LAS VEGAS — Kevin Durant reached a simple conclusion after watching LeBron James shake up the NBA's power balance by leaving the Heat for the Cavaliers earlier this month.
"One guy can change it all," the reigning MVP said Tuesday, while surrounded by reporters at the second day of USA Basketball's training camp in Las Vegas.
James' decision altered the courses of two franchises while also directly influencing dozens of free agents, who waited to find out their futures until the four-time MVP finally announced that he was returning to Cleveland in an essay with Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins on July 11. Although it's still too early to comprehend exactly how far-reaching the indirect impacts of James' return will be, Durant and the Thunder now make for an interesting case study.
It's reasonable to view the sport's two biggest stars as being connected on a set of tilting law scales: while James admitted that building a title contender in Cleveland will be a "long process," Oklahoma City's shot at a championship seems to have been fast-tracked.
Whereas the Thunder were once the up-and-comers, looking to build out a roster that could keep pace with the Heat, they now find themselves entering the 2014-15 season alongside the Spurs as the league's most imposing incumbents. Oklahoma City lost Caron Butler and Thabo Sefolosha in free agency, but it retained all of its important core pieces from a team that came within two wins of the Finals, including Durant, All-Star guard Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, plus Reggie Jackson, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Steven Adams.
If the Cavaliers and Thunder were to face off in the 2015 Finals, Durant would boast a more experienced, trustworthy supporting cast than James. And that's assuming Cleveland can emerge from a newly-flattened Eastern Conference that lacks a clear favorite. In fact, with Miami's stranglehold on the East now gone, it's quite possible, if not likely, that Durant would be the best player on the court if he can lead Oklahoma City to its second Finals appearance during his career.
Of course, Durant isn't the only beneficiary of James' move. The Spurs, like the Thunder, will return all of their importance pieces next season. The Bulls, Pacers, Raptors, Wizards and Hornets all benefit from the splintering of the Heat's "Big Three" and the East's newfound parity. But the 25-year-old Durant — who famously said last year that he's "tired of being second" after losing to James' Heat in the 2012 Finals and finishing as the runner-up in multiple MVP races — certainly finds himself among this summer's biggest winners. As the clear-cut second-best player on the planet, Durant is now closer than ever to the first title of his career.
As promising as that sounds, there is a foreboding question hanging, one that should be a major driver of discussion throughout the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, as Durant is on track to be an unrestricted free agent in July 2016. How long will this particular window remain open for Durant and the Thunder?
Durant's situation is unique in many ways, because his loyalty and service to the Thunder provides him all of the emotional leverage. He was a team player throughout the organization's ugly relocation from Seattle to Oklahoma City. He was the foundational star around which one of the league's most successful franchises has been built. He led the Thunder to the 2012 Finals, and he has kept the team afloat while Westbrook has dealt with knee injuries. He has donated generously to community causes, and he has prompted tears with his memorable MVP acceptance speech. He backed up his commitments to the city and the organization by agreeing to a full five-year maximum rookie contract extension, foregoing a player option and/or an early termination option and thereby missing out on the type of contract flexibility that helped James and Chris Bosh team up with Dwyane Wade in Miami in 2010.
That contract, which pays him $19 million in 2014-15 and $20.2 million in 2015-16, sealed him to the Thunder, and in the process it also reduced his influence over the organization's moves. He had no hammer to utilize when the Thunder were in negotiations with James Harden, who was ultimately traded to the Rockets, and he has to go with the flow when it comes to the organization's desire to avoid the luxury tax, when other contenders have taken a different approach.
As Durant's rookie extension unfolded and the Thunder have continued to make deep postseason runs year after year, the bond between player and team has at times seemed to have a "Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas" or a "Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles" vibe. Beloved by Thunder fans, Durant has an eponymous restaurant in Oklahoma City's "Bricktown" area and he's repeatedly expressed how happy he is with his situation.
At the same time, his clock is ticking, just as James' was in Cleveland. Like James in 2010, Durant currently has one Finals appearance and zero titles to his name. Like James in 2010, he's watched as his organization has spun its wheels a bit in pursuit of roster upgrades. James was 25 and already impatient at the time of "The Decision;" Durant will be 27 in 2016, entering free agency with the knowledge that James made four straight Finals trips in Miami and, possibly, knowing that the return to Cleveland made life more difficult.
"It's hard, it's tough [not being in the Finals]," Durant admitted. "It's one of those things you want to get to every year. Some guys don't even make the playoffs every year. To have a chance to compete every single season for a championship, you can't beat that."
Put all of those elements together — his personality, his sterling track record, his devotion, his skill, his desire to win and the Thunder's bottom-line decisions — and it's clear that there will be no possible justification for begrudging Durant should he decide to leave Oklahoma City.
Like James and Carmelo Anthony, who explored his options this summer before re-signing with the Knicks, Durant seems keen on the flexibility that free agency will afford him. On Monday, and then again Tuesday, Durant refused to commit himself to the Thunder past his current deal, even if doing so — even indirectly or through a bit of lip service — would alleviate some of the questions that he is already facing about his future.
"I'm going to do what is best for me," Durant said, somewhat obliquely. "It's hard to talk about that right now. I have two years left with Oklahoma City. I'm just trying to focus on that ... I don't want to think too far down the line. I want to focus on today. I love my teammates, my coaches, the front office, the city. We'll see."
The theory that the Seat Pleasant, Md. product hears most often, he admitted, is that he will return to the Washington D.C. area to play for the Wizards. Durant hailed James' return to Cleveland as "well thought out" and "classy" and said he was moved to text his congratulations once he read James' essay.
"[It was] a great move to do a letter, that was cool," Durant said. "It's fun to see a guy think about more than basketball for once ... He thought about the city where he comes from, and Northeast Ohio, and how he can affect so many kids. It's bigger than basketball. I love that. So many guys get criticized for making their decision that's best for them, instead of what's best for everybody else. He's the guy that did that. You have to respect that. I applauded him."
Still, James' homecoming isn't necessarily going to influence Durant's thought process.
"I'm not going to make a decision on anything based on what somebody else does," he said, without equivocation.
There are other rumors, of course. Durant's deal expires at the same time as Bryant's extension with the Lakers, setting the table for a move to Los Angeles. Both Durant and James are on track to be free agents in 2016, and the thought that they might combine their powers somewhere is almost too tantalizing to consider. The Knicks and Nets are always angling for splashy signings.
"I'm just trying to focus on where I am and the task at hand," Durant said, acknowledging that the same storm that has surrounded James, Anthony, Dwight Howard and others is coming for him. Durant seems to understand that, like James, he is the type of "one guy" with the power to change everything around the NBA. While he isn't even close to tipping his hand yet, he's not exactly running away from the spotlight, either.
For now, Durant will utilize his prodigious talents as the centerpiece of USA Basketball's FIBA World Cup roster, looking to add to his 2010 World Championship and 2012 Olympics gold medals. What comes after that once he has the power to pick a new home, seems unknown, even to him.
Will he continue as Oklahoma's favorite son? Will he seek greater riches and fame with a glamorous franchise? Will he follow James' example and seek to construct a Superteam? Will he look to enrich a community that matters to him? Will he go home? Will he lock in for a long-term deal, or maximize his flexibility with a shorter contract? Will he be making his 2016 decision with or without a championship to his name?
"It's hard to tell the future," Durant said, leaving open all of those possibilities, and any others that might pop into the imagination. "That's why we can't do it. It's hard."