This week's news that LeBron James will opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 has changed the entire course of the NBA's offseason. While the Miami Heat seem favorites to retain their superstar, the very prospect of a franchise-altering player hitting the open market has many teams scrambling to put together a solid pitch. He's the new Plan A, even if most teams can reasonably expect to use several of their contingencies.
This situation is largely a rehash of what the NBA world went through the first time LeBron became a free agent in 2010. However, we might see a similar scenario with a new superstar two years from now. In the summer of 2016, Oklahoma City Thunder forward and reigning MVP Kevin Durant can opt out of his deal to become a free agent. Fans are already anticipating the moment, particularly in Washington D.C., very near Durant's hometown in Maryland. In town on Wednesday to launch his KD7 Nike signature sneaker, Durant fielded questions from the D.C. press on his future and his opinion of LeBron's move to opt out. From Dan Steinberg for DC Sports Bog:
“I don’t know what the big deal is,” Durant said, shortly after his “KD7″ was revealed. “You know, as a player, I think that’s the best way to go about it. You can have all your options. It’s better for you as a player to opt-out, because you can get a market deal, you can get more years. You never know what will happen if you pass up on that. So I didn’t know what the big deal was. I’m sure it was a decision he made — something he was thinking about — for him and his family.”
Durant, of course, could face his own free agency decision in 2016. Various fan bases — including the one in Washington — are already salivating over this prospect. And yet, for the time being, Durant and Tim Duncan are heralded for their single-team loyalty, held up as the opposite of James.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Durant told a small group of local reporters. “I don’t think anything that you guys criticize LeBron [about] is fair. He switched teams; he’s not the first guy to do it. He decided to opt out; he’s not the first guy to do it. Sometimes a lot of people criticize him a little bit too much for doing normal things, doing stuff that everybody has done. [Even] Tim Duncan went into free agency before. He got courted by quite a few teams. We’ll see what happens with me, but everybody’s done the same thing. He’s not the first.” [...]
The event was peppered with nods to Durant’s home town, from several dozen kids from Seat Pleasant who sat in the audience to the silhouette of Maryland on his new shoe’s outsole to his memories of growing up in Prince George’s County. So I sort of had to ask Durant how many requests for a permanent homecoming he receives during his regular trips to Washington.
“I’ve been getting a lot lately,” he said with a grin. “But everybody knows I love OKC and knows that I’m under contract right now. A lot of people ask me, but I just try to stay focused on today, and I’ll worry about that when I get there.”
Durant mostly evades any discussion of his own future and speaks highly of Oklahoma City, but any support for James will only compel the public to consider 2016 in greater detail. These debates have never really been about the likelihood of any future — there's just excitement in the idea that Durant could join someone's favorite team, especially when his connections to Washington cast the Wizards as a logical alternative. As long as enough fans and analysts convince themselves that Durant might leave, this line of thinking will continue until it sees a tangible resolution.
However, these statements become more substantive if we see Durant as commenting on his own power in this process rather than the possibility that he changes teams. By referring to James and Duncan as having made the same decision, Durant is really just saying that players should be able to use all the information and avenues at their disposal — he's talking about the ability to consider moving as within his rights and therefore perfectly acceptable.
In the simplest terms, there's nothing truly controversial about saying that the ability to opt out is fine because the collective bargaining agreement provides for it. In fact, it's only really notable because Durant is seen as the NBA's loyal superstar, a player who doesn't just value his teammates and employers but does so in contrast to guys like LeBron, who may work well while employed but supposedly see their entire careers as collections of mercenary stints with various franchises. This opinion presents a top-down view of owner-athlete relations in which the employee should repay his employer with blind loyalty for paying him well. What Durant is saying, though, is that allowing a star freedom to seek other options is an earned right given how much he does for the franchise. Essentially, both the front office and the player are lucky to work with each other and should appreciate the fact that work together in a partnership rather than a form of indentured servitude. The process of opting out and surveying other options allows the athlete to decide if that partnership is functional, just as an owner can choose to release or trade him when the time is right.
In other words, Durant might be attracted to opting out simply because it allows him to exercise his power as one of the NBA's two top players. The battle between the Thunder and Wizards might just be the specific representation of the broad issue he cares about most.
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