LOS ANGELES — Few NBA superstars on different squads have ever shared a bromance quite like the one between Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. Once Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder knocked Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers out of the playoffs in 2012, game truly began to recognize game.
At a recent media session, Kevin Durant told Bleacher Report and some assembled media why he's grateful for their relationship:
He always had a respect for me, but I think that's when it went to another level. Some of the stuff he was telling me, I was shocked because I always felt that he was sheltered, had his shield up, was in a shell all the time. But he opened up a lot and I could tell he had major respect for my game. There's times when I hit him and just want to talk about life or basketball, he's always there.
For Lakers fans, Durant's admiration for the Black Mamba might seem like a sure sign that OKC's centerpiece today will be L.A.'s next savior tomorrow—if by tomorrow you mean July 2016, when KD hits free agency.
What more could a Kobe Bryant acolyte want than to follow directly in his mentor's footsteps? What better way to strengthen his own legacy than to restore the shimmer to the Lakers' signature colors? What better way to satiate a born scorer's shooting appetite than with all the looks his heart desires?
Where else would a 27-year-old multimillionaire want to live other than in the entertainment capital of the world, where the sun shines on everyone almost every day of the year and shimmers brightest on the biggest names?
Movies. TV commercial spots. Endorsement deals. The trappings of fame and fortune.
What more could he want?
The last question isn't merely rhetorical. There are (at least) two big things he could want: winning and much, much more money.
The Lakers have tried (and failed) to recruit elite free agents without the benefit of recent on-court success. In July 2015, they unsuccessfully courted another University of Texas product, LaMarcus Aldridge.
As Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak recounted to ESPN's Baxter Holmes:
At the end of the day, last summer, we were trying to sell to free agents -- "Come to LA, we have plenty of cap room, we have the No. 2 draft pick, we have a player we drafted No. 7 [overall] who didn't play this year who we think is going to be a heck of a player, and we've got Kobe, who is going to turn 36." That was our pitch. And that's a tough pitch to a veteran free agent. A veteran free agent really needs to hear more than that, especially if he's giving up a lot of money. He needs to see more of a core than the No. 2 pick, whom he may not even know who he is, and a player that got hurt in the first game of the season, and the rest of the guys that we had on the team and Kobe who hadn't played in two years. That's a tough pitch to a free agent. It really is.
L.A.'s pitch won't be quite so desperate during the next free-agent frenzy, but not by much. That No. 2 has since been spent on D'Angelo Russell, a 19-year-old guard whose skills, let alone his body, could take a while to catch up to NBA speed. That No. 7 pick, Julius Randle, has recovered into a gifted man-child who has "got to grow up. Simple as that," as Lakers head coach Byron Scott said, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan.
Roy Hibbert, the team's current starting center and an unrestricted free agent this summer, could be gone. And Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers' most productive prospect, will be a restricted free agent.
But even if those two notables have bolted, the Lakers' foundation—with Russell and Randle at the core and Lou Williams, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown dotting the roster—will be stronger this time around.
Kupchak certainly thinks so.
"So I think going forward, we're going to have a lot more than that this year," he continued to ESPN. "And I'm hoping that will be attractive to more free agents this summer."
More free agents? Sure. But Durant? A superstar who can play wherever and with whomever he wants?
If he's keen to ditch the sprawling plains and Midwestern sensibilities of Oklahoma City, he'd be better off joining the New York Knicks than the Lakers.
Rather than stand in for a friend, he'd get to play alongside another in Carmelo Anthony. Instead of gambling his prime on L.A.'s hopeful but unproven nucleus, he'd be the best player on a seasoned Knicks squad that's improved with Anthony, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo and the promising Kristaps Porzingis.
If Durant would rather play in his childhood backyard, he could join forces with John Wall and Bradley Beal on the Washington Wizards. Those two are young enough (Wall is 25, Beal is 22) and talented enough to give KD an opportunity to win long-term in a conference that still lacks true challengers to LeBron James' hegemony at the top.
If California is on his mind like it was on Merle Haggard's, why not become another prominent cog in the Golden State Warriors' winning machine? According to ESPN's Chris Broussard, executives around the league think Durant could be in play for the defending champs.
Per Pro Basketball Talk's Dan Feldman, the Dubs would have to get creative to sign Durant. They're set to enter 2016-17 with eight players under contract, totaling approximately $84.5 million of the team's salary. With the cap set to about $90 million, moves must be made to accommodate Durant's soon-to-be max salary of around $30 million.
As Feldman goes on to explain, Golden State has some outs here. The Warriors could clear cap space by trading Bogut, Livingston and Jason Thompson and using their first-round pick to sweeten the pot. They could also talk OKC into a sign-and-trade involving either Harrison Barnes (a restricted free agent) or the package of Bogut, Livingston and Jason Thompson, with more draft options tossed in to take the edge off.
Either way, the gymnastics involved would be difficult, but not impossible, for Warriors GM Bob Myers.
No NBA executive would have an easier time stumping for Durant's signature than Sam Presti, the man with the plan in Oklahoma City.
With one hand, Presti can point to Russell Westbrook, Durant's good friend, longtime teammate and MVP-caliber sidekick. With the other, he can remind KD of OKC's stacked frontcourt, from the long arms of Serge Ibaka and the Dothraki demeanor of Steven Adams, to the steady noggin of Nick Collison and the scoring prowess of Enes Kanter.
And if Presti happened upon a third hand, he could highlight Anthony Morrow's precision three-point shooting, Andre Roberson's defensive acumen, Cameron Payne backing up Westbrook and Dion Waiters playing the part of Human Hot Pocket off the bench.
That core is good enough for third best out West, and come spring, Durant and company should compete with the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs if they're healthy and able to adapt to head coach Billy Donovan's dictates.
To be a part of that long term would require little more than a signature from Durant. No uprooting of his life in the Sooner State. No trading in the welcoming calm of Oklahoma City for the hustle and bustle of bombastic metropolises. No concerns about finding his footing on a new club with new players in a new system.
If better basketball and stability aren't enough to seal the deal with Durant, the Thunder can fall back on perhaps their biggest advantage: their collectively bargained ability to pay him more than anyone else can.
According to the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, OKC can offer Durant a five-year max contract that starts at 30 percent of the salary cap and increases by 7.5 percent each season. Any other team, the Lakers included, can sign Durant for up to four years with 4.5 percent annual raises.
Do the math, assuming a salary cap of $90 million in July, and you'll find that KD would be leaving a ton of scratch on the table were he to bolt Oklahoma City for the City of Angels.
And as Zach Lowe, then with Grantland, explained back in October, Durant can capitalize even further by signing a one-year deal and re-entering free agency in 2017. Not only is the league's cap expected to rise approximately $18 million that summer, but Durant will be a 10-year veteran, meaning he qualifies for 35 percent of the cap instead of the 30 percent he'd earn signing in 2016.
The Laker(s' Other) Way
None of this means the Lakers should punt their pitch to Durant. Any team that can get an audience with one of the game's preeminent players would be stupid not to take it.
Through all their recent doldrums, L.A. has managed to do just that. In 2014, it made its case to Carmelo Anthony following a 27-55 finish under Mike D'Antoni. Last summer, the team met with Aldridge not once, but twice, despite slumping to a franchise-worst 61 losses on Byron Scott's watch.
Chances are, another sorry season won't keep the Lakers brass from getting their foot in the door with Durant or any other major free agent.
Hassan Whiteside, Al Horford and Joakim Noah could all be recruited to fill the middle if Hibbert doesn't get a callback. Assuming the Lakers are denied by Durant, they could throw their money at Golden State's Barnes, Toronto's DeMar DeRozan (an L.A. native and Drew League staple), Charlotte's Nicolas Batum and Dallas' Chandler Parsons.
Another sorry season shouldn't keep Los Angeles from pursuing Durant and other major free agents with only about $23 million in salary commitments for next season, according to Basketball Insiders.
Should the Lakers fail to woo top-tier talent, they'd do well to proceed with caution when handing out the rest of their cash. Signing savvy veterans to mentor the youngsters will be key, but tying up big money in aging stars like Al Jefferson and Luol Deng wouldn't serve the overall goal of keeping the organization flexible for when the young guns are ready to blast off.
Clarkson could cash in this summer. The Lakers can only hope Russell and Randle, with proper investment in player development, will deserve big paydays down the road.
And if the Lakers' 2016 first-round pick winds up in the top three of the draft lottery, the team will have another promising prospect to take care of. Whomever that ends up being—between LSU's Ben Simmons, Duke's Brandon Ingram or Croatian sensation Dragan Bender, to name a few—will need time to adapt to the NBA game and grow into a productive pro.
That's precious time a prime-aged superstar like Durant shouldn't waste on a substandard squad. But it's the time the Lakers will need to return to their historic perch atop the Association, whether or not an established stud steps in to carry Kobe's torch.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.