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Thunder face intriguing decision as extension looms for Durant

Lost in the seemingly endless discussion and speculation about the upcoming contracts of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the rest of the 2010 free-agent class is the fact that yet another elite player has some decisions to make this summer.

Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, who is tied for second in the league in scoring, is eligible for a contract extension starting July 1. And while the aforementioned big three will undoubtedly secure maximum contracts with their respective suitors, Durant, in many ways, is the linchpin of the upcoming collective-bargaining battle between the league and its players.

Why? In any other season, the Thunder would simply give the blossoming superstar a maximum extension -- likely for around five years and $80 million, similar to what Denver's Carmelo Anthony signed almost four years ago -- and move on to their next order of business. But with a potential lockout looming that is bound to reconfigure the cost structure of the NBA, the Thunder have to consider that waiting to extend Durant's deal until after a new CBA is in place could potentially save the organization up to $25 million over the next five years, assuming the league's desire for some sort of hard cap is implemented.

And so the organization must weigh this question: Does it wait until a more fiscally responsible time to sign Durant at the risk of alienating a third-year player who, at 21, is already in the running for MVP?

"I never pictured myself with another team," Durant told SI.com during Oklahoma City's weekend visit to Golden State. "I like these guys so much. I like being around them. But I know this is a business here. A lot of different things happen. As far as being on the basketball court, these are the guys I envision myself playing with. But we'll see what happens."

Durant's agent, Aaron Goodwin, declined to comment. But it seems highly plausible that if Durant is not seriously discussing an extension minutes after negotiations can begin, he could consider it insulting given both his and the team's meteoric rise. (Having won only 23 games last season, the Thunder already are six games better this year and are vying for a playoff berth.)

"If it doesn't happen, maybe they forgot or whatever," Durant said. "I don't know. I don't know, maybe they got some other things going on."

Though general manager Sam Presti surely will not forget what July 1 signifies, his predicament is complicated even further: Jeff Green, taken three selections after Durant in the 2007 draft and for whom the Thunder traded Ray Allen to Boston, is also eligible for an extension. Of course, Green is not going to get the same type of financial consideration that Durant will, but as Presti tries to build a Finals contender, keeping together his core players and keeping them happy is key. That's no small feat in an atmosphere where salary information is so readily available and egos are tied to contract size.

So even if Presti gives Durant the extension that, under the circumstances, he probably deserves, how does he avoid insulting Green by potentially waiting until a new CBA is in place before negotiating his extension? It is these questions that make the Thunder such an interesting case study for franchise-building and management in the New Age NBA. Well, that, and the team's recent history.

In 2006, the Clay Bennett-led group that was taking over the Seattle SuperSonics had the opportunity to sign Rashard Lewis to an extension. At the time, general manager Rick Sund, now the Hawks' GM, thought the team was going to offer Lewis, who was fresh off his first All-Star appearance, a lucrative deal. Bennett stepped in and said the team would not offer an extension because it was uncertain who could rightfully make that decision until the ownership officially changed hands. In reality, everybody knew that Bennett's group was in control. What became obvious that it didn't want to make personnel decisions until after it had let Sund go and the organization's new decision-maker, who turned out to be Presti, had charted his course.

In the end, it worked out for everybody. Lewis opted out of the final two years of his contract and signed a $118 million deal with Orlando. The Thunder acquired Durant and Green as their foundation and now they're on the precipice of making the postseason for the first time since relocating.

Bennett, however, has a history of handling extensions in a similar manner. Granted, it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, and things back then were much more fluid then they are now, with the team planted firmly in Oklahoma City, where Durant said he is happy despite playing in such a small market. The star forward insisted that, in terms of financial opportunity, living in Oklahoma City does not prevent him from realizing the same things he might get in a larger market.

"I don't understand why people think about that," Durant said. "Especially players. If you are playing well, the market is going to start to go because of who you are. I don't worry about that. I didn't worry about that when I was 9 working hard in the gym each day trying to get to this level. The market stuff is bogus to me. Technology is everything now. Just turn on the TV and you will see where Oklahoma City is. If we win and continue to play well, that will take care of itself."

Perhaps. But will the Thunder take care of Durant?

After catching up with Amar'e Stoudemire in Denver last week, it appears the Suns' All-Star has yet to grasp the severity of the owners' threats to reconfigure the CBA and how they'll affect his future. Stoudemire told reporters that playing out his contact next season and entering free agency thereafter was a serious option, even though opting out and negotiating a deal now would likely set his base salary higher over a longer period than if he waits for a new CBA to be instituted.

His retort: "According to the collective bargaining agreement, the max salary is not going to go from $18 million a year to $8 million a year."

Of course, that could be the case if a hard cap is installed.

"No. No. I got confidence in the players' association that it is not going to drop that low," he said. "I have great confidence in those guys. I have been doing some studying myself in terms of what the salary cap is going to be; it won't be that harsh."

Suns coach Alvin Gentry needed to communicate with Stoudemire recently to address all the trade rumors floating around and Stoudemire's subsequent falloff. In the old days, Gentry would have gone to the player's room or called him on the phone. Now, he said, he is texting.

"I'm learning," he said. "Something I can say in five minutes it takes me 20 minutes to text."

Gentry said he is learning about social networking from his daughter, who lives in Denver. Not only is she getting him to text, she got him to open a Twitter account -- briefly.

"I was like, 'Why would anyone care that I am eating BBQ in Memphis?' She said, 'Watch this.' So I said, 'OK, I'll get on.' And the first day I had 500 followers. And three days later I had like 6,000 people on. And I was like, 'No, uh uh, I don't want 6,000 people to know what I'm doing.'

"That was scary."

There was in item in the Wilmington (N.C) Star News recently that suggested Houston Rockets assistant coach/advance scout Patrick Zipfel may be a candidate for the UNC Wilmington head coaching position.

The Rockets better hope it is not the case.

Zipfel, who previously worked for Portland and was recruited by the Rockets two years ago, is one of the more forward-thinking behind-the-scenes minds in the league and at least part of the reason the Rockets have overachieved this season.

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