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Breaking Down Kevin Durant's Free-Agency Contract Options

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJune 28, 2019

Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant during the second half in Game 5 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday, April 24, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Two devastating injuries ended the Golden State Warriors' 2018-19 title hopes. The Warriors dynasty could be on the verge of falling apart, with Kevin Durant joining Klay Thompson as a free agent Sunday evening.

On Wednesday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Durant has declined his $31.5 million player option to become an unrestricted free agent. "Durant and his business manager Rich Kleiman are in New York, evaluating free-agency options," Wojnarowski added.

Although Durant's torn Achilles may keep him out all of next season, he and his agent clearly anticipate a robust market for him in July.

It's also notable that Durant is setting up shop far from Northern California. The buzz for months has pegged either the New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets as the favorites to land him. According to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, Durant has met twice with fellow free agent Kyrie Irving "to discuss their desire to continue their careers on the same team, an idea forged while playing together on the U.S. national team."

The Knicks can easily get to $70.5 million in space, which is enough to give Durant a four-year, $164 million max contract (starting at $38.15 million) and Irving a four-year, $140.6 million max ($32.7 million for 2019-20). The Knicks would still have another $4.8 million to spend via the team's room exception. Would that be enough to entice DeAndre Jordan, who has a strong relationship with Durant, to re-sign at a discount?

The Knicks would need to retool their roster a bit, but they have nothing to lose in making the gamble that Durant will rebound fully from his Achilles injury.

The Nets also appear undeterred, as they agreed to trade the Atlanta Hawks this year's No. 17 pick (which later went to the New Orleans Pelicans) and a protected 2020 first-round pick to dump Allen Crabbe's $18.5 million remaining contract and take back Taurean Prince. Brooklyn also sent Mfiondu Kabengele (No. 27) to the Los Angeles Clippers for future draft considerations to open more cap space this summer.

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Brooklyn currently projects to have $68.7 million in cap space, which is almost enough to land both Durant and Kyrie. If both agreed to take roughly $640,000 below their respective maximums, the Nets are good to go. If not, they would have to shed an additional player.

The Nets would lose All-Star guard D'Angelo Russell in the process, but Irving would play alongside Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and whoever else the team can add for this upcoming season, and then Durant would join the fray once healthy for the 2020-21 campaign.

If he leaves the Warriors, Durant would give up the possibility of a five-year contract. He's eligible to re-sign with Golden State for roughly $221.3 million. But the consolation prize is $164 million over four years if he leaves. That's a significant paycheck either way. While maximizing income is important, it shouldn't be the only consideration.

Keeping Durant would be especially expensive for the Warriors. If they also pay to keep Thompson, who suffered an ACL tear in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the team could be paying out $300-350 million next season including luxury taxes.

That would be historically expensive, but the Warriors have been taking deposits from fans for seats at the Chase Center, their new arena in San Francisco. The potential budget crunch didn't sneak up on them.

The best case for the Warriors would be to bring everyone back and then minimize Stephen Curry's minutes next season. Endure a down year while Durant and Thompson rehab, and then roll it back in 2020-21 with a lottery pick and a well-rested superstar roster ready to reclaim the throne.

But tanking in their first year in a new building doesn't sound especially realistic, even if it may be exactly what the team needs to recover from five years of long playoff miles. Even Michael Jordan spent more than a year away from basketball midway through his six titles with the Chicago Bulls.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Beyond the East Coast teams expected to be in play, two in Los Angeles may still want a shot at Durant.

The Lakers won't have enough to pay Durant a maximum salary. They can offer a deal starting at roughly at $32 million after amending the parameters of the pending Anthony Davis trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, but with both LeBron James and Davis in win-now mode, can the Lakers really afford to wait a year for Durant to heal?

Instead, the L.A. Clippers may still be a serious contender. They've been focused on Kawhi Leonard, who may return to the Toronto Raptors or choose another destination. But if he's headed to the Clippers, they may have the wherewithal to make a run at Durant.

The key to a Durant/Leonard pairing in Los Angeles, outside of Leonard choosing the Clippers, is moving Danilo Gallinari's contract. Perhaps a team like the Utah Jazz, Sacramento Kings or Chicago Bulls would have some interest. 

Without Gallinari, the Clippers would top off at about $78 million in cap space, enough to sign both Leonard and Durant with $9 million left over, perhaps for Patrick Beverley (although he may be looking for a bigger payday).

Banking on Durant returning quickly to form is a gamble, but teams may be willing to go all-in on the chance that he'll regain his status as arguably the best player in the NBA.

Meanwhile, it's difficult to get in Durant's head. His decision will undoubtedly involve plenty of soul-searching. He may join forces with Irving on the Nets, but the pair could instead choose the Knicks or sign to different teams entirely.

Don't rule out a return to Golden State, either, although one league executive told Bucher that Durant was "really pissed off at the Warriors" regarding how they handled his injuries this postseason.

Maybe that's enough for Durant to swear off the extra salary to stay with the Warriors, and the two-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player will head elsewhere.

Whatever the answer, it's coming quickly.

            

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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