BOSTON – Across the NBA, teams are looking for signs of weakness in Kevin Durant’s resolve to remain in Oklahoma City, stuffing every variable under a microscope. Does Durant truly like playing with Russell Westbrook? A point guard by position, a scorer by skill, Westbrook’s aggressiveness can be overwhelming. And what about Serge Ibaka? Ibaka has the skills to be the league’s best defensive player, but his desire to be an accomplished scorer can split his focus in ways Oklahoma City doesn’t need. At times the Thunder can appear disconnected on the floor, rival coaches and scouts told The Vertical, an issue that manifests itself with rushed shots and slumped shoulders, each instance noted by Oklahoma City’s rivals and filed away.
The fight for Durant doesn’t formally begin until July, but make no mistake: Teams are already gearing up. The coming spike in the salary cap has created a landscape for which nobody prepared. Golden State is considered a realistic option, San Antonio is lurking in the weeds, and it’s widely believed Boston will make its way onto Durant’s radar in the coming months. Indeed, a Bachelor-like courtship is set to commence.
Yet it’s fair to wonder: Of all the options Durant will have in July, are any better than the one he has now?
Reclining in a cushioned chair Wednesday, hours before Oklahoma City’s 130-109 shellacking of the Celtics, Durant was unequivocal about his feelings for the supporting cast that surrounds him.
“Look, we like each other,” Durant told The Vertical. “We like playing with each other. We like being around each other. Sometimes it comes down to basketball. Sometimes, X’s and O’s are the reason you lose games. It’s not always leadership issues or camaraderie issues; sometimes other teams just play better basketball than you. But we love each other.”
So what’s missing? A championship ring would be nice. Five trips to the playoffs, two to the Western Conference Finals and one NBA Finals appearance have yet to yield the title Durant craves. And it may be unrealistic to expect that result this season. Golden State could be the best team in NBA history, San Antonio is playing at a pace just beneath the Warriors, and Oklahoma City may not play enough defense to beat either. The tragic death of assistant coach Monty Williams’ wife has removed an important voice from the Thunder’s bench, and while assistant Mo Cheeks, recovering from hip surgery, is expected back on the bench before the end of the season, the lack of experience on Oklahoma City’s sideline should not be underestimated.
It’s as tough of a challenge as Durant has ever faced in Oklahoma City – and one he says he is more than ready for.
“I think I’m playing a little more free than I used to,” Durant told The Vertical. “I used to put a lot of pressure on myself. I’d think, ‘Maybe I’m not being a good enough leader. Maybe I should change my personality.’ I was always thinking what if I change this, what if I change that, instead of just going out and being me. I’ve just been about playing the game at the level I like playing at and playing with the level of joy I like playing with.”
And what if that’s not enough? Would a second-round exit send Durant racing for the door? Wherever Durant signs, it likely won’t immediately be for the long term. Financially, it makes little sense. A nine-year veteran, Durant is eligible for the Tier 2 max salary – $25 million annually – against a cap estimated at around $90 million in 2016. In 2017, when executives predict the cap could rise to $110 million, Durant would be eligible for a Tier 3 max deal beginning at $34.5 million annually.
There, Oklahoma City has a considerable carrot: The Thunder own Durant’s Bird Rights, giving them the option to exceed the cap. Other teams could sign Durant outright, but they would need to fit Durant’s salary without exceeding the cap, potentially inhibiting a team’s ability to build a contender around him.
Still, so much remains unknown. The lure of playing with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson has to be appealing, but would Durant really jump to a possible two-time champion, to a team that will never be his? San Antonio has rebuilt its dynasty, but rival executives believe the Spurs will explore ways of adding Durant to the mix, and the franchise’s culture makes it intriguing.
Yet in so many ways, a return to Oklahoma City remains the most logical, most reasoned outcome. The Thunder are prepared to meet Durant’s contract terms, to sign him to a one-year deal, if he seeks it, and then open the vault in the years to come. Any tight-fisted fiscal days are over, replaced by a free-spending strategy that would make Mikhail Prokhorov blush. Oklahoma City has built a deeply desirable roster, one equipped to compete in the Western Conference into the next decade. Durant is looking forward to being recruited, to being courted, to being treated like the biggest free-agent prize since LeBron James six years ago. The chances of Durant sending a simple tweet again announcing his return are virtually nonexistent, but the Thunder remain hopeful that his decision, regardless of how this season ends, is the same.
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