Would Kevin Durant Really Ever Leave the Oklahoma City Thunder?
Some falling stars (Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett) could be completely off the grid, the 2014 rookie class could transform from high-potential prospects to All-Star regulars, and super teams may be manufactured and disbanded over that stretch.
Projecting what Durant's Thunder will look like in three seasons is hard enough, let alone trying to predict the future for the league's other 29 teams.
Yet, that's where we're left thanks to NBA analyst Jalen Rose's crystal ball. The baller-turned-broadcaster sent the Internet into a frenzy after telling fellow ESPN analyst Bill Simmons in their Thunder season preview that Durant will join former running mate James Harden and the Houston Rockets in 2016.
Rose's intent was simply to "plant a seed," but he wound up sparking a wild fire. As the dominoes started dropping inside the minds of hoops heads, that seed started to blossom. There are several hurdles to clear between now and then, but this carried more weight than an empty prediction.
Could it actually happen? Would Durant really leave the only NBA organization he's ever known?
What Are His Options?
According to ESPN's salary cap whiz Larry Coon (Insider subscription required), we shouldn't expect Durant to silence these talks with a contract extension any time soon.
Under the restrictions of the current collective bargaining agreement, veteran extensions can't run longer than four years. With three years left on his current deal, Durant is at least two summers away from having the option to sign a meaningful extension.
Now, if KD's a gambler, he could add one year to his deal at any time. Either the players or owners can opt out of this CBA in 2017, so delaying his free agency by a year could be beneficial if the players push the new CBA into their favor. But if the owners win this round of negotiations like they did in 2011, he could be risking future earnings under a more restrictive CBA.
Projecting this far in advance is an inexact science. As it stands, Durant can pick his destination in 2016 if he wants out. Even the maxed-out-and-then-some Brooklyn Nets have clean financial books that far down the road.
Finding a home for Durant now is impossible without knowing where the biggest fish will have surfaced by then.
LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony headline the top-heavy crop of possible free agents in 2014. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez could be on the move the following summer. Deron Williams, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis and Joakim Noah could hit the market in 2016.
There are player and team options that could alter these classes, and trades could also rewrite the balance of power. Impact rookies and break-out players could emerge at any time as well.
Durant's one of those rare players who would thrive in any system. Put him on almost any roster (sorry, Philadelphia 76ers fans), and that team enters the championship field.
Market size doesn't seem to matter to KD. He's spent the last five seasons in one of the league's smallest markets, but according to NBA.com, he finished fourth in global jersey sales and raked in $13 million in endorsement deals last season, per Forbes.com.
Championships will drive his decision, part of that whole "sick of being second" thing. He has a great situation right now, but could something better be waiting for him?
Is the Grass Any Greener?
No franchise operates quite like his current one, and I don't mean simply the Thunder's ridiculously productive draft record.
Assuming Russell Westbrook's knee injury is taken care of sooner than later, Oklahoma City will remain entrenched in the championship field. This is a win-now roster, yet it has a number of tantalizing upside players.
Reggie Jackson flashed a glimpse of his future in nine playoff starts last season (15.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists) and should get a prolonged look in Westbrook's absence. Rookie Steven Adams brings size, strength and a better-than-advertised game (7.9 points and 8.0 rebounds in 23.4 minutes per night this preseason) to this frontcourt.
The first chapter has yet to be written on Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III. The pair averaged just 13.8 minutes combined in their rookie seasons, each spending significant time in the D-League, but both have been tabbed for stardom at one time or another.
With a core built around Durant (25 years old), Westbrook (24) and Serge Ibaka (24), the Thunder aren't in need of dire upgrades. The roster is loaded already, and it's only going to get better from here.
Oklahoma City has three seasons (at least) to prove its championship ability to Durant. That sounds easier said than done for most franchises, but this team is only one season removed from a Finals berth and looked headed for a second in 2012-13 before Westbrook's injury ended the team's run.
Now, if we've learned anything over the past few seasons, it's that super teams can be formed at any time. If Durant's looking for a superstar teammate (or two), he won't have to shop his skills too hard.
He's a three-time scoring champion who's quickly becoming a two-way force. His length helps him create shots, send others back and clean the glass. He's a 50-40-90 shooter with the explosiveness to finish over the top of any defender.
But could he find a pair of teammates any better than the two he has now? A lot of that hinges on Westbrook's ability to fully recover (and continue to grow) and also on how big of a leap Ibaka takes this season.
But that's enough speculating for now. Let's hear what Durant himself has to say.
How Does He Feel?
It didn't take long for Rose's comments to make their way to Durant. He spoke with The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry in an attempt to control this blaze:
I’m here for the Thunder (laughs). I mean, that’s all I can say. I’m not thinking far down the line at all. It’s about today. Today we got better against the Chicago Bulls. I can’t tell the future. I can’t speak on that. That’s his opinion. I’m just going to keep playing for the Thunder. I love playing here.
Hmmm...He's not really fanning the flames, but he's not extinguishing them either. No commitments were made; all doors were left open.
Really, though, what else could be expected? He's being forced to answer a hypothetical question that won't take shape for another three years. Thanks, again, Mr. Rose for planting that seed.
Of course, this isn't the first exit strategy that's been planned for Durant. When he joined forces with music mogul Jay-Z and his sports agency Roc Nation Sports, fans saw that as his ticket out of town.
Durant, though, disagreed. "He has nothing to do with if I'm going to leave OKC or none of that," he told Mayberry. "I heard that before so put that out on the table. He has nothing to do with that."
You can make inferences here, I suppose, but again nothing really leads one way or another. All he's saying is that any decision he makes will be his, not Jay-Z's.
The business-minded rapper might plant his own seeds in Durant's head about finding a bigger market, but that's what agents are supposed to. Jay-Z's concern is with Durant's finances, not the standings.
In one of his more declarative statements to date, Durant pledged his allegiance to Oklahoma City during a Nike-sponsored event in France this offseason—sort of. Via DailyThunder.com's Royce Young:
I like where I’m at right now. I enjoy playing for OKC. As of today, I love it there, man. I want to be there. I love the fans, I love my team, I love everything about the city. I don’t have any plans to move.
If you're searching for something definitive, this might be as close as you're going to get.
Speculation isn't going to stop any time soon. These Durantula Bites will keep stinging until 2016.
So, Is He Staying or Going?
I wish I knew the answer. Heck, Durant probably wishes he did, too.
The truth is no one knows where he's headed. And no one will know anything for years.
Will Durant be with the Thunder in 2016-17?
Predictions like Rose's will continue to sprout. Really, it's a risk-free way to play prophet. If Durant bolts for Houston in 2016, Rose can race back and say "See, I told you so."
And if Durant doesn't leave? No problems for the analyst. Are any of us going to fire up that clip and wave it in his face? Will we even remember it by then?
The one thing we can say with some bit of certainty is that KD will weigh his options—all of them.
He'll watch the development of his teammates to see if they're ready for the spotlight. He'll track the league-wide movement and gauge if there is a better championship chance elsewhere.
The rest of us can only do the same. We'll plot his ideal destination, probably plenty of them.
The decision ultimately rests with Durant. And despite all of this buzz, it's one he won't worry about making for a long time.
All salary and contract information via HOOPSWORLD.com.
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