Progress Reports for Kevin Durant's Biggest Free-Agent Suitors

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 10: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on against the Washington Wizards in the first half at Verizon Center on November 10, 2015 in Washington, DC. 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 Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Did you know Kevin Durant is going to be a free agent over the summer?

OK, good. Just wanted to make sure. After all, no one is talking about Durant, or his future with the Oklahoma City Thunder, or any aspect of his impending free agency. Those issues are non-starters. Afterthoughts. Like, who cares?

Other than everyone.

These are the progress reports for Durant's most logical suitors. They will take into account everything from rumors and cap space, to championship-contender status and potential fit.

Every team warranted at least some consideration from Durant entering 2015-16, and as their seasons have unfolded, so too have their prospective appeals—or, in some cases, the absence of any appeal at all.

Notable Exclusions

SAN ANTONIO,TX - FEBRUARY 3: Omer Asik #3 of the New Orleans Pelicans grabs David West #30 of the San Antonio Spurs while Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans tries to block shot of LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center on
Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets could enjoy upward of $40 million in cap space this summer, per The Vertical's Bobby Marks, and rival agents aren't yet ready to remove them from the Durant sweepstakes, according ESPN.com's Mike Mazzeo.

Except the Nets are a million years away from title contention and don't have the rights to their own first-round pick until 2019. They shouldn't even kind-of-sort-of tickle Durant's fancy.

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Cleveland Cavaliers

Legend has it that Durant and David Blatt are best friends.

Also, the Cleveland Cavaliers won't have real cap space until, say, sometime after LeBron James' retirement.

New Orleans Pelicans

Pairing Anthony Davis with Durant would be fun, but the New Orleans Pelicans are hot garbage this season and will be hard-pressed to create max-contract space unless they dump one or more of Omer Asik, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday.

San Antonio Spurs

If Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire and the San Antonio Spurs decide to go on a salary-dumping spree, they could carve out max room. And should that happen, Durant at least has to listen.

We're going to assume it won't happen, because life can't always be unfair, right?

Dropping Off the Radar

Los Angeles Lakers

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 8:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers shakes hands with Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder after the game on January 8, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

While making an appearance on the Mason and Ireland show for ESPN Radio in Los Angeles, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith indicated that the Los Angeles Lakers "have been led to believe" Russell Westbrook could follow Durant to Hollywood as a free agent in 2017 (h/t Des Bieler of the Washington Post).

We will now give overly optimistic/demonstrably delusional Lakers fans a moment to compose themselves.

This is not going to happen. Durant and Westbrook aren't both leaving for a team that, even with them, will be inferior to this season's Thunder.

Signing elsewhere together only makes sense if they're exacting revenge on Oklahoma City for not retaining James Harden. And if that's really their motive, joining Harden on the Houston Rockets would be a more potent form of payback.

Yes, relative to the last three seasons, the Lakers have a lot going for them. Kobe Bryant is retiring, they will likely add a top-three pick to a core of Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell, and general manager Mitch Kupchak could feasibly create two max-contract slots ahead of free agency.

That's a good position for a rebuilding team, but it's nowhere near enough to promise Durant instant title contention.

Miami Heat

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 03:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in action against Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat during a NBA game at American Airlines Arena on December 3, 2015 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

It feels irreverent to count out Miami Heat president Pat Riley before he even pitches Durant. As Zach Lowe pointed out in September for now-defunct Grantland, the Heat will do what it takes to enter the running for him, and Riley has a way of attracting free agents. (It's the combination of championship credentials and Goodfellas hairstyle.)

But Miami needed to hang with Cleveland this season to really be a contender for Durant. Then, and only then, would Riley have the clout necessary to sell the 2014 MVP on immediate title possibilities.

The Heat have instead fallen victim to their own roster. Goran Dragic is posting the third-worst player efficiency rating of his career after signing a $90 million contract, Dwyane Wade has the second-lowest net rating of any Miami starter and a dearth of shooting is plaguing the offense.

Landing Durant would vault Miami into the upper echelon of the East, but that's not saying much. The Heat are contending for a top-four slot without him, and there's no telling who will comprise his supporting cast.

Luol Deng, Wade and Hassan Whiteside are all slated for free agency. There is no way for the Heat to re-sign all three of them, hold on to Chris Bosh and Dragic and then sign Durant.

Throw an aging core on top of Miami owing three of its next six first-rounders to other teams, and the future isn't all that bright.

New York Knicks

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 26:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)    Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in action against Lance Thomas #42 of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on January 26, 2016 in New York City. The Thunder defeated the Knicks 12
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In the interest of being honest, the New York Knicks were initially ranked in a more favorable position.

Something was written about them offering the best of both worlds—a present-day superstar in Carmelo Anthony and 20-year-old prodigy in Kristaps Porzingis, who, per Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post, has already caught the eye of Durant:

Tim Bontemps @TimBontemps

KD on KP: "He's a 7-footer who can shoot all the way out to the 3-point line ... And he can blocks shots. That's a unicorn in this league."

That, naturally, gave way to super-specific visions. 

Original photo: MTV.com.

The duo of Anthony and Porzingis might still play, and the Knicks have a few digestible deals—Jose Calderon, Robin Lopez, Kyle O'Quinn—they could look to sell off for max room. But they don't have a starting-caliber point guard and are failing in their search for an identity.

New York ranks in the bottom seven of pace and hovers around the bottom 10 of offensive efficiency. That's problematic when there isn't a top-10 defense on which to fall back. The Knicks are the rare team that cannot function at a high level when playing its own style and is incapable of forcing opponents to deviate from their own game plans.

And with Anthony well past his 30th birthday, frequently missing games due to soreness in his surgically repaired left knee, New York doesn't have the curb appeal of a viable contender.

New to the Party

Boston Celtics

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 13:  Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics and Jae Crowder #99 celebrate during the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Hawks at TD Garden on November 13, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the Hawks 106-93. NOTE TO US
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Despite seldom receiving hypothetical love, the Boston Celtics are a threat to poach any major free agent, not just Durant.

Team president Danny Ainge can create more than enough room for a max contract by cutting bait on the non-guaranteed deals of Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson while parting ways with David Lee, and the Celtics already have one of the most promising foundations in place. 

Basketball-Reference.com's Simple Rating System (SRS) ranks teams by measuring point differential against strength of schedule, essentially making it easier to identify the most elite squads. And boy, does SRS love the Celtics:

Boston checks in as the East's second-best team on the SRS scale, and Durant would only bolster that standing.

Isaiah Thomas is an All-Star, and the Celtics score like a top-seven offense with him in the game. Jae Crowder is one of just eight forwards with more than 2.5 defensive and offensive win shares; his company consists of all superstars. 

Marcus Smart is a defensive bully, while Avery Bradley complements any ball-dominating scorer, including Durant. He's putting down 37-plus percent of his catch-and-shoot triples, and that number approaches 44 percent when he's left wide open. 

Kelly Olynyk is cut from the same cloth, only he's a 7-footer who provides understated protection at the rim. He's shooting better than 42 percent on spot-up treys, and the thought of him rolling off screens for Durant really gets the blood pumping.

All the major pieces just fit. And on top of that, the Celtics have the means to consistently improve. They have enough picks to headline a blockbuster trade and enough cap flexibility to remain free-agency aggressors beyond 2016.

Los Angeles Clippers

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder has his shot contested by Blake Griffin #32 and Lance Stephenson #1 of the Los Angeles Clippers during a 100-99 Thunder win at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles
Harry How/Getty Images

Durant isn't a realistic target for the Los Angeles Clippers unless they're willing to break up their Big Three.

Related: The Clippers are reportedly open to breaking up their Big Three. Here's Adrian Wojnarowski for The Vertical: 

Even without Durant, this franchise will make hard decisions on its future if it doesn’t make a deep playoff run this spring. And league sources tell me that will start at looking hard on the market for deals involving Griffin. The moment of truth for the Clippers, it’s coming this spring. And it all begins and ends with Blake Griffin.

Griffin sure seems like the most expendable of the Big Three he founded with DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul. He is on the shelf recovering from a fractured hand he suffered after punching the team's assistant equipment manager, and the Clippers have been thriving since he last played on Dec. 25, going 17-4 and posting the league's third-highest net rating.

Trotting out Durant alongside Jordan, Paul, J.J. Redick and any random fifth fiddle (Wesley Johnson!) instantly puts the Clippers in the same class as the Golden State Warriors and Spurs. But getting to that point is complicated—and that's before selling this hypothetical core to Durant.

Griffin has the option of exploring free agency after next season, so any team that acquires him is getting a potential rental. That, coupled with his recent off-court troubles, inherently drives down his trade value.

If the Clippers do move him, they're no sure bet to open up a ton of cap space. Griffin will earn more than $20.1 million next season, and the odds of them finding a trade partner who can absorb most of that hit while sending back high-end picks and cost-effective prospects are beyond slim.

Still, Jordan and Paul are legitimate stars. That the Clippers are ostensibly willing to take the measures necessary to accommodate Durant defaults them into the conversation.

Increasingly Intriguing

Toronto Raptors

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - NOVEMBER 4: DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Toronto Raptors drives to the basket against Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game on November 4, 2015 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: U
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors have long been loosely linked to Durant. He is a noted friend of team ambassador/rap mogul Drake and once admitted that he dreamed of playing in Toronto as a kid.

Toronto has only bolstered its case this season. The Raptors are the East's second-best team and join the Cavaliers, Clippers, Spurs and Warriors as the only squads to field a top-10 offense and defense.

Manufacturing enough cap space will be their biggest obstacle. DeMar DeRozan (player option) is expected to enter free agency and may command a max deal of his own. Toronto likewise employs a ton of wings in addition to DeRozan, most notably DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross and the up-and-coming Bruno Caboclo.

General manager Masai Ujiri is nevertheless creative and should have the Raptors in play for at least a sit-down with Durant. DeRozan's cap hold will be under $15.1 million until he signs a new deal, and offloading Patrick Patterson and Ross in the right trade could shave more than $16 million off Toronto's bottom line.

At that point, the Raptors are one more substantial salary dump away from assuring themselves of max room. And though that dump will cost them one of Carroll, DeRozan or Jonas Valanciunas, replacing any of those names with Durant immediately renders the Raptors a formidable threat to the Cavaliers' Eastern Conference throne.

Fallen Favorites

Houston Rockets 

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JANUARY 29: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder tries to drive around Trevor Ariza #1 of the Houston Rockets during a NBA game at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on January 29, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

There are three certainties in life.

Death, taxes and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's pursuit of another superstar.

Houston, like many other teams, is planning an "all-out" chase for Durant, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Calvin Watkins. Some idiot (me) actually called the Rockets a favorite to whisk him away from Oklahoma City, back when they were, you know, supposed to be great. 

But the Rockets aren't great. They're barely good. Their defense has slipped into the bottom five of points allowed per 100 possessions, Ty Lawson has been a bust, Harden is once again carrying an insane offensive load and Dwight Howard (player option) is no lock to stick around beyond this season.

Reuniting with Harden will always hold intrigue for Durant. He can be an MVP candidate in any given year and is more familiar with playing off the ball than Westbrook. Nearly 17 percent of Harden's field-goal attempts come as a spot-up shooter; Westbrook fires off the catch less than seven percent of the time.

That's hardly enough for the Rockets to maintain favorite status. Their net rating is almost as bad as the Orlando Magic's, and the notion that they can repeat as Western Conference finalists is a badly built pipe dream.

Adding Durant makes them better, but when a nucleus with a supposed championship ceiling starts flirting with an unexpected lottery berth, it's a blindingly bright red flag.

Washington Wizards

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 10: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game against the Washington Wizards on November 10, 2015 at Verizon Center in Washington, District of Columbia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees tha
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Another favorite-turned-long shot.

Coming "home" to play for the Washington Wizards isn't the enchanting opportunity it should be. The Wizards were supposed to make a leap this year, building upon last season's playoff run with a mixture of small ball and stingy defense. They are instead on the outside looking in at the East's postseason bracket.

Injuries are, in many ways, at the center of their fall. As ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh unearthed: 

Tom Haberstroh @tomhaberstroh

Wizards are NBA's most injury-riddled team (197 games lost according to @ManGamesLostNBA) and OKC is NBA's healthiest (12 gms). Memo for KD?

This is a valid caveat, but it by no means absolves the Wizards of all their problems. They rank in the bottom half of offensive and defensive efficiency and are actually almost three points per 100 possessions better when Bradley Beal is off the floor.

Which brings us to the real problem: Does a trio of Beal, Durant and John Wall really trump that of Durant, Serge Ibaka and Westbrook?

Of course not. And with Beal bound to command near-max money as a restricted free agent, the Wizards will have nothing left to flesh out the rest of the roster. So the only way Washington looks more immediately appealing than Oklahoma City is if Durant knows one or both of Ibaka and Westbrook plans to bolt as a free agent in 2017.

Emerging Favorites

Golden State Warriors

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 18: Stephen Curry #30 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors  on the bench during the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on January 18, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Warriors defeated the
Jason Miller/Getty Images

It turns out life can, indeed, always be unfair.

Sources told Wojnarowski the Warriors would be "significant front-runners" to land Durant if he decides to leave the Thunder. Marc J. Spears, writing for Yahoo Sports, revealed that Durant has "quietly done his due diligence on the Bay Area."

This is real. The Warriors, one of the best teams in NBA history, have caught the eye of another megastar. And, on top of that, they can afford him, albeit only after withstanding meaningful collateral damage—including, per Marks, the departures of Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala.

Sacrificing that depth is part of why the Warriors aren't even locks to chase Durant. They can potentially keep Barnes if they're willing and able to dump Shaun Livingston (non-guaranteed) and Kevon Looney, but they're consolidating assets either way.

Iguodala is pivotal to Golden State's defensive success—especially when they deploy lineups with Draymond Green at center. Livingston is equally paramount because of his size and length and the fact that the Warriors aren't especially deep at point guard behind Stephen Curry. And as ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss pointed out, there's a real risk in rolling forward with Festus Ezeli over Bogut:

Ethan Strauss @SherwoodStrauss

A few reasons, but namely: There's only 1 ball and you're left with 1, oft injured center https://t.co/7hlygiPpr8

And yet, these are the Warriors. They are on pace to break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72 wins, and the core of Curry, Green and Klay Thompson is still super fresh; Curry is the old head and isn't even 28. 

If Durant prioritizes winning over everything else, the Warriors are a no-brainer. He experienced firsthand what the Warriors were capable of in the Thunder's Feb. 6 loss at Oracle Arena. Curry had one of his worst shooting performances of the season (10-of-26 overall, 1-of-9 from three), and Golden State still won.

No other team, including Oklahoma City, offers Durant the chance to complete a nucleus with dynasty potential. The downside to making the move, for both parties, is that the end product might be bogged down by too many superstars—which is the most awesome, non-deterring deterrent of all time.

Oklahoma City Thunder 

BROOKLYN, NJ - JANUARY 24:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)    Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder look on against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on January 24, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  The Nets defea
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Even with Golden State's purported interest looming large, Oklahoma City is not only a favorite, but the favorite.

The Thunder can guarantee Durant more money and years than any other wooer, and that's not even their biggest selling point. Nor is it sentimental appeal; it's talent.

Most reasonable metrics peg the Thunder as the NBA's third-best unit, behind only the Warriors and the Spurs. They are third in net rating, and it's not even remotely close. The 2.8-point distance between them and the fourth-place Cavaliers is greater than the gap between Cleveland and the ninth-place Indiana Pacers.

Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook are still a leading standard for Big Threes after all these years. Oklahoma City outscores opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions when they're on the floor, a higher differential than either of Golden State's or San Antonio's overall net rating.

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 19:  Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder talk during the game against the Denver Nuggets on January 19, 2016 at the Pepsi Cen
Bart Young/Getty Images

Some will try to paint this as a right-place-wrong-time situation. The Thunder are great, but the Spurs and Warriors are better, giving Durant just enough motivation to leave—assuming, of course, he sees that as motivation at all.

“We not scared of either one of those teams,” Durant said of Golden State and San Antonio, per the Oklahoman's Anthony Slater. “We gonna play our game. Nobody in this locker room is scared."

It's the Thunder who nearly ended the Warriors' 40-game winning streak at Oracle Arena. It's the Thunder who have previously advanced past the dynastic Spurs in a playoff series. It's the Thunder who would be a favorite to win a title this year if not for those same Warriors and Spurs.

So it's the Thunder who are, and who will most likely remain, Durant's most tempting suitor. 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate leading into games on Feb. 8 unless otherwise cited. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @danfavale.

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