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NBA AM: Would Kevin Durant Really Stay In OKC?

The next 456 days are not going to be easy for the Oklahoma City Thunder or their star player Kevin Durant… It’s time to stock up for the off-season.

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Time Waits For No Player:  In all things, you can take a cynical path and believe that the worst will happen or you can be the optimist and believe that everything will work out and good things will happen.

Free agency in sports tends to bring out both emotions at some point in the process. For Oklahoma City and their star player Kevin Durant, there are going to be moments over the next 456 days that challenge both notions.

For months, there has been a narrative that in 2016 Durant, when his current contract expires, is going to explore his options and potentially leave the Thunder at the altar on a new deal. Maybe he leaves for the franchise closer to his hometown of Maryland; maybe for the bright lights of New York City; maybe for the chance to be the next Los Angeles Lakers’ franchise star.

Durant will have countless options in 2016 when the salary cap is expected to balloon to well over $85 million, and virtually every team in the league will have salary cap space to offer him a maximum deal.

Durant for most of the last year has tried to quell the storm that is brewing around him, pledging over and over that he is truly happy in Oklahoma City and that he loves what he’s found in OKC, which is a family on and off the court, a city that he can love and loves him back. The quieter lifestyle that comes from a smaller community is appealing to Durant.

Being in Oklahoma City hasn’t hurt Durant’s appeal. He is one of the biggest names in the game. He’s won a MVP award, his team has been to the NBA Finals and he has locked in more endorsement deals than almost anyone in sports.

Durant can’t get much bigger without trading in some of the things he loves about Oklahoma City. Moving to the Washington Wizards will bring more pressure to win and more distraction off the court, having hometown friends and family in his life every day.

The Knicks would offer even more pressure and even more media scrutiny. His life would play out on Page Six and the quiet comforts that he talks about so frequently would be traded away for the bright lights and big city. If Durant is already frustrated with the mild media criticism he deals with now, he would go nuts in the New York fish bowl. Durant is friends with Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and the two have talked about playing together, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities.

The Lakers offer the biggest of basketball stages and access to more media exposure through film and television, things Durant has begun exploring. The pressure to step into the footsteps of icons of the game like Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson are real every day in Los Angeles, but there is no better place to be a star in the NBA than being one in a Lakers jersey. After experiencing that, players marvel at how big the Laker Nation is and how being a Laker is different from any other situation in the NBA.

Durant will have other options too, but those three will be the ones that offer the most temptation to leave what Durant has built in OKC.

In a recent interview with Revolt TV, Durant reaffirmed his desire to stay in Oklahoma City, pointing to his chance to secure his legacy with one franchise.

“I love it here, man. I love my teammates, I love the city, I don’t really think about anywhere else,” Durant said. “I hear it all the time, don’t get me wrong, and once you hear it you’re kind of like [looks up, thinking]. But for me, I love staying in the moment, and I’m one of those guys that would love to stick it out with one team my whole career.

“Kobe [Bryant], Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki type. That’s awesome,” he said. “But you never know what the future holds sometimes and how teams may feel about you after a while, but I love it here and I would love to get my jersey retired here.”

The Thunder’s stance has been that regardless of the pending doom that could hang in the balance of Durant’s free agency, trading him is the furthest thing from their process and that if Durant walks, he walks, but no one in Oklahoma City is going to panic because of Durant’s ending deal.

This day was a known commodity for some time, and the Thunder have been very proactive in engaging Durant’s needs and wants and making sure that he understands that as a franchise they are as committed to Durant’s goals almost as much as he is.

There is no doubting that the Thunder’s resolve will get tested, especially when the current NBA season ends, because the storyline of the offseason is going to revolve around Durant, as teams position themselves to have a chance to talk with him and that’s going to spawn rumors and back channel conversations that will fuel a media circus that no one in the equation is going to be ready for.

As much as Durant has pledged his long-term affections for Oklahoma City, those mega-star free agents that have come before him have done the same thing. LeBron James said similar things about Cleveland before leaving them later for Miami. Dwight Howard pledged his love for Orlando before forcing his way out of Central Florida. Carmelo Anthony said he loved Denver right up to the point that he forced his way to the Knicks.

Free agency can be viewed in a lot of ways, and for the next 456 days, the Thunder are going to have to entertain both.

Time To Load Up For Summer:  Over the next few days teams will start grabbing interesting prospects on 10-day contracts in advance of the end of the season. What’s going on in these situations is teams want to get players into their system and get them a little bit of cash before signing them to non-guaranteed deals before the end of the season, which locks in their rights for summer league and potential offseason trades.

There is value in having non-guaranteed players on the roster to use as trade bait, and some teams may tap into unused cap space to create trade chips.

Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers gave free agent Scotty Hopson a two-year, $3.8 million contract with $1.3 million fully guaranteed for what amounted to seven games to create a $2.5 million trade chip. It was a deal created just to be traded in the offseason.

Call it creative accounting, but teams will look at the final 14 days of the season as a means to stockpile pieces for the summer, just as Cleveland did with Hopson.

The Lakers finally waived guard Steve Nash in order to open up a roster spot to sign Jabari Brown to a multi-year deal with about $50,000 due this season and $900,000 non-guaranteed next season, which could become one of those contracts that is eventually used as a trade chip (as mentioned above).

Teams can wait until just before their final game of the season to sign a player, so there is still a lot of time to get something done, but most agents want some guaranteed cash in order to agree to these kinds of deals, so the idea is there needs to be a few games in order to pro-rate out that cash for teams with exceptions or salary cap space.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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