Special thanks to resident capologist Jon Hamm for coming up with some of the numbers to help me write this article.
Everybody has had that one moment in their life. The moment where many are telling you to go in one direction, but you just feel the pull from the other direction. Be it a decision early in life, such as choosing between colleges or between going to college or joining the military. Or maybe something life-altering, like choosing a spouse. Or maybe it’s deciding how you want to live your live. Regardless of the decision, people that care for you (and sometimes those that don’t) like to offer opinions as to what they would do if given the same circumstances. In the end, though, you, as a person, have to do what you feel is right. Everybody has been there. Sometimes it works great. Sometimes it turns out to be disastrous. But whatever you chose, it was your decision.
Now imagine you are Kevin Durant. You just came off a comeback season that saw you get back to your peak form and lead your team to a couple minutes from the NBA Finals. You just witnessed your biggest rival get, not only his third championship, but also, his white whale. LeBron James has played his entire career with one goal in mind: Bring a championship to Cleveland. Yeah, he deviated a little from his plan with those four years in Miami. But he became a better player in Miami and came back to Cleveland a more complete player. A player that could lead a team like the Cavs to a championship. And when he finally did it, you could see all the emotion pour out of him. He didn’t cry when he won his two titles in Miami. But he cried like a man holding his first born when he won his championship for Cleveland.
Now remember, you are Kevin Durant, and you just witnessed this. Now your decision is upcoming. And there is a veritable smorgasbord of options available to Durant. Unlike LeBron’s free agency foray nearly 6 years ago, almost every team in the league will have enough cap space to sign Durant to a max contract. But like the man on the Bachelor heading into the final few episodes, he has narrowed the field down to about six teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder, the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat, the Boston Celtics, and the Los Angeles Clippers. Basically all the contending teams outside of the newly crowned champion Cavaliers.
The Thunder can offer Durant the most money due to having his Bird rights. But as someone who is one of the premier spokesmen in the league, Durant earns most of his money off the court than on the court at this point in his career. Durant has already said that money will not be the most important factor in his decision. In his exit interview after the season, Durant stated, “the two most important things for me is being around great people, and having fun playing basketball.”
But we have to look at where Durant is in his career to see how he may play this. Durant is entering his 10th season in the league. After next season, he’ll be eligible for a 10+ year max contract which allows him to be paid up to 35% of the cap. At this point, he can only get 30% of the cap on a max contract. So of course, once every media pundit caught wind of this, they all declared that Durant would likely take a 1+1 this offseason in order to maximize the amount of money he can get in his next contract in the summer of 2017. I mean, that’s what we all would do. Get as much as you can when you can. But didn’t Durant just say it isn’t all about the money?
When athletes use the statement, “It’s not all about the money,” it usually means its all about the money. But with Durant, it seems different. This is a man that has freely donated to his hometown, his adopted home (OKC), and his collegiate home. When he finds a cause he cares about, he usually goes at it full bore, to include financially giving to it. He’s got big endorsements with Nike, Sonics, BBVA, and other companies. He’s very financially safe where he is currently at. Of course, he’s not going to go crazy and sign for the veteran minimum. But the caché that comes from signing the biggest max deal possible doesn’t seem to hold the same allure for Durant as it may for other players around the league.
Instead, he seems to be hell-bent on chasing his white whale: an NBA championship. To a player like Durant, though, winning a championship isn’t enough. As much as they don’t like to admit it, players like Durant want to win championships while being the top dog on the team. The idea of Durant latching on to Stephen Curry and Draymond Green’s coattails to win a championship doesn’t fall in line with his goal. Yes, he would likely be an integral member of that team, but I don’t think that’s how he imagined himself winning a title when he was dreaming about it while growing up. Instead, I think Durant wants to be one of those players that wins the championship with his original team.
In keeping with that train of thought, how could Durant help the Thunder in reaching their ultimate goal? Number one on that list is definitely re-signing with the team. Whether its a one year, two year, or five year deal, having Durant on the team is the first huge hurdle the Thunder have to clear. Once he has agreed to come back, there are several options he could take.
The first, and most popular choice amongst the populace outside of Oklahoma City, is the 1+1 deal. Regardless of the type of deal Durant signs, he would likely make about $25 million plus for next season. The second year on that deal would be a player option. This is advantageous for Durant in two ways: 1) he has the ability to decline his 2nd year option, and instead choose to sign a 5-year max when he can maximize his earning potential due to his time in the league and 2) he gets to see what teammate and fellow superstar Russell Westbrook is planning to do. Westbrook’s contract ends after next season, and, a lot like Durant, his ultimate goal is to be atop the NBA mountain when the season ends. This option would allow Durant to not only get more money, but also keep his options open on the direction of the team.
The second option for Durant is to take a 3+1 or 4+1 max under this offseason’s salary cap structure. This option, I feel, will only be taken if Durant is completely sure about the direction of the team, and wants to contribute to the continued evolution of the roster. If he feels strongly about the direction the Thunder are heading in, this could be a win/win situation for him and the Thunder. Not only does he get max money under the current salary cap, but he also becomes less of a burden on the cap in the next few years. This is a situation where a superstar would be seen as “sacrificing for the betterment of the team,” while still getting possibly $150 million dollars plus over a 5 year period.
If Durant does the 1+1 and then re-signs with the Thunder in 2017 for the max possible amount, he could earn upwards of $200 million plus over those next 5 years. While Durant would most certainly deserve that amount of money, he also would likely become a hindrance on the team’s ability to maneuver under the salary cap, especially if they also plan on keeping Westbrook, Steven Adams, and Victor Oladipo moving forward. Sacrificing that $50-80 million would be a tough pill for anyone to swallow. But Durant has the financial backing, through his endorsements, to be able to make that kind of financial sacrifice if he really wants to, not only stay with this team, but also help this team be as successful as possible.
We’re only hours away from actually seeing what Durant does. Does he take the easy route and go with a championship contender that isn’t Oklahoma City? Does he decide to give it one more year in Oklahoma City and then hit the reset button in 2017. Or does he decide that Oklahoma City is the best situation for him and does what he can to not only benefit himself in the form of a max deal, but also benefit the team in the form of future savings? These are all questions Durant is dealing with right now. It’s a tough decision, but I think he’ll make the right one.