Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder just choked away a trip to the NBA Finals after losing to the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
The bigger storyline surrounding Durant now, though, is what’s going to happen in his impending free agency.
He’ll be arguably the second-biggest name ever to truly hit the free agent market this summer, right behind LeBron James. Could the 27-year-old follow in James’ footsteps and take his talents elsewhere (like South Beach)?
Before we begin, we need to lay a quick groundwork of basic facts.
— The 2015-16 NBA salary cap was $70 million. The cap reportedly is expected to hit $92 million beginning in the 2016-17 season and continue to rise significantly for at least one more season.
— Durant can make more money in Oklahoma City because of something called Larry Bird Rights. For more on that, click here.
— Durant just completed his ninth NBA season. That means his maximum yearly contract can only be worth 30 percent of the cap ($92 million) in free agency this summer. If he becomes a free agent again after next season, his 10th in the league, that number increases to 35 percent.
Got it? Good. Here’s our list of contenders and pretenders for Durant’s services and a prediction for where he lands.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Durant loves the city. He’s played his entire career for this organization. They can pay him the most money. With Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, there isn’t really a more talented team that actually can afford him. Or is there?
Golden State Warriors: Will the defending champs be two-time defenders this summer? It’s quite a bargaining chip, and rumors have floated all season they’d be interested. Financially, there might be issues. They’d have to waive rights to restricted free agent Harrison Barnes, but unless he takes a major discount, he’s likely gone anyway. It’s probably a pipe dream.
San Antonio Spurs: It’s an even tighter cap situation. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, if they return for another season, would likely have to be waived. Tony Parker might have to be traded. Danny Green, too. They’d rebuild around Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge and figure out the rest.
Boston Celtics: They could have well over $50 million in cap space to court Durant and another max-contract player. They just won 48 games with no true superstar. Durant joins an elite defensive team and an above average offensive one, slots everyone down a role, and makes them both better and deeper. They immediately challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East, allowing Durant to get out of the West and escape the Spurs, Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers until the Finals.
Miami Heat: Pat Riley might be the best recruiter in NBA history, so this is a notable sleeper destination. Miami has about $46 million to spend in free agency. This becomes more plausible for the Heat if Chris Bosh is medically forced to retire, or if they trade his nearly $24 million cap hit.
Los Angeles Lakers: Their name will be tossed around because they’re the Lakers. They have the most potential cap space in the NBA. But if Durant is leaving money on the table, it’s for a win-now scenario. The cards aren’t there yet for the Lakers.
New York Knicks: See Lakers, Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Clippers: They’d at least have to trade one of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan, and probably J.J. Redick, too. But with all the trade rumors already involving this team, they could be in the conversation come July.
Dallas Mavericks: Has there ever been a notable free agent not courted by Mavs owner Mark Cuban?
Houston Rockets: No income tax, an opportunity to reunite with James Harden and … that’s it. Dwight Howard would have to leave, as would other younger role players.
Washington Wizards: They have a lot of cap space. John Wall is a perennial All-Star and only getting better. The same goes for Bradley Beal, if healthy. They just hired Durant’s former coach in OKC, Scott Brooks. And it’s Durant’s hometown. But here’s the thing: If it wasn’t Durant’s hometown, it wouldn’t even be in the conversation.
No matter where Durant goes, he’d be smart to sign a one- or two-year deal to take advantage of the rising salary cap. Whether that’s a one-year tryout with another team or just a placeholder in OKC remains to be seen. But after proving doubters wrong and watching a surefire trip to the Finals barely slip through his fingers this season, Durant won’t give up on the Thunder … yet. He’ll sign a two-year, max-level contract with the Thunder with an opt-out clause after next season.
Thumbnail photo via Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Images