The question came while confetti was still falling and fans were still filing out of Oracle Arena. In the big business of professional sports, free agency rumors always gain traction but are also quick to be dismissed by players.
"We just lost like 30 minutes ago. I haven't even thought about it. I’m just embracing my teammates, reflecting on the season,” Oklahoma City Thunder forward and former MVP Kevin Durant said of his pending unrestricted free agency. “I don’t think about that stuff.”
The Thunder endured a complete three-game collapse at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, one week after leading the Western Conference finals 3-1 and supplanting the defending champions as heavy favorites to return to the NBA Finals for the second time in five seasons.
Durant, 27, might not have liked the timing of the question but, as the No. 1 target for a number of cash and salary-cap-space-loaded teams, and one of two big reasons for why Oklahoma City became one of the most powerful teams in the West, his future will remain the biggest storyline in the NBA all summer long.
Over the course of this season, the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, and even the Warriors have all been linked as potential landing spots for Durant and right now none can be ruled out.
The four-time league scoring champion and seven-time All-Star will eventually have to mull the plethora of options in the near-future, and Durant will likely have a far better answer once free agency begins July 1.
For the first time in his career, Durant and his agent Rich Kleiman of Roc Nation will have complete control over where and who he plays basketball with, and the next 10 years of the Thunder hang in the balance.
There are a number of factors for Durant to consider, but the very core of his decision may come down to where he can best compete for championships and how quickly. And Durant firmly believes he can and will win a title.
"I'm certain. I'm certain," Durant told The Vertical after Sunday’s Game 7 loss to the Warriors. "They don't love the game like I love it. Nobody knows how much I put in the work, how much I care about my teammates, about everything. I've given my heart and soul into this since I was 8 years old. Whatever happens, I'm certain. I feel confident that that moment will happen. I'm 27 years old. Hopefully, I can play a long time in this league but nothing is guaranteed. I know one thing for sure, I'm going to put the work in."
Whether Durant leaves the Thunder or heads elsewhere, he seems to be assuring every potential suitor that he will earn every penny of what’s sure to be a maximum-level contract. But the total value changes depending on Durant’s decision.
The NBA’s salary cap rules pertaining to max contracts hinge on a player’s experience and is broken up into three tiers. Durant just wrapped up his ninth season with the Thunder, meaning he can command a deal worth 30 percent of a team’s salary cap in the middle tier. If he plays one more year with the Thunder, Durant would have 10 years in the league and then could command 35 percent.
With the NBA cap climbing to $92 million and the luxury tax threshold raised to $111 million, that five percent could equal millions and millions to Durant and other free agents seeking a max deal.
Thus, inking a two-year deal with Oklahoma City that includes an exit clause after the first season might be the best way for Durant to maximize his total earning power in what figures to be the richest contract of his playing career.
Most insiders see the most likely scenario at present to be Kevin Durant staying in OKC on a two-year max deal with an opt-out after Year 1.
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 31, 2016
Durant could also decide to completely re-up with the Thunder on a five-year deal, an extra year that only they can offer him, but that means Durant will require some input from point guard and teammate Russell Westbrook. The electric playmaker and triple-double machine will be an unrestricted free agent in 2017, and Durant might not want to stick around unless Westbrook will also be in Oklahoma City in the near and distant future.
With Westbrook, as well as top role players like Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, and Dion Waiters, by his side, Durant and the Thunder nearly pulled off the impossible by pushing the once invincible Warriors to the edge and most of the teams currently interested in him are several years away from contending.
Boston has nearly $66 million in cap space and the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s loaded draft, but other than point guard Isaiah Thomas the Celtics don’t have enough pieces to truly contend with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East. The Lakers and Knicks represent the two biggest markets in the league, but both are several years away due to young squads and or limited current personnel.
The Wizards have Durant’s old coach in Scott Brooks and would represent a sort of homecoming for Durant, who was born in D.C. and played high school ball in Maryland. Washington also has All-Star point guard John Wall, but the club would be a more attractive destination for Durant had the Wizards made more progress.
The Rockets and Heat are certainly attractive spots for Durant. Former Thunder teammate James Harden currently resides in Houston and he and Durant would rival Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as the best one-two scoring punch in the league, while Miami’s South Beach and lack of state income taxes (which also goes for Texas) are always attractive to free agents. However, the Heat’s Dwyane Wade is one year older and could potentially leave this summer, and the health status of power forward Chris Bosh remains uncertain.
Then there’s the Warriors and Spurs. With Durant on board there’s little question Golden State and San Antonio would be perennial title threats and likely win more than a few. A Golden State starting lineup of Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Durant, and the team manager would walk away with a title, and the same goes for teaming Durant with Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Tony Parker.
Durant may have too many options, and maybe he simply didn't want to think about his future after Sunday’s game with the decision so daunting.