Sometime in the next 10 days, Kevin Durant will have made his decision where to play basketball next season. He’s heading overseas on July 9 for a promotional tour, and according to sources, he plans on having made his free-agency choice before he leaves.
Despite having meetings lined up with six other teams, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the front-runners, with some around Durant saying someone is going to have to convince him to leave, rather than the Thunder convincing him to stay. His heart is in Oklahoma City, a place he affectionately refers to as a “home.” But he’s willing to listen, and therefore, willing to leave the door wide open to the possibility of leaving. At this point, some 48 hours before the free-agency window opens, it’s all up in the air.
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Regardless of that choice, what many feel is not an unknown is the terms of the new contract. With the salary cap erupting incrementally over the next two years, Durant stands to cash in on a system quirk. If he re-signs for one season and delays his long-term choice another summer, he’d become a 10-year player, and stand to be eligible for a 35 percent max deal rather than a 30 percent. It’s the difference in some $85 million over the entire length of a new contract. Even for someone as loaded as Durant, that gets your attention.
If it’s a one-year deal Durant wants, the Thunder quickly become his only reasonable option. They have his Bird rights, so they don’t need cap space to sign him. The Warriors, the Spurs, the Heat, the whoevers — they’d have to be $27 million under to sign him. And then the kicker: They’d have to be $34 million or so under again next season to re-sign him. So his new team has to gut/trim this summer and then do it all over again next summer. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The Thunder would happily take Durant on the one-year deal. They’d sign him to a daily contract that needed to be re-upped for every game if that’s what it took. It’s practical for Durant, and not financial devastation to the Thunder. But a one-year contract does complicate things for the organization. Sam Presti complimented Durant’s focus and caretaking of the franchise this season, minimizing distractions and keeping away narratives. Presti actually went as far to say the season they had wouldn’t have been possible had he not.
If he’s only back on a one-year deal, though, it’s this season all over again, but on steroids. No longer is there the backdrop of “oh, he’ll probably just sign for a year.” And on top of it, he’s now aligned with Russell Westbrook’s free agency, setting the stage for potential free agency Armageddon for OKC.
Plus, there are the optics, at least from the OKC side. Durant is hearing pitches and flirting with other teams. That fact alone means he’s considering leaving the only organization he has ever known. If he signs for a year without committing for the long term, there’s no celebration in Oklahoma City. There’s only delayed anxiety. The 2016-17 season is pressurized to incomprehensible levels, and fans will have to look over their shoulders all year long.
Durant cares deeply about the Thunder. He takes great pride in knowing he’s a stakeholder in the franchise. He talks proudly of “building this thing from the ground up” and knowing his fingerprints are all over the culture and identity of the entire organization. The Thunder have been constructed for him and by him at the same time.
Durant likes to cut against the grain, taking pride in making independent decisions and freethinking for himself. It always has irked him that many made the assumption he’d go back home to Washington, D.C., just because LeBron James did with Cleveland. His entire brand had been built and cultivated on the simple principle of being himself. The aw-shucks tweet announcing his extension in 2010 while LeBron held a one-hour special; asking for teammates to accompany him on the cover of magazines; donating $1 million less than 24 hours after a tornado shredded part of the Oklahoma City metro area.
Or, of course, the MVP speech that had every mom in America forwarding links to their sons saying, “Have you see this?” Durant didn’t show up that day planning a prepackaged speech sure to produce tears. He had a few words written on a napkin, and followed his heart for the rest of it. Nike is paying Durant nearly $300 million because of that stuff. His brand has been zigging when there’s an expectation to zag.
Which is why a long-term deal with the Thunder isn’t out of the question. Durant has talked openly about money recently, saying this when asked during the postseason about David West opting out of his deal to sign for the veterans minimum:
“Money isn’t everything in this life,” he said. “I know we tend to think about taking care of your family, being financially stable. But from the outside looking in, it looks like he said, well, I’ve been blessed to make X amount and I’ll be happy chasing something that’s the grand prize in this league. So I respect him for it. A lot of guys wouldn’t have done it.”
Many saw that quote as Durant leaning his way out of town, leaving the one-plus-one megabucks deal on the table to go sign elsewhere. But what it might have been reference to is the opposite. Durant might be thinking of leaving money on the table to sign long term. He’s still a max player making lots and lots of money, so it’s not a pay cut. But it’s a break for his team, and one that can help enable them to build a better roster to with which to contend. All that youth and potential the Thunder have will need to be eventually paid. And every penny counts.
Durant will at least have that presented to him by the Thunder. He cares deeply about legacy. But legacy isn’t only found in championships. He has said that himself, lamenting at the notion a title is the only thing that defines greatness in a player. What will resonate more than anything this summer, or longer? Durant bucking the trend and planting his flag in the ground with the organization he helped build. That is mostly the stuff of fantasy in professional sports, so there’s no expectation of Durant going for it. The money is real, and nobody could blame him for making the practical, pragmatic choice. It’s what makes the most sense. It’s what’s most likely.
On the other hand, another opportunity to zig.
In 10 days or less, we’re going to know which way he decides to go.