Is Kevin Durant ready to start a new chapter? The answer to this question flipped the NBA on its head three summers ago, adding one of the greatest scorers in league history to a 73-win squad. A devastating Achilles injury kept Durant and the Warriors from seizing their third title earlier this month. Now, KD's decision could potentially remove the Warriors from their perch atop the Western Conference.
On Wednesday, Durant declined his $31.5 million player option with the Warriors, officially making him an unrestricted free agent. That takes at least one option off the board, but Durant hasn't provided any other clues about his decision before free agency begins June 30. With so much still up in the air, let's examine the five biggest questions surrounding KD's free agency, the answers of which will shape both his career and the title chase for years to come.
What is the Achilles Injury’s Economic Impact?
The NBA’s largest elephant in the room rests only inches above Kevin Durant’s right foot. It’s a testament to his historic skill that there is little conversation surrounding the economic impact of his Achilles injury, with the Warriors, Knicks and other potential suitors all but guaranteed to shell out max contract offers. Still, signing Durant is anything but risk-free. He’s a 7-foot 30-year-old with prior injury history. Nearly any other free agent would see a slate of diminished offers following a ruptured Achilles, yet exceptions are clearly made for a four-time scoring champion and two-time Finals MVP. A healthy Durant is arguably the best player in the league.
The Knicks have little to lose in offering Durant a full four-year max. After 20 years of near-constant futility, rolling the dice is well worth the potential downside. For the Warriors, both cap sheet and continuity factors necessitate a full max offer. The loss of Durant won’t open up large money to spend in July. It will lean closer toward a sunk cost. A second Durant injury down the line would be a disaster for New York and Golden State, though it wouldn’t necessarily mean the initial decision was a mistake. Expect the market for Durant to be as hot as ever.
Does Durant Have ‘Unfinished Business?’
Mychal Thompson used the phrase following Golden State’s Game 6 Finals defeat, and the former Lakers champion makes an interesting point. The Warriors could have closed the book on a historic three-year run had they dispatched Toronto, sending Durant well wishes as he headed east with a trio of championships. Even if Durant had missed the Finals, a Golden State win over the Raptors would have provided a fitting coda to the end of his tenure.
Durant’s injury leaves room for potential revenge seasons. Durant and Klay Thompson can return fully healthy in 2020-21 aiming to reclaim their mantle atop the sport, re-seizing the league from whichever temporary champion is crowned. Losing the title due to injury is a bummer. Ending a dynasty in the same fashion is even more depressing. Perhaps Durant eyes a different ending to this part of his fascinating career.
Are There Mystery Contenders?
The Knicks have spent the last 18 months preparing the red carpet for Durant, and the Warriors will obviously welcome him back with open arms. The other 28 teams would love to have Durant, obviously, but are there any actual contenders outside of New York and (now) San Francisco?
The list of potential landing spots is pretty short. The Lakers’ pipe dream will never come to fruition, and the Clippers buzz revolves largely around Kawhi Leonard. If Durant leaves the Bay Area, expect him to head to the Northeast.
New York’s metropolitan neighbors could talk themselves into being potential players in the Durant sweepstakes. The Nets are armed with cap space, young talent and an appealing organization, headed by head coach Kenny Atkinson and a strong training staff. Perhaps Kyrie Irving will bolt to Brooklyn from Boston and attempt to coerce Durant. KD could still go to New York while joining a less-toxic franchise, trusting the good vibes at the Barclays Center will remain amid an infusion of superstar talent. It’s difficult to assess Brooklyn’s true chances of landing Durant, but the blueprint for success is there. Consider the Nets a longshot, though not a complete impossibility. They appear to be the only franchise that can crash the Warriors’ and Knicks’ party.
Second Star or Tank and Wait?
Durant’s formula to success in Golden State is simple. Rehab through 2019-20 as Steph Curry and Draymond Green hold down the fort, preparing for a return to dominance in the next decade. A 2020 postseason return is in play, though a speedy return from rehab may not be prudent. The chance at additional rings will still be there even if Durant misses a whole season. The Dubs’ dynasty could roll for another half decade.
Joining the Knicks is a more complicated proposition, and New York has two options for their recruitment and management of Durant. His magnetic talent could land a second star, one who could drive the Knicks toward respectability in what essentially boils down to Durant’s year. New York with one star is obviously miles away from title contention, though the situation could prove appealing to certain stars on the market. Kyrie Irving could put on a solo show at Madison Square Garden for a full season, then pair with Durant—and second year RJ Barrett—for a shot at the East crown. If Irving wants to have his (ball-dominant) cake and eat it too, joining the Knicks with an injured Durant could be a smart route.
Durant could also join New York alone and let the Knicks once again plummet to the bottom of the East standings. Barrett could go through all the growing pains his heart desires without Durant, and another top-five lottery pick should follow. The asset could then be shipped in a deal for a star, or it could help land another promising youngster for Durant to mold in the second half of his career. A healthy Durant would likely need a second star in tow to move on from Golden State. Once again, his Achilles injury may change the calculus.
Can the Dynasty Keep Up?
The simplest route for Durant remains with the Warriors, trusting Curry, Thompson and Green to keep rolling before his return re-launches a historic superteam. Yet are we so sure Golden State can thrive without Durant? Thompson will return to the court off a torn ACL and Draymond Green will be 30 by next postseason with a devolving jumpshot. The core is getting expensive and the reserves less reliable. The dynasty could peter out even if a healthy Durant returns.
Those concerns are valid, though the infrastructure in Golden State portends a smooth transition into the 2020s. Steve Kerr is as steady as they come and Bob Myers should be able to make tweaks on the margins. Shaun Livingston will be upgraded and Andre Iguodala’s $17 million will be off the books next summer. Younger reinforcements should be on the way.
Steph Curry isn’t going anywhere and Thompson is tough as nails. A winner can be crafted as long as the Splash Brothers remain on Golden State’s roster. It’s unlikely we ever see the Warriors return to the height of their pre-Durant injury dominance, but it’s very possible Golden State becomes the Spurs for the new era, remaining title contenders every year for a near-decade. The sustained excellence should appeal to Durant, who can stay with the Warriors and supplant his legacy as one of the greatest players of all time.