Back in 2014, most people considered LeBron James to be the best player in the league, even though Kevin Durant had just won the MVP award. And just two years ago, the power dynamic at the top of the NBA seemed obvious.
People talked about how we had a season or two left with James at No. 1, but it was only a matter of time until he started to decline and Durant was right there to pick up the mantle. We were already having discussions about Durant’s place in history. Would he end up as a Top 20 or Top 15 player? If Durant continued at the same level of production, how soon until comparisons to players like Kevin Garnett became relevant?
Those talks, while still relevant and not out of reach, have died down, and two years later Durant has missed almost an entire season due to multiple foot problems, Stephen Curry has won two MVP awards, and James has reclaimed his position as the king of the NBA after a Finals performance for the ages. Durant is still considered to be one of the best players in the NBA, but spent most of his year in the 3-to-6 range in MVP discussions. Even Durant’s teammate, Russell Westbrook is increasingly considered to be the better player – and alpha dog on the team – which was unthinkable just two summers ago.
Most importantly Durant is still missing that elusive Finals return. After his loss to the Heat back in 2012, it seemed a foregone conclusion the Thunder would play until June for the rest of the decade… But as things are in the NBA, what is known is always outweighed by the unknown. Injuries, unfortunate trades, coming up short at the worst moment and amazing performances from opponents have derailed their playoff runs.
In the 2013 playoffs, the Thunder lost to the Grizzlies in the second round after Westbrook’s knee injury in the first round in an unfortunate play with Patrick Beverley. In the 2014 Western Conference Finals, Serge Ibaka gets injured and the Thunder lose the first two games of the series. With Ibaka back, the series was a 2-2 tie and the Spurs were saved by an astounding chasedown block by Kawhi Leonard in overtime without which the Thunder would have been up one point with 40 seconds left.
In 2015, Durant’s fractured foot derailed the season and in this year’s playoff the Thunder were up 3-1 against the Warriors. In Game 6, with all the momentum going Thunder’s way, it took a combined 17 three-pointers from Curry and Klay Thompson to edge out the win. The Cavaliers couldn’t have withstood the same barrage had it happened to them. Some of Thompson’s shot were absolutely sublime – hand in his face, off-balance with wonky footwork and several feet behind the arc bombs – en route to a record breaking 11 three-pointers performance.
Klay Thompson, 11 three-pointers in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals
Coming into the past six seasons, Oklahoma City has been considered a championship contender. They are a 60-win team just by being healthy and showing up. Over that time, the best teams over multiple seasons have been the Spurs, whatever team James has played on, the Warriors from the last two years and Thunder led by Durant and Westbrook. The only one of those five teams not to win a championship are the Thunder, and after multiple years of contention, they are one of the best squads in NBA history not to win a title.
Why Durant’s free agency matters
Starting last summer, Durant’s free agency has consistently been one of the top stories in the NBA. So much that it can feel tiring for loyal fans who follow everything that happens in the league.
The reason why Durant’s free agency is such a hyped and well-covered event is because MVP-caliber players virtually never become free agents right in the middle of their primes. Durant is 27 years old, and one of only a few players in the NBA who instantly changes the next eight years of some lucky franchise – the type of player who pushes a team to championship contention.
Similar to LeBron’s free agency, the ripple effects can potentially impact most of the teams in the league. Durant’s decision will impact Westbrook’s free agency a year from now and the entire power dynamic of the Western Conference will change if either (or both) decides to leave Oklahoma City. In all likelihood, the next time we see such an important free agency decision will be during the summer of 2021 when Anthony Davis becomes a free agent, if then.
The NBA can only find itself in such a spot, with multiple teams positioning themselves with cap space and assets to make significant moves to target one player, when many conditions fall in line perfectly. First, a player has to be drafted at 19 years of age and then sign a five-year rookie extension to hit the open market at 27. Then, they have to be in a position where leaving their current team is a real option since there are possibly better options available to said player.
Durant currently fits this criteria the best. Curry will already be 29 next summer when he’s an unrestricted free agent and is currently on a historically great team in a desirable market. Draymond Green is under a long-term contract and isn’t nearly the player Durant is. Ditto for Paul George. Leonard just signed an extension and he’s in the Spurs brainwashing machine. DeMarcus Cousins is an unrestricted free agent in 2018 but no one likes to play with him, and Chris Paul is a small point guard who turns 32 next year when he has an early termination option.
Cap math and incentives to leave
Had the Spurs or the Warriors completely kicked the crap out of the Thunder in the playoffs, the conversation around Durant’s summer decision would look very different right now. Over the full series in each case, the Thunder were probably the better team, and they ended up close enough to the Finals, where the possibility of running it back another year crystallized itself as the most likely option. The NBA’s rising salary cap is perhaps the biggest reason to delay entering free agency for any player who has the opportunity.
The NBA’s salary cap for next season is projected to be at $94 million, and will likely rise to around $110 million the following year. In Durant’s case, this is the first incentive to come back with a 1+1 deal where the second year is a player option (likely to be declined but a hedge against a devastating injury).
The second incentive comes from the current CBA. The term “max-contract” is thrown around too often because the CBA has different max contracts based on how many years a player has played in the league. Coming off a rookie deal, the most a player can get is 25 percent of the cap. Players with 7-9 years of experience can sign a 30 percent max contract, and players with 10 or more years in the league are eligible for a lucrative 35 percent of the cap.
Durant just finished his ninth year, and while players typically choose long-term security over absolute financial gains, the compounding effect from the rising cap and the extra 5 percentage points make the financials clear. Durant’s earning potential over a five-year period jumps from around $160 million to as high as $220 million. No matter how much Durant wants his free agency to be a “basketball decision”, that math is tough to walk away from.
Other teams do have the opportunity to close that gap by maneuvering with the salary cap. Offering Durant a four-year contract with a player option this summer would allow Durant to hit the open market again at 30 years old, when he’s still likely to command a long-term deal at max money under full bird rights – allowing his team to sign him over the cap, with the maximum 7.5 percent raises yearly.
At this time, the cap will likely be hovering somewhere over $100 million. Through this route, Durant could get close to his maximum earning potential, or depending on his decline in his mid-thirties perhaps even make it over any other option. Injury is a big risk, and Durant has had multiple surgeries on his foot already. If KD can’t make it to the end of that three-year deal and still command the max, he would lose enormously.
Per Marc Stein of ESPN, the Warriors, Spurs, Knicks, Lakers, Wizards, Heat, Celtics and Rockets are all expected to pursue Durant this summer, and Durant has given the indication he’s willing to take meetings.
The Knicks and Lakers can be ruled out since Durant wants to compete for a championship, and Durant isn’t keen on signing with his hometown Wizards and has ruled out the Rockets.
Joining the Warriors would be a tremendous move on all sides for obvious basketball reasons, and it’s clear why the Warriors have made Durant the priority. Apart from feeling weird considering the Western Conference Finals we just went through, Durant going to Golden State would create an endless news cycle of Durant not being able to win on his own and switching teams to become Curry’s sidekick.
On the other hand, Durant is perfect for their switching defense, spread offense and he’d tip the talent scale to “this is unfair” territory. From the Warriors’ perspective, the cap moves are pretty simple. Losing two of Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut would do the trick and create enough space to accommodate Durant. If the goal is nothing else but to win a championship, this is the avenue to do it, though the optics around it aren’t great.
Long term, the Spurs have as much to offer Durant as anyone. The Spurs culture is well known and revered, and Durant would have a superstar running mate in Leonard who doesn’t mind deferring on offense. Durant has previously spoken highly of Gregg Popovich and a frontline of LaMarcus Aldridge, Durant and Leonard would be a terror on both ends of the court.
The spacing would be great, and combined with Danny Green the perimeter defense would just be long arms and athletic guys creating havoc all over the place. San Antonio could use a ball-handler with Tony Parker in quick decline, and the Durant-Leonard forward combo would provide unguardable spacing on the perimeter. All the weaknesses that led to the Spurs’ offense halting against the top defenses in the league and the Thunder in the second round would instantly disappear. And all their strengths would be amplified.
Even this year, as the Eastern Conference got tougher at the middle, the competition against the Cavaliers still wasn’t great. There’s no way James would have rolled to six straight Finals appearances in the West – which isn’t to take away anything from James, but having to go through two or three rounds against the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Warriors and other teams that have been really good like the Rockets and Grizzlies is different from beating the Hawks or Raptors. And Durant moving to the East would virtually guarantee him another Conference Finals appearance.
The Heat are out of cap room, since Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside are both due for new contracts and Wade will be receiving a high salary as a legacy payment. Bringing in Durant would force the Heat to let Whiteside go, and the rest of the roster is aging. Goran Dragic is a 30-year-old point guard who primarily relies on quickness with four more years left on a massive $86 million contract. Both Dragic and Wade need the ball to be effective, making it a bad match for Durant on the perimeter. Chris Bosh’s health concerns also throw a wrench in Miami’s ability to compete going forward.
By far the best option in the East are the Celtics, who have a boatload of assets for trades surrounding Durant with elite talent… in addition to being a good team already. The Celtics ranked fourth in defensive efficiency over the past season, and combining Durant with the elite perimeter defense of Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley would make the Celtics defense jump a level higher. Durant would be a perfect fit in Brad Stevens’ spread offense, and the Celtics would have their hands on a two-way monster of a team. And that’s without making any additional moves that would surely follow.
How good is Kevin Durant?
Due to Curry’s ascension, a lost injury-riddled season and an ever-so-slightly disappointing playoff performance, Durant hasn’t quite reached expectations. At 27, with James past 30, Durant was supposed to be the clear No. 1 guy in the NBA by now. And Durant’s perceived competition internally with Westbrook for the top spot on his team has led us to underrate him.
Of the two Thunder stars, Durant is the better player. He is a better defensive player with the kind of offensive and defensive versatility that has become increasingly valuable in the modern NBA. In terms of efficiency, Durant is miles above Westbrook from every spot on the floor.
Among 62 players in NBA history who have averaged 20-plus points per game over their career, Durant ranks fourth in True Shooting Percentage (takes into account added value of three-pointers and free throws) at 60.5 percent. Westbrook is 46th. Durant has consistently been one of the best finishers at the basket, hovering around 70 percent in his last five seasons.
For the defense, Durant is like a 6-foot-10 Curry. Coming off down screens and running the pick-and-roll efficiently at his size is a skill that only Durant possesses in NBA history. On isolation possessions, Durant ranked sixth among 51 players with over 100 attempts at 0.99 points per possession. On post-ups, Durant was the best in the league scoring a ridiculous 1.23 points per possession, way ahead of the second most efficient player – David West at 1.08 points. As the pick-and-roll ball handler, Durant ranked in the 88th percentile.
The gravity a player like Durant exerts on the defense isn’t captured by the box score, and he’s one of the few players who consistently gets his team points by the “gravity assist”. Off the ball, defenses are so worried about Durant they will often double him before the catch is made, allowing wide open drives and passes to the basket for easy layups.
Kevin Durant’s off-the-ball gravity
Quietly, Durant has been one of the most underrated players defensively for the past few years, especially when he’s locked in. Last season Durant was one of just nine players in the NBA to average a steal and a block per game, and he ranked fifth among starting small forwards in Defensive RPM.
During the regular season, the Thunder outscored opponents by 11.2 points per 100 possessions with Durant on the court, right in line with the Warriors historic mark, compared to being outscored by 1.4 points when he sat.
There’s no doubt Durant is worth the wuss, though his playoff performances haven’t been quite on par with his regular season numbers. Durant has shot 32.9 percent on three-pointers in the playoffs on 599 attempts in his career, compared to 38.0 percent during the regular season. He has shot over 50 percent from the field in each of his last four seasons, but has also failed to hit that mark in the playoffs and only made 43.0 percent of his shots in the 2016 postseason.
Whether or not Durant makes the long-term commitment either this summer or the next, he is the most important domino that will fall, and all other moves and backup plans for every team will unravel from his decision. For basketball fans, it would be fun to see great players start and finish their careers with the same team, but that’s up to Durant. On the other hand, the unknown is full of possibilities, and each of his potential choices is full of excitement.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.