The Thunder are out of the playoffs, but Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant isn't about to become an afterthought. The Kevin Durant free agency sweepstakes have unofficially begun.
On July 1, Durant will officially become an unrestricted free agent. Durant is the NBA’s marquee free agent this off–season, and rampant speculation over the Thunder forward’s summer of 2016 has persisted for several years.
Although blowing a 3–1 series lead over the Warriors certainly stings, the Thunder have been one of the decade’s most successful franchises, including a 2012 Finals trip. Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins detailed Durant’s rich relationship with Oklahoma City both as a franchise and the city at large in a recent feature. But will Durant walk away?
Here's what you need to know about Kevin Durant and free agency entering this summer.
Durant’s path to free agency
The Seattle Supersonics drafted Durant out of Texas with the second pick of the 2007 draft. The Trail Blazers, picking first, passed on him to take Ohio State center Greg Oden, who was seen as a can’t-miss prospect before knee injuries derailed his career. Durant won Rookie of the Year and rose to stardom as the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City.
Now 27, Durant has made seven All-Star teams, led the league in scoring four times, is the youngest player to post a 50–40–90 shooting season, and won the MVP award in 2014. He was the league’s youngest-ever scoring champion after averaging 30.1 points in 2009-10. He is a five-time first-team All-NBA selection.
Durant is listed at 6’10”, but it’s a poorly-kept secret around the league that he stands closer to 7'0". When his jump shot is falling—and it frequently is—he is pretty much impossible to guard. Durant is one of the league’s most unique players and irrepressible scorers.
In 2015-16, Durant alleviated concerns about his health—he only played in 27 games the previous year due to injury—appearing in 72 of 82 games and averaging 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and five assists per game. Alongside star teammate Russell Westbrook, Durant led the Thunder to 55 wins.
In the playoffs, Oklahoma City knocked off Dallas in the first round, then put on an impressive display in ousting San Antonio, the league’s top defensive team, in six games. Durant was outstanding against the Spurs, shouldering a heavy workload against one of the league’s top defenders in Kawhi Leonard. In the Western Conference Finals, Oklahoma City took a 3–1 series lead, but Golden State stormed back, winning three straight games and advancing to the NBA Finals.
When the Thunder led 3–1, the odds felt pretty good that Durant would stay, and now...it’s less clear. It's all just speculation of course.
Asked about free agency after the Game 7 loss, Durant said this:
“I mean, we just lost like 30 minutes ago, so I haven’t even thought about it. I’m just embracing my teammates and just reflecting on the season,” Durant said. “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.”
What are the financial implications?
Durant is set to hit the open market for the first time in his career, and coincidentally, an expected, significant hike in the salary cap number will free up large amounts of money around the league and arm teams with cap space.
The NBA’s current salary cap sits at $70 million, and that number is expected to jump to $92 million. This all-time high is the result of huge revenue from the league’s newest national television broadcast deals. 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. A max contract offer under the old cap will look a lot more reasonable after the number spikes.
The Thunder hold Durant’s Bird Rights, so they can offer him an extra contract year and more money than any other team. That said, with salaries already ballooning to historic highs, there could be less internal pressure for Durant to seek a full max given what he’ll make relative to the current landscape and what he already garners from endorsements. He will be eligible for a projected $25.9 million starting salary.
Another wrinkle: The cap is projected to rise yet again for the 2017–18 season, likely to upward of $100 million.
According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, if Durant hits free agency again in 2017, he would be eligible for a starting salary of more than $35 million due to a service time boost following what will be his 10th NBA season and the second cap spike. If he signs a one–year deal with the Thunder this summer, next year he would be eligible for a five-year max contract that could be worth more than $200 million, or a four-year max in the neighborhood of $150 million with a different team.
What are Durant’s possible destinations?
Staying in Oklahoma City, at least in the short–term, appears to be the most likely outcome of Durant’s summer. But let's take a look at the teams rumored to be interested in making a serious run at Durant, starting with his current home.
Durant has spent his entire career with the Thunder, and he has the rare opportunity to remain there as a franchise-defining player. The Thunder present Durant with familiarity, quality teammates and the chance to spend his entire career in one place. He and Westbrook are close, and could spend their entire careers together. It’s unlikely either will ever play with a more talented teammate, and there’s plenty to be said for continuity as a factor in sustained success.
With the cap set to rise again next season, the possibility of Durant signing a one-year deal with a player option for a second has become a popular prediction. Durant can remain with the team and delay any major decisions another year, when Westbrook will also be a free agent. If Durant decides in July to commit financially for the long-term (he’s eligible for a max extension worth around $150 million), Westbrook could still leave next summer and alter the makeup of the team.
Oklahoma City had success under first–year head coach Billy Donovan, and the Thunder have talent beyond Durant and Westbrook. Power forward Serge Ibaka, a strong defensive presence able to space the floor on the other end, returns. 22-year-old center Steven Adams starred in the postseason as the type of super-role player any team would love to have. Also under contract is big man Enes Kanter and defensive ace Andre Roberson.
The Thunder could lose Dion Waiters, a restricted free agent, this off-season. If Durant returns at an exorbitant number, it will take some creativity for GM Sam Presti to improve the team’s supporting cast, particularly with the need to make a max offer to Westbrook in a year. With the uncertainty surrounding Durant and Westbrook, it may also be a bit more difficult for the Thunder to pitch free agents on signing a long–term contract.
Earlier this season, it was reported that the Warriors are favorites to land Durant if he leaves Oklahoma City. The appeal here is obvious: join the league’s best team, play fast, receive lots of open shots and prosper.
After the Thunder came so close to beating the Warriors, this scenario appears slightly more far-fetched. Durant would be the biggest bandwagoner ever, maybe.
Also, would the Warriors—potentially a back-to-back champion on the heels of the best season in NBA history—want to break up a title–winning core to make it happen? Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala would be among the players that would likely have to go elsewhere for cap reasons. Still, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Durant on one team is almost too much to think about without your head exploding.
The Spurs have also been rumored as a possible participant in the KD sweepstakes.
A big three of Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge would not lose many games. The Spurs are going on two decades as the NBA’s most consistent franchise, Gregg Popovich is an all-time great head coach, and the team’s unselfish mentality and commitment to team basketball commands appeal and respect around the league.
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 big money. The Heat do not have full Bird Rights on him, and would need to 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.
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 or may not be a coincidence.
Wall has said he will reach out to Durant with a recruiting pitch, and 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.
Other evidence the Wizards are gunning hard for Durant: They hired former Thunder coach 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 Chris Mannix of The Vertical reported that Durant is cooling on the thought of playing at home.
Blake Griffin has been a hot name in trade rumors after the off-court incident that left him with a broken hand. The Clippers enjoyed regular-season success without him, and so an off-season sign-and-trade sending Griffin back to his native Oklahoma has been rumored as a possibility. It certainly seems unlikely, but you never know.
Boston is a team with a lot of history, an outstanding young coach in Brad Stevens, a lot of trade assets and a need for a star to hold it down. The Celtics have the parts in place to form an enticing supporting cast, with Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder all coming off strong years. If Durant opts to look East, where his path to the Finals might be a bit clearer, donning green and white isn’t a bad look.
Plus, there's this.
Houston, perennially in the mix 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 a fast-paced offense with new head coach Mike D’Antoni at the helm. 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.
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 this summer. Durant vehemently denied that claim.
Setting aside the Durant/Smith saga, Hollywood could be an attractive destination for Durant: Kobe Bryant has retired, 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 long–shot to land Durant. That seems about right.
The Knicks have been linked to a pursuit of Durant, as they are with most big–name free agents. But clearly New York wouldn't be the best opportunity to win a title, at least not for a couple seasons.