There have been endless rumors and conspiracy theories. Teams all over the league have been preparing for this moment for two years. As of midnight Thursday, Kevin Durant will be a free agent.
Anything can happen, and as the hype spirals out of control over the next week, it's important to remember that all of it is justified. We're talking about the single most unfair offensive weapon in basketball. Remember when Kawhi Leonard spent the first six months of the season getting darkhorse MVP love? That was cool. Remember when KD played him in the playoffs and blew him off the court? That's the player that's available this week.
Durant and Roc Nation Sports will spend the next few days hosting management from six teams—the Celtics, Clippers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder, and Warriors—in an undisclosed location in the Hamptons. It will be like this Jay Z party, but with RC Buford and Danny Ainge instead of Sandra Bullock and Q-Tip. Also, Adrian Wojnarowksi will be squeezed somewhere in the (immaculately trimmed) hedges sending sporadic transmissions for the rest of us. It should be a great weekend.
As a Wizards fan, I've spent 24 months studying Durant rumors like Kremlinology, and now... I'm pretty sure Durant, himself, has no idea what he'll do. I give up. I have no predictions. No odds. No exclusives. I do have six last-minute questions, though.
1. Is Al Horford the key to everything?
It's easy to count out the Celtics. Boston's superstar pursuit was an NBA punchline as recently as last week, the team couldn't get out of the first round of the playoffs, and Russell Westbrook is twice the size of Isaiah Thomas. All of these things are working against Boston. But imagine if they can steal Al Horford over the next few days. Then they're selling...
C: Al Horford
PF: Jae Crowder
SF: Kevin Durant
SG: Avery Bradley
PG: Isaiah Thomas
Durant has claimed all along that this is a basketball decision, right? Well, that team would win 65 games under Brad Stevens.
It's perfectly fine if you've hit a "I'llbelieve it when I see it" point with Celtics rumors—probably the healthiest attitude at this point—but the chance to offer KD this scenario isn't that far-fetched. Atlanta's potentially transitioning this summer, and Horford could look to move, with Boston near the top of the list. And if they can land Horford, the Celtics could offer Durant a giant spotlight on the East Coast, with a great coach, in an easier conference, and a roster that's as dangerous as anyone else in the field.
Of course, there's another wrinkle to consider. Thursday night, ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported that the Thunder themselves are looking to add Horford and reunite him with Billy Donovan. It would take some combination of an Enes Kanter trade, Kyle Singler trade, and waiving Anthony Morrow. But it's possible. And if Sam Presti can pull it off ...
C: Steven Adams
PF: Al Horford
SF: Kevin Durant
SG: Victor Oladipo
PG: Russell Westbrook
Yeah, OK. That team beats the Boston lineup. And every other lineup. It would make the decision so much easier. Watch Kevin Durant news this week, but watch Al Horford, too.
2. But what does the meeting schedule mean?
After two years of basketball fans reading every possible tea leaf regarding Durant's future, it's only right that as all this gets started we have one more angle to hopelessly overthink.
For what it's worth, the most entertaining way to read this weekend's free agency retreat is to imagine that Durant knows he's coming back to OKC, he's known it for months, and he's using these meetings to tie up all of the Thunder's toughest competition for the first week of free agency. In fact, if he goes back to the Thunder, this should be the story they sell whether the meetings were real or not.
Of course, the flipside of that fan fiction is more sobering: If I worked in the Thunder front office, I would not feel great about going first Thursday night, and then allowing Durant to spend the rest of the weekend talking to the most powerful people in the sport. Prayers up for Sam Presti's blood pressure.
There's nothing in the world better than imagining the biggest names in basketball pitching Durant on every intricacy of their future blueprint, before Pat Riley strolls in on Sunday possibly without cap space to actually sign Durant, definitely without an intricate blueprint. Then he bangs his pouch of championship rings on the table, and tells the room, "You guys gotta get a grip on greatness."
3. Can we talk about this Clippers team?
Half the fun with Durant's free agency has been dreaming up hypothetical lineups. And while we all have a few more days to dream, let's talk about the craziest pipe dream. It's not the Warriors, it's not the Spurs, it's the Clippers clearing cap space over the next week, and getting this:
PG: Chris Paul
SG: J.J. Redick
SF: Justise Winslow
PF: Kevin Durant
C: DeAndre Jordan
Durant would get 25 shots per game, Chris Paul would go for 15 assists every night, J.J. Redick could space the floor, Justise Winslow could maul people on both ends of the floor, DeAndre Jordan could get 18 points every night on alley-oops alone... I would inject League Pass directly into my veins if that team happens.
It would mean the Clippers flip Blake Griffin for Justise Winslow, obviously. That move alone would take some creative financing, not to mention cooperation from Pat Riley, and uncommon coordination during the craziest week of the year, all while both teams chase the same superstar. It's not happening. The Clippers want to keep Blake and trade everyone else, the Heat may not want Blake ... It can't happen, right? It's clearly too good to be true. Still, after two years of dreaming, let it be known that this imaginary Clippers team would melt the world.
4. What role does Nike have in all this?
Read this 3,000 word piece on the Sneaker Wars in the NBA. Read this article about Kevin Durant's $300 million Nike contract. Even with the rising cap, Durant's making more from Nike than any NBA team. And given what we know about the shoe business, it's not inconceivable that Nike could have some opinions to share this week. That's not to say there will be directives, but if the decision is close, maybe Nike's influence is the tiebreaker.
This has been my favorite angle throughout this process, mostly because nobody can prove anything, and you can take your Illuminati conspiracies in any direction. Does Nike want him on the East Coast? What about getting him to Los Angeles? Or is KD all set to stay in Oklahoma City, but intent on milking this free agency process and the Summer Olympics to boost his marketing profile?
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Pick whichever answers you want. It's likely that all of this is nonsense, but it makes for fun arguments. The one, truly convincing Nike theory goes back to the Sneaker Wars. Steph Curry is currently the most popular non-Nike athlete in the sport. His Under Armour shoes, despite designs that are alternately boring and galling, have become some of the best sellers in the industry. And given how heated these wars have become, it's hard to believe that Nike would want its $300 million investment playing in the shadow of its biggest competitor, right? Just saying, if there's a tie in this decision and any room for Nike to influence things, here's to betting Phil Knight votes no to Golden State.
(Or... is Nike sending Durant to Golden State to undermine Steph's market power like never before?)
(Sorry. Time to move on.)
5. Why would anyone want him to go to Golden State?
Forget Nike. Any basketball fan outside the Bay Area should be rooting against Durant to the Warriors. If it happens, sure, we can all adjust and try to enjoy the Warriors as some kind Death Star of shooters. They will be the ultimate heels, and I guess that could be fun. But for now, let's admit the obvious: This would be lame for everyone involved.
The Warriors are great on their own. They just put together the best regular season in history, and while they wore down by the end, only a fool would think it undermines the broader success of the past two years. This team is still incredible by any measure, with a nucleus that's smack in the middle of its prime. If they manage minutes better next season, they should be right back in the mix in June—particularly if they can find a big man who's skilled enough to help stave off Steph Curry double teams. I understand why the Warriors would do everything they can to steal KD from the competition, but if they succeed, it would feel like gaming the system. That is what would undermine the success in Golden State. Instead of appreciating the Draymond–Klay–Curry epiphany that appeared almost out of thin air, everyone would spend the next four years groaning about cap smoothing.
More importantly, Durant and Steph are both so good that they deserve their own teams. This isn't a value judgment on KD's manhood or some "taking the easy way out" complaint, but it would be much, much more satisfying to watch him break through on his own. If he joins a team that's already got a title to its name, it cheapens that payoff. The same is true for Curry, who deserves the chance to silence every critic and build his legacy without an asterisk attached to every accomplishment from this point forward. It's better for basketball when Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are battling each other. A glitch in the salary cap may make it possible for them to join forces, but that doesn't mean we should root for it.
6. Would Durant want to do this again next year?
OKC still has one of the best rosters in the NBA, even without Al Horford. Durant appears to love it there. Durant and Westbrook appear to genuinely enjoy each other, and now Victor Oladipo will be there, too. Billy Donovan evolved into a great coach in the playoffs. The second Durant signs, the Thunder become one of the three favorites to win the 2017 title. He can also make more money if he stays this year and signs a long-term deal next summer. Meanwhile, all the other plans here are either flawed and difficult to execute (Clippers, Heat, Celtics) or too easy (Spurs, Warriors). The Thunder still make the most sense, and they are still clear favorites this weekend.
The biggest question in all of this is whether Durant wants to come back and go through it all again next year. Wherever he lands, it will make the most financial sense to sign a one-year deal. But with a new team, re-upping next summer is probably a formality. With the Thunder, another playoff disappointment coupled with Russell Westbrook's impending free agency could mean that all bets are off next year, too.
Durant is 27 years old and coming off a foot injury last season. If he's going somewhere new, it probably makes sense to start the new chapter sooner rather than later. Likewise, he probably isn't looking forward to spending another year answering questions about his future, entertaining fantasies across the entire NBA. And that's what makes this decision interesting.
There are so many reasons to stay, but if Kevin Durant ever wants to leave, there are real reasons that this summer makes the most sense. In any case, 24 months of rumors have led to this. And nobody knows what comes next.