Should Durant Become a Free Agent Again in 2017?

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The 2016 NBA free agent class is a relatively weak crop, featuring few true superstars – especially when compared to the incredible class of 2017. However, there is an incredibly appealing grand prize. The cream of the free agent crop is Kevin Durant. It is rare that such an incredible talent will be up for grabs in the middle of his prime (Durant doesn’t turn 28 until September). There was some trepidation coming into this season after KD missed 55 games in 2014-15 as a result of multiple foot surgeries; however, Durant has quieted those concerns this year. He’s started 54 games this season and the foot hasn’t been an issue. Just as importantly, he’s reestablished himself as a dominant offensive force. Durant is on pace to become the first player in over 20 years to average at least 28 points, eight rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Per, only nine players in the NBA history are part of this exclusive club (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek, Michael Jordan, Bob McAdoo, Oscar Robertson and David Robinson).

There are simply very, very few players in the history of the game who can boast his combination of size and skill. As he showcased during his MVP season in 2013-14, when he averaged an astounding 32 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, he is a transcendent star when fully healthy.

To his credit, Durant has been able to successfully keep his pending free agent status from becoming a distraction to both himself and his teammates. In the recent past, we’ve seen how madness can be consuming for superstars on the precipice of free agency. However, expect the attention toward Durant to ramp up to unprecedented levels once the Thunder’s season reaches its conclusion. When the 2015-16 campaign comes to a close, and we begin focusing on the offseason, Durant will become the NBA’s hottest commodity and most talked about player.

So, will Durant re-sign with Oklahoma City, or relocate elsewhere, and potentially shift the NBA’s balance of power in the process?

It would be foolish to pretend to have any exclusive insight into KD’s decisions making process. It’s very likely Durant himself hasn’t decided what he’ll do come July, so how could anyone else pretend to know? However, it could be argued that predicting the length of Durant’s next contract does not require going out on a limb. All things considered, it may be safe to assume that Durant will actually decline to sign a long-term deal this summer. Instead, because it makes the most fiscal sense for him to do so, expect KD to follow in the footsteps of LeBron James and sign a two-year contract this summer, which will enable Durant to opt-out in 2017, once again becoming an unrestricted free agent. We’ll break down why this is a safe assumption below.

If we are looking at realistic non-OKC contenders in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, the Washington Wizards were the early favorites. Durant was born and raised in Washington D.C., and has previously flirted with the idea of returning home. The Wizards have been planning and pining for the opportunity to sell Durant on teaming up with John Wall and Bradley Beal and making the Wiz an Eastern Conference powerhouse. The pitch could be powerful, as a homecoming would have the added bonus of allowing him to escape the stacked Western Conference.

The other team rumored to have peaked Durant’s interest is the Golden State Warriors. The defending champs are in the middle of possibly the greatest regular season in NBA history. The mere idea of Durant joining Steph Curry and company in the Bay Area is enough to send shivers down the spines of the rest of the league. Whether Durant would be content taking a backseat to Curry (who will likely be a back-to-back MVP at that point) remains to be seen. Again, so much can happen between now and then, it’s futile to try and predict how Durant might feel four months from now. Instead of trying to read the tea leaves, let’s instead just look strictly at the numbers.

When Durant hits unrestricted free agency this summer, he will have completed nine NBA seasons. Because he will have between seven and nine years of NBA experience under his belt, he can sign a max contract starting at 30 percent of a team’s total cap. (For those looking for exact figures it is important to note that, per cap expert Larry Coon, “a different cap calculation is used to determine the maximum salaries, which is based on 42.14 percent of projected BRI rather than 44.74 percent. … For this reason the maximum salaries are not actually 25 percent, 30 percent or 35 percent of the cap, and instead are a slightly lower amount.”)

So, with the cap jumping up to a purported $92 million this summer, here is what a max offer (with max allowable 4.5 percent raises) for Durant from either Washington or Golden State would look like:

2016-17: $25.9 million
2017-18: $27.1 million
2018-19: $28.3 million
2019-20: $29.6 million

Sum total of $110.9 million over four NBA seasons

And yes, the Warriors would be able to carve out the necessary cap space to sign Durant without gutting their roster. Trading either the Andre Iguodala or Andrew Bogut (both would have expiring contracts) would create the necessary cap space.

However, if Durant signed a long-term deal with any team other than the Thunder this summer, he’d be leaving money on the table. The starting salary would be the same, but because OKC owns his “Bird Rights,” they would be able to offer 7.5 percent annual raises and a fifth year of guaranteed money. Here is the max offer OKC would be able to present this summer:

2016-17: $25.9 million
2017-18: $27.8 million
2018-19: $29.9 million
2019-20: $32.1 million
2020-21: $34.5 million

Sum total of $150.2 million over five NBA seasons

Now, despite this enormous amount of money, Durant could set himself up for an even more monumental payday by going the “LeBron James route.” This is because the NBA’s salary cap is reportedly set to spike all the way up to $108 million in 2017-18. (League sources have suggested that the actual number may even end up settling somewhere closer to $110 million). In addition, if Durant plays one more season, he will have logged 10 seasons in the NBA. This is important because it bumps him up into the highest possible tier, which means he (still squarely in his prime at just 28 years of age) would then be able to command an initial starting salary at 35% of his team’s salary cap. It’s a perfect storm which would allow him to sign a mind-blowing max contract.

If Durant signed a two-year deal with OKC, with an opt-out in 2017, Durant would make $25.9 million next season and would then opt out. Here is the incredible five-year max deal he’d be able to sign with Oklahoma City in July of 2017:

2017-18: $35.8 million
2018-19: $38.5 million
2019-20: $41.4 million
 2020-21: $44.5 million
2021-22: $47.9 million

Sum total of $208.1 million over five NBA seasons

By signing a two-year deal in 2016, and essentially postponing his full max contract, Durant would be able to pocket an extra $58 million. The gap is even wider when compared to signing a max four-year deal with a non-Thunder team this summer. In that scenario, he’d potentially be sacrificing nearly $100 million in guaranteed money.

On the flip side, Durant has dealt with a foot issue, so maybe he would be hesitant to sign only a two-year deal and would prefer to lock in long-term deal as soon as possible? Only time will tell.

It should also be noted that Durant signed a huge contract with Nike in 2014 that supposedly will pay him close to $300 million over the life of that deal. Does having already signed that deal make it more likely he’d be willing to settle for less on-court earnings? Or does it increase the likelihood that he’ll sign for only two years this summer, knowing he has that security blanket courtesy of the Nike deal?

However, it is not just financial advice from his agents that will likely push Durant toward signing a truncated contract with OKC this summer. Another immensely important benefit of becoming a free agent again in 2017 is that it would allow him to sync up his free agency with Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, whose current contracts expire after the 2016-17 season. Arguably the worst-case scenario for Durant would be agreeing to a five-deal this summer with the Thunder, only to see his superstar teammates leave the following year. If KD and Russ entered free agency together in 2017, they could jointly decide whether they wanted to spend the remainder of their prime as a tandem. If Westbrook and/or Ibaka decided to leave Oklahoma City, at least Durant would have that information to help inform his decision before committing the prime of his career to OKC. It would also give him the option of leaving with them, teaming up elsewhere.

When LeBron James signed with Cleveland, it was well known that one of the reasons he didn’t sign the enormous max contract they were offering was because he not only wanted to wait for the cap to spike before locking in his five-year deal; King James also wanted to be able to hold the feet of Cleveland’s front office to the fire, ensuring they didn’t skimp and were willing to spend excessively in order to surround LeBron with the best talent available. Pending superstar free agents have far more leverage than those that are contractually bound to a team for the foreseeable future.

Looking at the big picture, there are several important factors, both financial and otherwise, that could motivate Durant to forgo a long-term contract and sign a two-year deal with OKC instead.

Come July, we’ll find out what Durant decides makes the most sense.