision to leave Oklahoma City for Golden State only reminds us just how unusual it was for Stamkos to stay in Tampa Bay. Unusual and surprising. Pleasantly so for Tampa Bay fans.

In a day and age when players chase the money in the bright lights and the glory in the big city, Stamkos showed the type of loyalty that is all too uncommon these days in sports.

Stamkos could have left for a bigger city, a more traditional hockey market, somewhere closer to home. He could have found himself his own hand-picked dream team. He could have hit the reset button on his career and joined a powerhouse that would make his dream of getting his name on the Stanley Cup all the closer.

But what did Stamkos tell us? All along, he insisted that Tampa Bay was home, that this is where his heart was and where he hoped his feet would stay.

He held true to his word. He stayed to finish what he started.

Now let's be clear about something. To stay in Tampa Bay, Stamkos is being paid $68 million over the next eight years. He won't exactly be eating ramen noodles, clipping coupons and looking under cushions for loose change. He shouldn't have any trouble making his car payments.

And if Stamkos' decision was strictly about hockey, Tampa Bay was the right call, too. Of all the teams interested in Stamkos, the Lightning has the best chance at winning a Stanley Cup.

Still, Stamkos surprised many, including the Lightning, by electing to stay.

Meantime, Durant surprised everyone, too.

What did he tell everyone? He talked about his love of Oklahoma City, and the assumption was he would stay put. But as he left, you could argue that his reasoning was really no different than Stamkos'. He got paid and went to the team with the best chance for a title. What made his decision different than Stamkos' was his best title chance was somewhere else.

So Durant is now a villain, while Stamkos is a fan favorite.

Is Durant taking the easy way out? Is it a cop-out? A coward's way out? Wouldn't it say more if he tried to beat the Warriors instead of simply joining them? Is he being disloyal?

All of those questions are debatable, and your answer likely depends on your area code. The closer you get the 405 area code of Oklahoma City, the more likely you are to criticize Durant's decision. But if you live in the 813 or 727 area codes, the more likely you are to look at Durant's decision and understand it. You can also appreciate what Stamkos has done.

You see, by staying in Tampa Bay, Stamkos has not only given the Lightning credibility as a hockey franchise but Tampa Bay as a hockey market. Staying in Tampa Bay keeps Tampa Bay relevant.

But Durant leaving Oklahoma City not only is a game-changer for the Thunder but a gut punch to Oklahoma City.

Many fans in Oklahoma City are angry today. Many more are in mourning. It's hard not take Durant leaving personally, just as many around here would have felt had Stamkos left.

Fans in Oklahoma City not only realize that Durant is taking their championship hopes with him, but their credibility, too. Oklahoma City is about to become a much less relevant town on the sports map, at least for a while. Oklahoma City is about to become Orlando or Memphis or Raleigh, where the college teams down the road leave a bigger imprint than the lone pro team in town.

Ultimately, Durant should not be criticized for his decision. He earned the right to become a free agent. He signed with a team that gives him the best chance at a championship. In many ways, he is simply following the current NBA culture in which teams are put together like pickup games at the YMCA. You find a bunch of guys you like to run with and you join their team.

It stinks for Oklahoma City, no doubt. You can understand the frustration and heartache of the fans. You can understand their pain. They did nothing wrong, and they probably will watch Durant win a championship next year while their team struggles to keep its head above water. That's gotta sting.

Too bad for OKC.

But A-Okay for Tampa Bay.

     
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