By defeating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 on Thursday, the Oklahoma City Thunder did much more than just reach the Western Conference finals. The victory likely ensured that Kevin Durant will forgo free agency and return to Oklahoma City for at least one more season.
Even before the start of the 2015-2016 campaign, there was constant talk about Durant’s future. He’s in the final year of his contract with Oklahoma City, and hasn’t made a commitment to staying with the team that drafted him in 2007. Speculation about the former MVP heading home to play with the Washington Wizards has been around for a few years, and the Golden State Warriors reportedly emerged as a viable option during their historic 73-win season. But it’s growing harder to imagine that Durant will do anything but re-sign with the Thunder.
If Oklahoma City had been embarrassed by San Antonio throughout the second-round series, like they were in Game 1, it might have made sense for Durant to move on from the Thunder. He’s arguably been the NBA’s second-best player over the last decade, but the organization hasn’t provided Russell Westbrook and him with much support. The duo have reached the NBA Finals just once, and a quick exit against San Antonio might have forced Durant to start anew as soon as he had the chance.
But because the team is having success on the court, Durant won’t be able to ignore the financial sense it makes for him to stay in Oklahoma City. With the salary cap jumping from $70 million to an estimated $92 million this offseason, signing a max contract this summer could pay Durant more than $27 million for the first year of a long-term deal. Waiting a year to sign a lengthy contract, however, would make him even richer, since NBA salaries increase along with the cap. With the collective bargaining agreement coming to an end in 2017 and the NBA entering into a TV deal that will pay it $24 billion over nine years, the salary cap is projected to surpass $100 million for the 2017-2018 season.
If Durant signs a contract elsewhere this summer, he’ll be eligible to sign for 30 percent of the salary cap because he’s had nine years in the league. Waiting another season would allow him to make 35 percent of the cap since he’ll have played in the NBA for 10 years. Making 35 percent of a projected $108 million salary cap would pay him $37.5 million for the 2017-2018 season.
The most likely scenario has Durant signing a contract much like LeBron James did when he returned to Cleveland in 2014: a one-year deal with a second-year for a player option. That way, Durant can make the max next season, while still enabling him to sign a long-term contract in 2017.
Westbrook’s contract makes a one-year contract for Durant even more likely. The point guard is set to become a free agent in 2017, and the two teammates can have one more attempt at a title run before potentially going their separate ways.