We are in the midst of an NBA season like no other. Not only are the Warriors undefeated at 17-0 and the 76ers are without a win and just broke the record for the longest losing streak in professional American sports. But also, we are experiencing one of the strangest behind the scenes plot lines in NBA history: Kevin Durant's impending free agency.
It might be the biggest distraction the NBA world has ever seen, as it is detracting from the actual games. When I watch a Thunder game these days, I'm not so much thinking about the Thunder's standing in the Western Conference and more, "If OKC lose this game, KD might leave!" It is honestly some of the most riveting TV I have ever watched. Not only do you get the whole Westbrook experience, but you get the Durant free agency wrinkle, a massive bonus!
But putting the entertainment part of it aside, is it actually plausible that Durant will leave Oklahoma City? This has been something I have been weighing up since the start of last season and I think I have perfected my rankings of Durant's top 5 free agency destinations. Take a look:
Golden State Warriors
Much has been made of this rumor, but do you see a 17-0 record breaking, defending champion Warriors team breaking up their core (and the bank) to chase another star in order to have a chance at Kevin Durant? Me neither, but it's still fun to think about it and how unstoppable that team could be.
The Raptors put together an interesting case for LaMarcus Aldridge's services in July and Masai Ujiri will be sure to put forward a conundrum for KD to weigh up next summer. Durant could slide alongside Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll and DeMar DeRozan (who I presume they would sign to an extension after they grab Durant) on a team that could potentially control the East. But there are a couple of problems: (a) they aren't that big of a market and (b) their team isn't talented enough to justify leaving Russ and Ibaka in OKC. Sorry Toronto, but the Durantula will not be crawling his way over to Canada anytime soon.
New York Knicks/Los Angeles Lakers
I've coupled this pair together because they belong in the same boat, they are big market teams with a bunch of cap room and not much of a team to lure Durant to town. The Knicks are the more plausible destination of the two due to them having Carmelo Anthony, the superstar Durant would need in order to leave OKC, but with Melo and PorzinGod occupying the forward spots, it seems hard to imagine Phil Jackson pouring his time and resources into the Durant boat.
On the flip side, the Lakers have no chance at all. They have but two trump cards, one of them being the Los Angeles market and the other is that Durant could essentially pick the rest of his team thanks to the large amount of cap space and roster room available in Laker Land. But no matter how hard Stephen A. Smith preaches, I don't believe KD would leave the brilliant situation he is in now, to go play with Kobe on his last legs, unproven youngsters, Mitch Kupchak as his GM and Byron Scott as his coach. So put that #35 Laker jersey away Adam Levine.
The Real Contenders
5. Chicago Bulls
Surprisingly, the Bulls haven't been mentioned all too much during the Durant free agency hype. In fact, I'm putting them here purely because it makes a lot of sense. For them to afford Durant's max contract, Chicago would have to unload Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson, but to get the 2014 MVP on your team, I think anyone would make that sacrafice. You would also have to bank on the Chicago ownership spending the tax to get both Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah back on the team. If all that happens, you're looking at a Rose-Butler-Durant-Mirotic-Gasol starting lineup, with Noah, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis, Tony Snell and others coming off the bench. If that isn't instant title contention, I don't know what is.
Durant fits in extremely well too. Remember when Chicago went hard after Carmelo Anthony in 2014? When everyone thought that Jimmy Butler could cover for him on defense, Rose could create for him and their frontcourt would give him all the talent he could possibly want? Well apply that way of thinking to the Durant and I think you've got a persuasive pitch for Oklahoma City's star.
4. Miami Heat
Pat Riley is the master of free agency. We all know that he managed to persuade LeBron James and Chris Bosh to come down to South Beach in 2010, but he has a lot of other moves to his name in the free agency period as well. Could he add Kevin Durant to that list?
Many would say no, mainly because of their cap situation. But if Mickey Arison doesn't mind paying the tax (a lot of it at that), he can keep Bosh, Dragic and their maxes around, as well as adding Kevin Durant. This only leaves Dwyane Wade and Hassan Whiteside to bring back after this. Wade shouldn't mind taking a pay cut in the latter stages of his career, especially if it means having a legit shot at another title, but it's Whiteside where Riley will find difficulty. Whiteside is looking for his first big payday and seeing how well he is playing, Whiteside could demand the max. If Riley wants to persuade Durant to leave OKC for Miami, keeping Whiteside and Wade will be key, but it will be incredibly tough.
From a basketball standpoint, Durant makes Miami a title contender. Eventually, they could line Durant up next to Winslow on the perimeter as their long term approach. Winslow could be their defensive stopper, Durant their offensive go-to option and Wade could be their sixth man. All of this could happen while still holding on to Dragic who is a borderline all-star, Bosh who is an all-star and Whiteside who should be in the all-star conversation. In the weak East, I don't see why Durant wouldn't consider going to Miami.
3. Washington Wizards
Ok, personally, I don't believe Durant would go to the Wizards, but it remains a big possibility.
The Wiz are clearly doing everything possible to convince him, they have cleared out a spot for him at small forward, hired multiple people that Durant is familiar with and of course, Washington D.C. is his hometown. This adds the extra incentive of wanting to come home, just as LeBron James did in the 2014 free agency bonanza. This is of course a little different, Durant never stabbed his hometown in the back and has yet to play for them yet, but still, there is a fair amount of logic involved with going back to your adoring fans in D.C. and reuniting with your family.
Durant could team up with John Wall and Bradley Beal in D.C., as well as Marcin Gortat. He also would have a slew of role players at his disposal. Along with that group, if the Wiz want to pay a lot of tax in order to make a title run, they could potentially have the cap space to target another near max guy, as long as they hold off on Bradley Beal's contract extension until after signing both players.
In my opinion, this move doesn't make a lot of sense, but I'll leave it here because it has been rumored so much.
2. Houston Rockets
The Rockets have emerged as a dark-horse contender as of late.
Daryl Morey's genius has managed to net them enough cap flexibility to go chasing another max salary player for the fourth season running. There is no doubt in my mind that Durant will be the apple of Morey's eye. The chance to partner up Durant with Harden and Dwight Howard must be far too tempting, especially since the Rockets are a shell of their former selves. They have been awful this season and could really use another star to become competitive again.
Durant would most likely lineup at the small ball four spot, where in the new found NBA, he would be extremely effective. A starting five of Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Durant and D12 is extremely balanced and plays right into the philosophy of 'Moreyball'. Add on the bench of Ty Lawson, Corey Brewer, Donatas Motiejunas, Clint Capela and others depending on how they work through their re-signings, would be extremely tempting for Durant.
Two other big factors that could swing Houston into the lead are: (a) Durant gets to play next to one of his best friends James Harden, who he was cruelly robed of in 2012. The pair remain close and would probably love to play together again, especially since they have developed since the last time they played in OKC. Add in point (b) this point is that Durant could get to pick his new coach. The Rockets fired Kevin McHale and if they hold off on getting a new coach until next season, Durant could hand pick his boss *cough* *cough* SCOTT BROOKS *cough* *cough*.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
I'm about 75% certain at this point that KD will opt to stay in OKC. In my opinion, he will sign a one year deal in order to get a lot more money the following season and to make his free agency decision with fellow stars Ibaka and Westbrook. I think that he will stay in OKC regardless of what they will do this year because of two main reasons. The first of which is that he is just such a loyal, well-meaning man. He just doesn't seem like the type of guy who would ditch a team. The second reason is that, from a talent standpoint, Oklahoma City is right there at the top. With Westbrook, Ibaka and their depth, OKC have easily a top 5 roster, possibly the best in the league. Taking these two points into consideration, I don't see him leaving anytime soon.