The NBA’s regular season is in over, the playoffs are underway, and one of the year’s biggest storylines continues to take place off the court, as Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Durant returned from injury fully healthy to lead the Thunder toward a title amid speculation surrounding his future. With OKC embroiled in a tight series against the formidable, seasoned San Antonio Spurs, the rumors surrounding which teams hope to land Durant in free agency are heating up. Reports have suggested that should the Thunder fail to advance past the second round, he may spring for greener pastures rather than consider a return.
Early-on, the most obvious suitors were Durant’s hometown Washington Wizards. Durant called the attention he was receiving from opposing fans hoping to woo him to their team “kind of disrespectful,” in the sense that he believes Washington already has a team that deserves complete support. “I didn’t like that, ” Durant said. “But it comes with it nowadays. It’s a part of it.”
Talk intensified when early February, Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the defending champion Golden State Warriors were serious favorites in the upcoming Durant sweepstakes should he choose to leave the Thunder. ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Marc Stein reported later in the season that the Spurs are considering bidding for him as well. The Heat, Rockets, Clippers, Lakers and Celtics are also expected to make bids.
Will he go? Will he stay? Will the Thunder win the title? Will it matter? Here's everything you need to know.
Why is Kevin Durant such a big deal?
Funny you should ask. The Thunder, who were then the Seattle Supersonics, drafted Durant with the second pick of the 2007 draft out of Texas. The Trail Blazers, picking first, passed on him to take Ohio State center Greg Oden, who yet to suffer deteriorating knee injuries and was seen as a can’t-miss prospect. Durant won Rookie of the Year and has gone on to largely set the league on fire over the past eight seasons.
At age 27, Durant has made six All-Star teams, led the league in scoring four times, had a 50–40–90 shooting season, and won an MVP award in 2014. He also delivered what has become a pretty iconic acceptance speech in which he dubbed his mother “The Real MVP,” in case you’ve wondered where that expression came from.
Listed at 6’10”, when Durant’s jump shot is falling, he is pretty much impossible to guard. He hits clutch shots. He has deep range. He averaged 32 points per game in his last full season, the MVP year. He rains flames down from the heavens. He is a singularity spanning space and time. See below.
Last season, Durant broke his right foot (a Jones fracture, to be specific) during the preseason and missed the first 17 regular season games. He had ankle and toe injuries as well, before having a minor procedure on his foot again in February. On March 27, he was ruled out for the season after deciding to have proper surgery. In a loaded Western Conference, Oklahoma City finished with a 45–37 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009, after winning 60 and 59 games the last two years.
Durant alleviated concerns about his ongoing health in 2015–16, appearing in 72 of 82 games and averaging 28.2 points. 8.2 rebounds and 5 assists per game.
Why would Kevin Durant leave OKC?
Durant’s contract expires after this season, and he’ll hit the open market for the first time. Because of an expected, significant hike in the salary cap number freeing up large amounts of money for teams around the league, players seeking max contracts will have plenty of suitors, and everyone will be set to cash in. Durant has yet to win a title, and in an era where nearly every major star explores his options, it seems a foregone conclusion that he’ll at least look around.
The NBA’s current salary cap sits at $70 million. Next offseason, that number is estimated to jump to $89 million. This all-time high is the result of huge revenue from the league’s newest national television broadcast deals, and everyone is cashing out.
Teams expected this to happen, so a record amount of money was spent on players in the summer of 2015, with more than $2 billion in salary handed out over the first 10 days of free agency. Why? A max contract offer under the old cap situation will look a lot more reasonable after the number spikes in July. And because of that unprecedented jump, almost every team in the league will be armed with significant cap room.
This puts the onus on the Oklahoma City franchise to prove to Durant that re-signing for the remainder of his prime years is a viable path to championships. The Thunder hold Durant’s Bird Rights, which means they can offer him an extra year on his contract that no other team can. They can offer the most money, accordingly. But with salaries already ballooning to historic highs, there could be less pressure for Durant and other stars to demand a true max or care about that additional year, given what they’ll make relative to the current landscape (a whole lot, either way).
Person of interest: Russell Westbrook
With Durant playing just 27 of 82 games in 2014–15, Westbrook, an elite talent in his own right generally viewed as 1B to KD’s 1A, put together a remarkable season and nearly took the Thunder to the playoffs by himself. The do-it-all point guard averaged career highs in points (28.1), rebounds (7.3), assists (8.6), and steals (2.1), and led the league in field goal attempts. Though his talent was never a secret, Westbrook proved more than capable of carrying a team without Durant. He was so determined that he at one point in that season broke his face and played through it anyway.
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With Durant back in the lineup, both players thrived this season, Westbrook scoring less (23.5 points per game), but improving his assists (10.4) and rebounds (7.8), displaying a more mature, balanced game, and elevating the Thunder to 55 wins and the No. 3 seed in the West.
Westbrook was drafted a year after Durant, and they’ve been teammates essentially their entire careers. Each has referred to the other as a brother. They have largely overcome waves of media discourse early in their careers suggesting that they can’t win a championship as teammates. Those discussions stemmed from the fact that both are high-volume scorers and demand a lot of shots, with Westbrook particularly dominating the ball at a position traditionally expected to pass it first, shoot it second. Though their stylistic compatibility has been a hot topic, there’s been little hard evidence that the two don‘t get along. And now, they’re both playoff-experienced and have been through the figurative fire together.
Another key factor here is that Westbrook’s free agency will come a year later, after the 2016–17 season. If Durant decides to stay long-term, Westbrook could still leave, potentially in search of a team that’s unequivocally his own. There’s also been speculation that Westbrook’s keen interest in fashion could spur him to move to a larger city — take that as you will. He grew up in Los Angeles, went to UCLA, and the rebuilding Lakers are likely to have cap space. He’ll have the same freedom to decide a year from now. One scenario has Durant taking a one year deal to stay with the Thunder, or a two-year deal with a player option, and deciding together with Westbrook next summer after one more run at the title.
So, in a sense, Durant deciding to stay equals a hedge on Westbrook sticking around. And on the other side of that coin, if Durant bolts, Westbrook could certainly be next. The long-term fate of the Thunder franchise hangs on keeping the duo in place. It's unlikely that either player will ever have a more talented teammate, and you’d think they realize the opportunity they have together in their primes, with the general line of thinking that it takes two stars to win a title in today’s NBA. If they can win the West this season or better yet, the Larry O‘Brien trophy, Oklahoma City will have its most convincing case for them to stay.
Who else do the Thunder have?
Even after a successful regular season, this is where some of the bigger questions lie. Even with Durant and Westbrook, the Western Conference has developed into an arms race of sorts, led by the Warriors, who just had the best regular season ever, and the Spurs, who in signing LaMarcus Aldridge last summer added even more longevity to their extended run of dominance under Gregg Popovich. The Thunder’s supporting cast pales in comparison, though competitive on their best nights against the best opponents.
Oklahoma City brought in head coach Billy Donovan, one of the best coaches in college basketball at Florida, to pull this team together and win. Donovan replaced Scott Brooks, who coached Durant and Westbrook their entire careers and led the Thunder to plenty of success, but was fired at the end of last season and will helm the Wizards next season. Donovan’s first NBA season has largely been a success, though it may be determined by how deep his team goes into the playoffs.
There’s power forward Serge Ibaka, an increasingly useful offensive piece and one of the league’s best shot-blockers. 22-year-old Steven Adams has improved immensely and has become the type of super-role player any team would love to have. Beyond that, the Thunder lean on an uneven cast of characters including big man Enes Kanter, to whom they committed $70 million over four years, and guards Andre Roberson (shooting-challenged) and Dion Waiters (too eager to shoot at times). The team has otherwise struggled to put the right complementary pieces in place, a factor that may be their undoing in the postseason.
Where else would Durant go?
There’s been rampant speculation linking Durant to several franchises over the past couple of years, and for now, pretty much all of it is still just that—speculation. That being said, any way you spin it, modern league history backs up the theory that the biggest stars often gravitate to major cities. There’s never been a “homegrown” player quite as good as Durant that blew up in a smaller media market like Oklahoma City and stuck around. Still, with last season’s disappointing results thrown out, the Thunder have consistently been one of the NBA’s best teams this decade, including a 2012 Finals trip and sustained success with the core of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka.
With Durant’s sense of loyalty making staying in OKC a distinct possibility, here’s a quick breakdown of teams that have been heavily linked as players for his services. There’s still, of course, the significant possibility this becomes a total free-for-all.
The appeal here is obvious: join the league’s best team and its defending champion (and by the time July 1 rolls around, quite possibly back-to-back champs), play fast, shoot lots of open shots and prosper. Reports of the Warriors’ interest in Durant, spearheaded by team leader Draymond Green, and that Golden State is a heavy favorite in the race, beg for this scenario to be taken seriously. The Warriors would have to make corresponding moves — and break up a title-winning core — to make it happen, with Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala among the players that would likely have to go elsewhere for cap reasons, but a core of Stephen Curry, Green, Klay Thompson and Durant is almost too much to think about without your head exploding. It would also make Durant the biggest bandwagoner ever, probably.
A three-star grouping of Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge is also way too much to worry about right now. That team would not lose many games. The Spurs are going on two decades the NBA’s most consistent franchise, Gregg Popovich is an all-time great coach, and the team’s unselfish mentality and commitment to team basketball commands appeal and respect around the league. There’s no way adding the league’s most gifted scorer wouldn’t make them better. They incorporated Aldridge successfully this season, and if the rich get richer, it’ll be ugly for everyone else.
Miami has a history of luring superstars, and the team is expected to have serious cap space. It still may take some serious maneuvering to make this work, with Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside set to become free agents. Wade, nearing the end of his career, could conceivably take less than market value, as he did when LeBron James and Chris Bosh arrived in 2010. But Whiteside, an emerging 26-year-old center, will likely command serious money. The Heat do not have full Bird Rights on him contractually and will need use some of their cap space to re-sign him. But Pat Riley has his ways, and he’s pulled one of these maneuvers before, lest we all forget. We’ll see what happens.
Houston, perennially a contender for high-priced free agents, is expected to pursue Durant as well. With his friend and former Oklahoma City teammate James Harden now one of the league’s preeminent superstars, the Rockets can present a fresh opportunity and will hire a new coach this off-season. Durant also attended the University of Texas, and occasionally returns to Austin to work out. But like many teams, the Rockets would have to gut a chunk of their roster in order to make room for Durant. Their pitch is less clear than others.
With Blake Griffin suddenly a hot name in trade rumors after the off-court incident that left him with a broken hand and the Clippers’ success without him, an off-season scenario in which a sign-and-trade with Durant sends Griffin back to his native Oklahoma isn’t the most far-fetched. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that this could be on the table, and the Clippers would present an instant opportunity to win — but plenty would have to happen for all involved parties for this move to become seriously feasible.
Durant is a native of the D.C. area, and naturally, the Washington Wizards are angling to bring him in. They have a star in place in John Wall and a potential second one in Bradley Beal, forming a young, talented backcourt. The Wizards are also building a new practice facility extremely close to where Durant grew up, which may not be a coincidence. Wall has said he will reach out to Durant with a recruiting pitch. Reports have indicated the Wizards are preparing to sell Durant on joining the team as soon as the clock strikes midnight and free agency opens July 1. The Wizards hired Scott Brooks. They retained David Adkins — one of Durant’s high school coaches — on their staff after firing Randy Wittman. This will be an option, though some reports have indicated Durant is cooling on the thought of playing at home.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said on First Take in September that, according to his sources, Durant’s “preferred landing spot” is the Lakers should he leave the Thunder next summer. Durant, who has displayed some distrust for media in the past, vehemently denied that claim.
Kevin Durant on the Lakers rumors: "I don't talk to Stephen A Smith at all. No one in my family, my friends do. So he's lying."— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) October 2, 2015
Setting aside the Durant/Smith saga, Hollywood could be an attractive destination for Durant: Kobe Bryant is nearing retirement, while D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle might be long-term pieces, and Luke Walton brings a fresh face to the franchise as head coach. The Lakers will have the cap space to sign another star to join Durant. But considering the current state of L.A.’s roster, the Lakers won’t present an immediate-contender situation. Other reports have indicated the Lakers are a serious longshot.
Smith has also said that Durant will give the New York Knicks consideration, with Carmelo Anthony playing a recruiting role. New York, with its enormous market and off-court opportunities, always finds a way into these types of discussions, though not always with serious basis. This would be a major surprise, as the team is in midst of a prolonged coaching search of its own and needs to figure a lot of other items out first. Kristaps Porzingis is great, but not exactly a superstar pitch-man yet.
Durant is known as a loyal guy, and that helps the Thunder’s case a whole lot. Many league executives reportedly think he’s likely to stick around. In a vacuum, the Thunder present Durant with familiarity, quality teammates, and the chance to spend his entire career in one place, in a city that deifies him. He and Westbrook could spend their entire careers together. The one-year deal, at minimum, looks feasible. But, as LeBron James once taught us, nothing is ever certain.