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Should OKC Thunder Worry About Growing 'Kevin Durant Will Leave' Speculation?

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 27: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts to a play in the third quarter against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 27, 2014 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Fred KatzFeatured Columnist IIIJanuary 12, 2017

Kevin Durant is the face of the Oklahoma City Thunder. But what if he weren't?

The NBA's MVP is under contract with OKC for two more seasons. After that, he hits the open market, a free agent for the first time ever at the ripe age of 27. And Durant is going to command major money.

The NBA won't have seen a player with such a guarantee for a max contract on the open market since...well, LeBron James just a few weeks ago (unless James, of course, opts out again next offseason). By 2016, Durant will actually be searching for an even bigger deal than James received with the salary cap expected to increase dramatically as the league's new television deal kicks in.

For now, it seems incomprehensible that KD could throw Oklahoma City aside and take off for another town, but 2016 is a long time in the future. Things change. 

We're about to get ultra hypothetical and impressively speculative. This should be fun.

Durant can hit free agency in the summer of 2016. When he does—or even before that—it's only going to be natural to hear some Washington Wizards murmurs when KD's contract is up with the Thunder, especially if Oklahoma City doesn't garner a championship by that time. 

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MAY 29: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 29, 2014 in San A
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Thunder had a natural progression during Durant's early years after moving to Oklahoma, upping their winning percentage and playoff success in each season from 2007-08 to 2011-12. That topped out with a 2012 NBA Finals appearance, which ended in a five-game loss to the Miami Heat.

But then Oklahoma City took a step back.

OKC lost Russell Westbrook for the 2013 playoffs and fell in the second round to the Memphis Grizzlies. This past year, the team ran into the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs and lost in the Western Conference Finals. 

After making it to the Finals in 2012, the Thunder haven't returned. We jumped all over James for making just one Finals berth in his first seven NBA seasons and that was unfair, but what happens if Durant starts to get the same treatment in a year or two?

We're getting to the critical point, considering he is also seven years into his career and has been playing alongside All-Star-caliber players in Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka

What happens if KD realizes he's playing for a team in OKC that is yet to go over the luxury-tax threshold in its history? What if he decides he could make more money off the court and create a better situation to win somewhere else?

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - May 27: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder backs up to the basket against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Arena on May 27, 2014 in Oklahoma City
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

That's what Thunder fans are worried about. 

The endorsements are a real argument as to why Durant could take off. You can take the idealist point of view and spew info about how he is a small-town guy, but at some point, a bigger market yields bigger returns. After all, there is a reason we often see star athletes flee to large cities. 

According to Forbes.com's "World's Highest-Paid Athletes" list, Durant makes the 20th-most money of any current athlete on Earth. Plus, $14 million of his 2013 income came in endorsements, fourth in the NBA, trailing Derrick Rose, a man who has played just 49 games over the past three seasons, by a full $5 million.

Think that has anything to do with Rose playing in a top-three media market?

Think about the difference between Durant and Carmelo Anthony on the court. Now, realize that KD brought home just $2.5 million more in total income than Anthony did in New York, according to Forbes

Feb 9, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) holds the ball as New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony (7) defends during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-US
USA TODAY Sports

Sure, there should be some worry Durant could dart—as there always is with a super-duper star playing in a small market, but maybe KD is different. That is, in fact, what we keep hearing, right?

Whenever Durant speaks, it seems like he goes out of his way to note his adoration for Oklahoma Cityand not just the town, but the population in general. And when it comes to superstar athletes, he is about as modest as it gets—in both actions and reputation.

Here is what he told Spike Lee when he made an appearance on the moviemaker's SiriusXM NBA Radio show, Spike Lee's Best Seat in the House (h/t Kurt Helin of ProBasketballTalk), earlier this year: "I love playing there. The city fits me. I'm one of those guys that just likes to chill. That's exactly how the town is. The people are supportive. The fans are there all the time at the games. Every game feels like it's a sellout. They just support us so much."

Durant has been more than a basketball player in Oklahoma. He's embedded himself in the society, probably in no way more than when he became a community leader after a tornado viciously tore through suburban Moore, Oklahoma, in May of 2013. 

He led groups through the wreckage. He donated $1 million to tornado relief. He even said after making that gesture, "I call Oklahoma my home."

There's something about KD that is inherently tied to the state of Oklahoma. Yet homes can move, and we're starting to wonder if he's going to search for a new home soon.

Feb 1, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) shoots the ball over Washington Wizards small forward Trevor Ariza (1) in the third quarter at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 96-81. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA
USA TODAY Sports

Durant has been answering questions about free agency for far longer than just this offseason. Let's travel back to last summer, when Durant performed a Q&A at a Nike event in France and actually answered a question about free agency, which was three years away at the time.

"I like where I'm at right now," he said. "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."

Oklahoma may be his home now, but still, Durant has an actual hometown. That would be the D.C. area, where he grew up. If the Wizards win some playoff series with John Wall and Brad Beal in the coming years like they did in 2014, "Kevin Durant to Washington!" is going to become a major talking point. 

This is one of the most inevitable, yet untalked-about storylines in basketball right now. The narrative will develop—especially if Washington starts conspicuously clearing cap space for the summer of 2016.

Washington currently has about $42 million lined up for 2016-17, though Beal will presumably hit restricted free agency that summer. With a rising cap, the Wizards could clear enough room for a max contract, and if they do, let the rumors begin.

Feb 1, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) dribbles the ball past Washington Wizards small forward Trevor Ariza (1) in the third quarter at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 96-81. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-U
USA TODAY Sports

It's not just Washington, either. Everyone's going to want Durant, and as ESPN's Stephen A. Smith recently said (h/t Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post), the Wizards would be happy to come calling:

Obviously, the New York Knicks would be in the mix and what have you, but there are folks that I've spoken to that are relatively close to Kevin Durant that tell me if he were to decide to leave Oklahoma City, it would be for the nation's capital. That's the kind of dude he is. That's a place that he would consider. 

I certainly don't want to sit here as a reporter and insider and try to give indications that he's planning on leaving Oklahoma City. I don't know that for sure. I don't know that to be the case, but I was told that if there is a team that would be strongly considered, it is the Washington Wizards and him returning home.

And off to the races we go...

That's the ideal situation for KD if he were to bolt, right? He'd get two young guards on the way up, and he'd be going home, a particularly convenient narrative for NBA fans to push about their stars—especially after this offseason. 

The safe bet is that Durant stays in Oklahoma City. Still, plenty can change in two years, and if the Thunder continue to fall short of their ultimate postseason goal, his return may not seem like such a lock come 2016.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN'TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of July 27 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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