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Will Kevin Durant follow LeBron's blueprint? New HBO doc offers hints

Will Kevin Durant follow in LeBron James' footsteps and go home in 2016? His new HBO documentary offers hints.

A more apt title for HBO Films’ engrossing new documentary “The Offseason: Kevin Durant” would have been “The Offseasons: Kevin Durant, presented by Roc Nation Sports.” Although the film is, first and foremost, a thorough recapping of the reigning MVP’s whirlwind summer, it also unapologetically places his new representation right in the thick of the drama just as the NBA world is beginning to count down to Durant’s impending free agency in 2016.

Durant signed with Roc Nation Sports in June 2013, a high-profile move that came after the Thunder star previously bounced from Goodwin Sports to agent Rob Pelinka and Landmark Sports in 2012. Over the last 17 months, the agency has inked deals for Durant with everything from Neff underwear to Sparkling and carried him through a very public back-and-forth re-signing with Nike this summer. To borrow a phrase from Roc Nation’s founder Jay Z, this film allows the agency to reintroduce itself to the basketball world as the power-broking presence shaping Durant’s image as he closes in on his first “Decision.” Roc Nation’s pronounced role in the film is no accident. Durant’s agent, Rich Kleiman, teamed with Hollywood producer Jamie Patricof to conceive of the hour-long project, which debuts on HBO at 10 PM ET on Tuesday night.

It would be going too far to say that Kleiman has a Diddy-like “all in the videos” presence, but his close relationship with Durant is repeatedly shown throughout the film. Kleiman, a New York native whose background is in music management, is shown making a phone call to secure a Beverly Hills mansion with a basketball court that will serve as Durant’s offseason home base. He is seen recounting Durant’s daily schedule and media obligations. He is often in the gym when Durant is working out and hosting his basketball camp. In one memorable scene, Kleiman looks outraged when a reporter goes against pre-interview parameters by asking Durant about his upcoming free agency. The intended message is obvious: such talk will be running through the hands-on Kleiman, who takes pains to make it look as if he is shielding Durant from unwanted harassment about his future. The cynical viewer will point out that one of the surest ways to encourage a reporter to ask a particular question is to tell that reporter the topic is off-limits, a sentiment underscored by the fact that the reporter didn't even know which year Durant would be entering free agency. Of course, Roc Nation has as much to gain as anyone from the repeated broadcasting of the words “Durant will be a free agent in 2016."

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To be clear, “The Offseason” doesn’t forget about Oklahoma City or Durant’s Thunder teammates. The film opens with his memorable MVP acceptance speech, it shows him happily going through rigorous workouts with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, it shows him receiving instructions from the Thunder’s shooting coach and assistant coaches, and it follows along as Durant and the Thunder perform community service work rebuilding homes following tornado damage.

But the film doesn’t dwell on Oklahoma City, either. Durant’s offseason journey takes him from Los Angeles, to his hometown of Seat Pleasant, MD., to New York City, and back to Los Angeles – all on private jets. The 26-year-old superstar is seen lamenting the fact that his fame makes it difficult to go home while wistfully pointing out the barbershop where he got his first haircut and the recreational center that served as his “safe haven” in a town he remembers being “the murder capital of Maryland.” Minutes later, Durant is seen complimenting Kleiman on his fancy office in Brooklyn and putting pen to paper on his new Nike contract which reportedly could be worth as much as $300 million over the next 10 years. The contrast hits hard: Durant might very well be the same person with the same principles and the same friends as the kid who forged his game at that rec center, but his life circumstances him have changed tremendously.

The timing here may wind up being a mixed blessing for Thunder fans. On the one hand, it is great to see Durant, who is sidelined with a foot injury, in action as he practices his Dirk Nowitzki-esque twirling spins into shots, learns a few tricks from Steve Nash about how to create space to set up a catch on the wing, races up sand dunea with Westbrook, trash talks with Carmelo Anthony in a charity game and “hones his instincts for the game” by playing pick-up on blacktop courts.  

On the other hand, the film forcefully states – right off the bat and again at its conclusion -- that Durant’s patience with failing to win a title is nearing a breaking point. “It was cool to see how moved people were by my speech, but that’s not what I’m here to do,” Durant says at the top. “I’m in this league to win a championship.” As the credits roll, Durant adds: “I have no doubts about us getting there. I feel confident we can get there one day. … That's the biggest thing in this league: winning a championship. It's time to get it done.” In between, Durant is seen watching the Spurs putting away the Heat in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. “"LeBron [James] is gone if they lose this series, dog," Durant accurately predicts, nearly a month before James officially announced his return to the Cavaliers. Watching a victory-obsessed James vanquished by the Spurs surely felt a bit like looking in the mirror for Durant.

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Oklahoma City basketball has lived a charmed existence over the last five years, and perhaps Durant's words would have sounded like run of the mill competitive talk before the Thunder’s tough start. However, the viewer hears Durant speak these thoughts with the knowledge that he is injured, that Westbrook is out with a hand injury, that the Thunder’s biggest offseason addition was Anthony Morrow, and that the Thunder failed to ink Reggie Jackson to a rookie contract extension. A franchise that has been synonymous with hope, progress and contention now looks, if only temporarily, further from that title goal than at any point since Durant ascended to his standing as the NBA’s second-best player. Oklahoma City's nightmare week makes it’s more difficult -- unavoidably -- to believe that Durant will be able to deliver on his stated goals this season. 

One benefit, intended or not, of building the film as Durant’s championship chase is that it lays the narrative groundwork for a departure from Oklahoma City in 2016 if the Thunder are unable climb the mountain. James’ tribulations with his “Decision” in 2010 laid an easy-to-follow blueprint for any superstar that has followed: focus on winning, conduct yourself with class, and keep the sideshows to a minimum. It’s much easier to criticize an ill-advised television special or an over-the-top parade than it is to slight someone for changing zip codes in pursuit of the Larry O’Brien trophy. 

Like James before him, it’s certainly possible that Durant’s free agency decision comes down to a painful choice between what’s best for his individual career and what’s best for the only franchise that he has played for and the city he has called home since 2008. The Thunder traded James Harden, operate with a small-market approach to the salary cap and struggle to compete for free agents. Indeed, Durant admits in the film that he thought his pitch to Pau Gasol went well, but that the ex-Lakers big man “is more concerned about the city [because] he’s into orchestras and plays.” Gasol, of course, passed over the Thunder to sign with the Bulls. It’s hard to argue, given that track record, that the Thunder will necessarily give Durant the best opportunity to win a title. What happens, come 2016, when the NBA's new television deal and a salary cap that could reach $90 million makes it possible for a big-market franchise (or franchises) to team Durant with another All-Star and still fill out a solid rotation?

The most enduring sequence from “The Offseason” finds an anxious Durant realizing he must bite the bullet and call Mike Krzyzewski to inform the USA Basketball coach that he plans to withdraw from the FIBA World Cup. The official reason given for his late withdrawal is fatigue -- a line that Durant repeats on multiple occasions in the movie -- but the viewer learns that it goes past that. “[Paul George’s injury] took everything out of me, seeing that s---,” Durant says to a confidante in a quiet moment at the gym. “Everything I had to play for Team USA, that injury just stripped it away from me.”

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That reaction is totally understandable considering the horrific nature of George’s leg injury during a meaningless USA Basketball scrimmage in Las Vegas, and yet Durant is plainly torn by the implications of his withdrawal. After all, he had stood in front of reporters as an early commitment to the team back in 2013, and he was by far the biggest star on the roster. Pulling out represents something that Durant has rarely done during his NBA career: he had put himself, his time and his body first, before the many other commitments and obligations that have come his way. “I feel like I let some people down,” Durant says. “I hate that feeling.”

Shortly after he completes the brief call with Krzyzewski, Durant finds himself seated in the back of a vehicle next to Kleiman, who offers a high-five and encouragement. “You made the right decision for yourself,” the agent says enthusiastically. “You probably feel like you have a big ass weight off your back.”

It’s not yet clear whether Durant will find himself making a similar, regretful call to Thunder owner Clay Bennett or GM Sam Presti come 2016, but “The Offseason” delivers a forceful message: Kleiman and company will be there to keep Durant’s focus on the future, rather than Oklahoma City's broken hearts, if it comes to that. Roc Nation is ready to spin.