Does My Team Have a Real Shot at Kevin Durant Next Summer?
Kevin Durant speculation knows no offseason.
The former MVP's impending foray into free agency next summer has been a hot-button issue for at least two years. Anyone hoping it would cool off in the interim, with opening night still forever away and Durant having been out of action since Feb. 19, should be sorely disappointed.
To wit: Speaking on ESPN's First Take (via CBS Sports' James Herbert), Stephen A. Smith indicated that Carmelo Anthony has already started pitching Durant on the prospect of leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the New York Knicks. At first blush, this rumor comes off as outlandish and premature. But it's also totally typical.
Next season will be overrun with similar developments featuring different teams and possibilities, with each report attempting to predict Durant's future months in advance. Chances are your favorite team will be linked to Durant in some capacity. The salary cap is expected to exceed $89 million next summer, creating a financial climate in which most of the Association will have the means to carve out max-contract space.
What follows is a primer of where every team stands in this discussion. Consider this your survival guide to Durant's still-developing rumor factory. It blocks off all 30 suitors into tiers and places them at the mercy of common sense.
Future cap situations, incumbent personnel and a team's ability to contend for a title immediately will help determine the current landscape.
This way, if and when your favorite team is looped into next season's Durantfest, you'll know just how excited, skeptical or, in some cases, dismissive to be.
The 'Just...No' Contingent
Those that have little or no chance of getting face time with Durant, in large part because extensive rebuilds do not appeal to veterans looking to win championships.
Creating enough cap space to pursue Durant won't be an issue for the Hornets, but owner Michael Jordan and crew have actively been spending themselves into mediocrity.
Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are now both locked up long term, and the Hornets wouldn't have traded for Nicolas Batum if they didn't plan on throwing him a fat payday next summer. Toss in the presences of Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller up front, and lusting after another player who, like Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist, should see time as a small-ball 4 is an improper use of resources.
Selling off Ty Lawson and handing the offensive reins to rookie Emmanuel Mudiay has left no doubt that the Nuggets are intent on starting over.
With so many projects on the roster—Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, Kenneth Faried (yes, him), etc.—it would take Durant plus another star to vault Denver back into immediate contention, and the Nuggets won't have enough scratch to double-dip in free agency. Employing all of Wilson Chandler, Durant, Faried and Danilo Gallinari would also make for an overly crowded platoon at the 3 and 4 slots.
Have you seen the Timberwolves depth chart lately? Though clearly in the midst of a thorough rebuilding project, they're loaded at every position.
Trying to add Durant, even one year from now, would complicate the roles of Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad, as well as Karl-Anthony Towns, moving forward. Besides, while any team would likely make an exception for Durant, Minnesota is one of a few franchises placing absolute premiums on restructuring from within.
Figuring out the Magic's small forward and power forward situations is difficult enough now. Tobias Harris is under contract for the next four years, Channing Frye has three years left on his deal, and the team has two top-five prospects in Mario Hezonja (potential 3) and Aaron Gordon who need grooming.
Unless the Magic decide to reverse course, clean house and chase championships, they'll be one of those teams that barely registers interest in Durant.
Yes, the Sixers will have a ton of cap space next summer, most likely more than any other team. But they still need to see what they have in their Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor tricycle, and they're in no position to poach megastars from franchises that have actually tried to win over the last two seasons.
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard would make for a nice running mate alongside Durant, and the Blazers don't necessarily have their small forward of the future in tow. Maurice Harkless is a mystery, and Al-Farouq Aminu is better suited as a power forward.
It's just that with Aminu, Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh on the docket, there's little room for Durant himself to dabble in power forwardry. More than that, the Blazers are only just starting over after unloading Batum and saying goodbye to LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews.
Joining what has been one of the most dysfunctional franchises in all of professional sports doesn't make sense for Durant, who will be nine seasons into his NBA tenure next summer. The Kings haven't been to the playoffs since 2006, and they haven't cracked the 30-win mark since 2007-08.
In the event Rajon Rondo doesn't pan out, Sacramento will also still be in the market for a point guard. And in the event he does work out, the Kings will have to pay him lots of money, putting Durant's max salary out of their price range—barring a decision to dump DeMarcus Cousins or Rudy Gay.
The 'Look, It Ain't Happening' Crew
Look, It Ain't Happening
Those most likely to have some financial flexibility but still fall short of the curb appeal on which Durant can wager the rest of his prime.
Inevitably doling out the super max to Andre Drummond could zap the Pistons of the cap space necessary to sign Durant. If they don't, well, there are still some roadblocks.
Coach and president Stan Van Gundy doesn't often use ball-dominant small forwards and power forwards. And though he might be more inclined to reinvent his system to accommodate a future Hall of Famer, there's something impossibly ironic about the idea of Durant deserting Russell Westbrook to sync up with Reggie Jackson.
Top-tier free agents haven't been known to ditch incumbent digs for the chance to play in Indiana. And with the Pacers stuck in that weird space between rebuilding and trying to make some noise in the hellishly horrible Eastern Conference, don't bank on Durant becoming an exception.
Paul George, when healthy, is basically the East's Durant anyway. Both banged in at least 37.5 percent of their spot-up treys during the 2013-14 crusade (their last healthy season), so they can play off one another. But Monta Ellis is too Dion Waiters to complement this duo, and the Pacers, for the first time in years, will need to invest in additional defensive talent next summer.
Zach Randolph's cap friendly deal will help keep the Grizzlies within sniffing distance of max room, even after they re-sign Mike Conley. And that's terrifying.
Durant does fill a need as the explosively efficient wing Memphis didn't have in Rudy Gay and still doesn't have in Jeff Green. But the finances, while flexible enough, will be tight, leaving the Grizzlies with little room to fill out the bench.
Both Marc Gasol and Randolph are already at a point where their minutes must be monitored, and a shallow, aging core won't cut it in the wild Western Conference—not even one as imposing as Tony Allen, Conley, Durant, Gasol and Randolph.
Few teams will be able to say they have no room for Durant with a straight face, and the Bucks are one of them. They have more than enough length on the wings in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, and the addition of Greg Monroe, along with Jabari Parker's return, will make it difficult to find time for Durant at the 4.
Michael Carter-Williams and Greivis Vasquez don't make for a reassuring point guard corps either. The Bucks ranked 25th in offensive efficiency last season and could be headed for a repeat performance in 2015-16. Finding an established floor general projects as a more pressing priority.
Emerging as a major player in the Aldridge sweepstakes really boosts the Suns' free-agency credentials, and they most definitely need an attacking wing not named T.J. Warren. But Durant is basically a 7-foot point guard, and Phoenix already has two offensive pilots in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
Durant has shown he can work with multiple ball-dominators in the past—James Harden and Westbrook, for starters—so that's not a total deal breaker. But the Suns' recent personnel problems could be.
Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas were traded under bizarre circumstances; it took Phoenix all of last summer to hammer out an agreement with Bledsoe; and the existing drama with Markieff Morris isn't a good look. If the Suns are to reach one of the upper tiers, they'll need to leave one heck of an impression in 2015-16.
Free-agent pipe dreams are of little interest to the Jazz. They've eschewed temptation entirely over the last few years, electing instead to rely on draft-day acquisitions.
Six of the Jazz's seven most important players began their rookie seasons in Utah: Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Dante Exum (injured), Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood. Derrick Favors, meanwhile, was acquired midway through his rookie campaign.
Utah's nucleus is pretty much set. Quin Snyder's gang had the league's best defense and managed to match the Cleveland Cavaliers' net rating following the trade deadline. It's beyond unlikely the Jazz even try rocking the boat by getting caught up in the Durant feeding frenzy.
The 'Keep Dreaming' Fantasies
Those that will likely be linked to Durant for sheer shock value but have "Just...No" odds at landing him, often because they won't have the necessary funds.
Back in January 2014, when Brooklyn still had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Deron Williams, Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News pegged the Nets as serious suitors for Durant—the kind that were angling for his free agency more than two years in advance. But that talk has since cooled.
"So what’ll the Nets do?" the Brooklyn Game's Devin Kharpertian wrote of Brooklyn's future plans. "LeBron’s not going anywhere. They seem resigned to the idea that Durant, the real prize of the offseason, probably won’t join them in Brooklyn (though they’ll obviously leave that door open)."
That door won't stay open without some finagling. Even with Joe Johnson set to come off the books, the Nets could still end up with more than $60 million in committed salaries on their ledger leading into 2016-17.
There will be room to get that number well south of $50 million, but the Nets are in desperate need of a new point guard (sorry, Jarrett Jack), and a core of Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young isn't about to set the world on fire.
As of now, the Bulls have nearly $60 million in guaranteed contracts on their books for 2016-17. If we assume the returns of Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and Tony Snell, that number will climb to at least $72.5 million.
And that's before factoring in what it will cost Chicago to re-sign Joakim Noah.
Gutting the roster of two to three key/movable contributors—or, ya know, just Derrick Rose—is the only way the Bulls can make a feasible play for Durant.
Let's say the Cavaliers cut ties with J.R. Smith (player option) and Anderson Varejao (non-guaranteed) ahead of 2016-17. James' cap hold alone brings the Cavaliers close to that $89 million ceiling.
Keeping Smith and/or Varejao carries them well past it. Retaining Timofey Mozgov makes it but a small speck off in the distance.
Bending to Tristan Thompson's max-contract demands, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst (via ESPN Cleveland), precludes the Cavaliers from making any free-agent splashes for the foreseeable future, even with a spiking cap.
Cleveland will just have to find a way to appreciate its current super-duper team.
Dallas is the lone "Keep Dreaming" inclusion that will have no problem manufacturing max cap space. But after whiffing on DeAndre Jordan and letting Tyson Chandler walk, the Mavericks' focus should rest with nabbing a franchise center (sup, Al Horford?).
Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons (player option) and Wesley Matthews round out the starting 2 through 4 spots. Nowitzki being Nowitzki, he'll probably offer to come off the bench, and Parsons' return isn't yet a sure thing. The Mavericks are also confident in their ability to lure Kevin Durant out of Oklahoma City, according to Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix.
Except we've seen this movie before, in 2012, and in 2013, and in 2014 and then again this summer: Dallas has cap space; Dallas lands meetings with its wish-list inclusions; Dallas swings and misses on its primary target.
Owner Mark Cuban's willingness to spend speaks for itself. But the Mavericks' nucleus is very much up in the air, with Nowitzki speeding toward retirement, Matthews working off an Achilles injury and Deron Williams now the team's top point guard. Head coach Rick Carlisle will be a free agent himself, further complicating matters.
Look for Dallas to land a meeting with Durant. And then look for Durant to seek out more certainty.
Los Angeles Clippers
NBA writer Chris Palmer previously had the Clippers making a "massive push" for Durant. But that was in early July, when it looked like Jordan would reside in Dallas. Now that he's back in Los Angeles...well, let's just say the math isn't favorable.
Ergo, even before looking at the supporting cast, the Clippers cannot afford Durant. Owner Steve Ballmer will just have to find something else to get WWE giddy about.
The 'Fun, but Probably No' Foursome
Fun, But Probably No
Those that could have enough cap space and pose a ridiculously interesting fit but, as of now, seem to have only a puncher's chance at successfully baiting Durant.
Shelling out the money to keep Horford in Atlanta won't bilk the Hawks of entry into the Durant bonanza next summer. They can do the salary-cap whip/nae nae by cutting the cord on a few nonguaranteed deals and team options to preserve flexibility.
A starting five of Durant, Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague? Yes, please.
Here's the thing: It's not yet known if the Hawks are a prime free-agent destination. Atlanta has never been a hotbed for available talent, and one Eastern Conference Finals appearance isn't enough to plug it any higher.
Merely entering the discussion could also mean bidding farewell to youngsters such as Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dennis Schroder. Depending on where the salary cap actually lands, Thabo Sefolosha or the recently acquired Tiago Splitter could need to become collateral damage, too.
The Celtics could have been attached to the "Just...No" contingent. And, as a rebuilding faction, they could end up among the "Look, It Ain't Happening" peeps. But the potential fun factor really boosts their stock.
When it comes to extracting the most out of provided talent, Brad Stevens is the amicable evil genius. Inserting Durant into a rotation that should include Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger would be extremely intimidating from an offensive perspective, and the Celtics could scrap together a pretty good defense if they find a legitimate rim protector on the cheap.
But Boston is still rebuilding, and its spending power would be limited after signing Durant and deciding on the futures of restricted free agents Sullinger and Tyler Zeller. Olynyk will be eligible for an extension next summer as well.
Expect the Celtics to grab a meeting with Durant if they're so inclined. Just don't count on them as a finalist unless they consolidate their many assets into another superstar before that meeting.
New Orleans Pelicans
After justifiably giving Anthony Davis the super max and inexplicably offering Omer Asik $58 million over the next five years, the Pelicans will need to unload at least one of Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday or Asik himself to clear enough cap space for Durant.
Related: They should totally look to clear enough cap space for Durant.
Paring Durant with Davis would give the Pelicans two of the game's top-five talents. New Orleans isn't your typical free-agent juggernaut, but locking down Davis, who is next in line for James' best-player crown, changes things.
This is presented with the colossal caveat of knowing it's a long shot. But it's a fun long shot not only worth our hypothetical consideration, but also deserving of some real-life exploration.
San Antonio Spurs
Nothing says "unending dynasty" like ushering in a new era of basketball with Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard at the helm—except, of course, ushering in that era with Aldridge, Leonard and Durant.
It sounds crazy, because it is crazy. It's also financially possible. The Spurs would need Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to retire or opt out of their deals and fall in love with the veteran's minimum. They would also need to cut ties with Boris Diaw and strongly consider offloading younger players such as Kyle Anderson and Ray McCallum, among other names.
Still, the Spurs have the means to duck $70 million in guaranteed commitments, putting them another salary dump or two away from opening the requisite $25.5 million they need to sign Durant.
That should be enough to get them in the room with him, and it's more than enough to let our imaginations run wild*.
*If San Antonio somehow, someway, signs Durant, we should consider calling off this whole NBA thing. The Spurs will have won it.
The 'Tell Me More...Later' Contenders
Tell Me More...Later
Those that will have cap space and are typically linked to high-end free agents by default but still need to prove worthy and/or capable of piquing Durant's interest.
Los Angeles Lakers
Informally polled league executives told CBS Sports' Ken Berger at the Las Vegas Summer League that the Lakers were among the most realistic Durant players. This is not shocking.
Kobe Bryant's contract is up at the end of 2015-16, at which point he will either retire or return on a deal that, presumably, won't make him the NBA's highest-paid player for the eighth year running. The Lakers, as of now, will have no more than $36 million on the books, and they have the power to whittle that number down to $20 million or less.
It's entirely possible, if not likely, that they scrape together two max-contract slots, enabling them to rely on more than their historical clout. But Durant will be nearing his 28th birthday next summer and (probably) won't jump at the chance to be the Lakers' lone offseason whale.
Los Angeles will need to enter the mix for that second star or be able to fill out the roster with contender-level castmates. Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell will also need to make strides next season, as their development must be a selling point, not something Durant must endure.
Superstar magnet Pat Riley almost earned the Heat a higher spot, but the hurdles he and Miami must first clear are real.
During an extensive look at the Heat's direction, Lowe simultaneously confirmed and shot down their odds of whisking Durant off his feet:
Consider one example: Durant’s max salary for 2016-17 will be about $25 million, leaving $15 million or $20 million to split between Wade and Whiteside. That won’t do it, unless Wade takes a massive hometown discount. (By the way: Rail against the Durant rumor mill if you want, but you’re kidding yourselves if you don’t think Riley will set Miami up to make a run at him.)
Does Dwyane Wade accept an unprecedented pay cut, even for him, to help grease the free-agency wheels? Might the Heat decide to move forward without Hassan Whiteside's traditional—and therefore contrarian—big-man skills set? Is it at all possible that Chris Bosh becomes the odd man out and a prime candidate to be pawned off elsewhere?
These are all questions that need to be answered before the Heat are deemed genuine threats to land Durant. That they're even this high is a testament to Riley, Godfather of free agency.
New York Knicks
For clarity's sake, here's what Smith said in full on ESPN's First Take, as transcribed by CBS Sports' James Herbert:
One of the things that I've been hearing, and I don't believe it's going to happen at all: I know for a fact that Carmelo Anthony has been and will continue to recruit Kevin Durant until the cows come home. I'm also hearing that Kevin Durant is giving the New York Knicks consideration. And there are people in NBA circles who have joked around about the possibility [that] Kobe Bryant, if not wanted by the Lakers, could end up playing in New York for a year with Melo and Kevin Durant.
I can't see it, to be quite honest with you, but who knows? Anything's possible because Phil [Jackson] is in New York for Kobe and then there's Durant and Melo, who would be there for anybody if that were to happen.
Anthony will actually need to be in New York if he's to recruit Durant. Lowe intimated that the Knicks and their All-Star forward, who owns a no-trade clause, could decide to scour the league for trade destinations—a theory that has since been refuted by Berger and Anthony himself.
Team president Phil Jackson will also need to trim some payroll from New York's bottom line. Parting ways with Derrick Williams (player option) and dumping Jose Calderon's contract would provide him with enough cash to get the ball rolling.
All of that still needs to happen, though. And Anthony, already 31 years old, isn't getting any younger. He's shown he can thrive off the ball, drilling 43.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes in 2013-14 and establishing himself as the ideal Olympics complement. But he's coming off knee surgery and must now show he's the same player before custom-made Kevin Durant Knicks jerseys start frequenting Madison Square Garden.
The 'Maybe, Just Maybe' Ensemble
Maybe, Just Maybe
Those that fall short of being favorites but could very quickly become front-runners if everything breaks just right.
Golden State Warriors
According to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, the Warriors would "love to be a featured part of the Durant discussion as a possible sign-and-trade destination."
High-profile sign-and-trades are rare these days, since players don't have any financial incentive to demand one anymore. But it's a useful tool if a free agent, in this case Durant, wishes to sign with a team above the salary cap.
Kawakami floats a proposal built around Klay Thompson and the extension-eligible Harrison Barnes. Golden State could hope that Oklahoma City, driven by the desire to remain competitive before Westbrook enters free agency in 2017, bites on Andre Iguodala's then-expiring contract, as well as Barnes.
The Warriors could also look to clear the decks themselves. They have nearly $75 million in guaranteed money on the 2016-17 spreadsheet. Unloading two of Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli (extension eligible) and Andre Iguodala should get them in Durant territory.
It's an ambitious, seemingly ridiculous proposition, one that will likely dictate the Warriors also get rid of Shaun Livingston. But Durant more than replaces Iguodala or Barnes, and Draymond Green has shown he can jump to center, making at least one of Bogut and Ezeli expendable.
Forging offensive structure in the face of so many superstars to plan around would be a problem for head coach Steve Kerr, but it's a good problem. And while Durant would need to sacrifice touches next to Stephen Curry and Thompson, his currently ringless fingers stand to benefit from his concession.
Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski created some buzz last November when he told TSN 1050 in Toronto that he could see Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri making an aggressive push for Durant next summer.
Truthfully, the Durant bugaboo started even a year before that, when Toronto appointed Drake, a noted friend and proponent of the Oklahoma City star, as its global ambassador. In 2013, Durant even admitted that he wanted to play for the Raptors while growing up.
That's all good news for Toronto fans. The Raptors remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference's race for second place behind the Cavaliers, and slotting Durant alongside DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Lowry and the recently extended Jonas Valanciunas would create an unguardable offense.
Notice the absence of DeMar DeRozan here. He can become a free agent himself next summer, and unless he exercises his player option worth just under $10.1 million, the Raptors won't be able to afford both him and Durant without draining their supporting cast dry. Even then, they would need to find new homes for Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross, among others.
Classifying the Raptors as a dark horse is indeed risky. But with so many galloping giants in the Western Conference, any already-viable Eastern Conference teams have the potential to go from good to great upon signing Durant.
Not only are the Raptors already viable, but with the exception of DeRozan, their core contributors (Carroll, Lowry, Cory Joseph, Valanciunas, etc.) work well enough off the ball to serve in effective complementary capacities.
The 'For Real' Troika
Those that make the most sense from a competitive slant and are most likely to manipulate current rosters just for a *shot* at winning over Durant.
Although the Rockets still struck a trade for Lawson, their offseason has been uncharacteristically quiet, marked more by continuity than general manager Daryl Morey purging the roster of contracts to secure another marquee name.
Next summer won't be so quiet. ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported ahead of last season that the Rockets wanted to give Harden a crack at recruiting his former teammate, and they're perfectly positioned to do just that.
Dwight Howard's free agency (player option) could throw a wrench in their plans. But if the Rockets want him alongside Harden and Durant, Lawson's contract is nonguaranteed, and Morey can look to jettison other mid-level deals, like those of Corey Brewer and K.J. McDaniels.
Not that Howard is a lock to return if he hits the open market. He'll be 30 years old, and the Rockets have a promising rim protector in Clint Capela with which to supplant him. Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas also qualify as stretch 5s and will be eligible for extensions in 2016. The Rockets could look to a center-by-committee model in hopes of saving a few shekels.
Either way, with so much frontcourt talent at their disposal, the Rockets should be amply motivated to cobble together the necessary cap space and sell Durant on the opportunity to join a ready-made championship contender.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Do not discount the Thunder.
"It's difficult to imagine him leaving that situation," a Western Conference executive told the Washington Post's Jorge Castillo. "That team is loaded. If they can stay healthy, they're championship favorites."
Untimely injuries to Durant, Serge Ibaka and Westbrook over the last few seasons have put a damper on the Thunder's postseason pushes. But even last season, when Oklahoma City missed the playoffs entirely, there were glimpses of how dangerous this trio performs when healthy.
Through the 27 games Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook played together, the Thunder were 18-9. That pace would have been just short of the No. 2 seed out West.
In the 616 minutes those three played together, the Thunder outscored opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions, a net rating identical to that of the league-lording Warriors. By re-signing Enes Kanter, the team has also proved it's willing to pay the luxury tax.
Sometimes, the best situation is right in front of you, and though Durant will have tons of other options next summer, there's a strong possibility he decides it doesn't get any better than Oklahoma City.
Nothing the Wizards have done this summer suggests they aren't all-in on chasing Durant, who was born in Washington and attended high school in Maryland.
Bradley Beal is eligible for an extension and looking for a max contract, but Washington, per CSN’s J. Michael, isn't biting. Waiting to sign Beal diminishes his cap hold next summer, giving the Wizards even more flexibility in their bid for Durant. They can then go over the cap to re-sign Beal, who will be a restricted free agent, provided he shows restraint in putting pen to paper on a competing offer sheet.
One thing to keep in mind: Joining a team headlined by John Wall, Beal, Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter doesn't offer more talent than Oklahoma City's current setup. The Wizards play in the East, and that helps. But they still have to go through James' Cavaliers, and there's a significant drop-off in their third option, be it Gortat or Porter, compared to Ibaka.
Sources nevertheless reiterated to Berger that the Wizards remain a threat, and they've been as heavily trumpeted as any other team, for as long as any other team. Their relevance in this discussion, at least for now, is real.