May 31, 2016

Kevin Durant sat at the press conference table with Russell Westbrook by his side, the two friends and teammates trying to get their minds around letting a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals slip away.

It didn't take long for Durant to face a question about his future in Oklahoma City.

''We just lost like 30 minutes ago, so I haven't even thought about it,'' Durant said after a Game 7 loss to the Warriors ended the Thunder's season. ''... I'll think about that stuff, I don't know when. But we just lost an hour ago, 30 minutes ago, so I don't know.''

While it may have been too soon for Durant to think about his long-term future, the question has loomed over the franchise for more that a year. The all-world scorer will become a free agent on July 1 and will be the most coveted player on the market.

The way the Thunder, and several other teams, performed in the playoffs this spring could go a long way toward whether star free agents choose to stay home or seek bigger money or a perceived better chance of winning elsewhere.

Toronto's DeMar DeRozan, Atlanta's Al Horford, Memphis point guard Mike Conley and Houston's Dwight Howard are among those who figure to become free agents this summer when the NBA's new television deal will kick in. Every team in the league will have major salary cap space, which could turn a solid free agent crop into a feeding frenzy as executives try to get a handle on a new normal for player salaries.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki are among the superstars who can technically become free agents by exercising player option's in their contracts. But all three are expected to stay put after signing new deals with their teams in July.

For much of the season, Durant didn't appear to be a candidate in that group of players firmly expected to stay put. The Thunder took some time to come together under new coach Billy Donovan and appeared to be a step behind the Western Conference elites in Golden State and San Antonio. After nine seasons with the franchise without a championship, Durant could follow in James' footsteps and leave the team that drafted him in search of one that delivered a better chance to finally grab the trophy. James went to Miami in 2010 and won two championships and went to the NBA Finals twice more before returning home to Cleveland in 2014.

The Washington Wizards were one of the teams most often mentioned as a landing spot for Durant, who is from the D.C. area. But then the Thunder went on a stirring run in the playoffs, beating the 67-win Spurs in the conference semifinals and pushing the defending champions to the brink in the West finals.

Durant and his Roc Nation representation have done a good job of keeping information close to the vest, so it remains a mystery as to which way he is leaning. But after coming so close to returning to the NBA Finals, and with a superstar as bright as Westbrook by his side, it now would be a surprise to see him uproot from a community he loves to chase a championship elsewhere.

''I'm just proud of what all we've been through this season,'' Durant said. ''We stuck together and we sacrificed for each other. That's just what makes this game so special.''

The Raptors may have similarly helped their cause by taking James and the Cavaliers to six games in the Eastern Conference finals. DeRozan has blossomed into an All-Star during his seven years in Toronto and formed a tight bond with point guard Kyle Lowry that could keep him from looking for greener pastures.

''Our No. 1 goal is to bring DeMar back here,'' Raptors GM Masai Ujiri said. ''We feel great that he wants to come back to our organization. I spoke to him (after Game 6), and his eyes were still red. You could tell. He said he felt empty the next day, which was telling.''

Other teams have their work cut out for them after playoff flame outs. The Rockets were one of the league's most disappointing teams and were dispatched by the Warriors in the first round, and Howard is expected to opt out of his contract to look for a new team after not meshing with star guard James Harden.

The Grizzlies overcame myriad injuries to make the playoffs, but were still bounced in the first round. Now Conley is a free agent and the organization hopes that his close relationship with Marc Gasol will keep him in Memphis.

And in Atlanta, Al Horford is an unrestricted free agent on a team that has not been able to overcome the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

But it all starts with Durant, whose decision stands to have a lasting impact on how the rest of the summer unfolds.

''We're all upset,'' Durant said. ''We wanted to get a chance to play for a championship in the finals, so that hurts.

''But when you sit down and look back at what happened throughout the season, you can be proud of not just the players, but everybody in the organization from the top to the bottom.''

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