Assuming LeBron James stays in Cleveland, the biggest free agent in the mega-summer Class of 2016 will be Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant. Might he follow LeBron's lead and leave an NBA title contender to play for his hometown (or close) team?
Following LeBron's Lead?
Of course last summer James decided to leave behind good friend Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat despite the fact the team had reached four straight NBA Finals and that James had much respect for Coach Erik Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley. But James felt the pull of returning to Northeast Ohio and bringing the title-starved city a championship.
Durant is friends with LeBron James as well. And here's what Durant said last July when asked about what James did in returning home: "That was pretty cool. It's funny seeing guys think about more than just basketball for once. He thought about the city where he comes from, about Northeast Ohio and how he can affect so many of the kids just being there playing basketball. I love that. So many guys get criticized for making the decision that's best for them, instead of what's best for everybody else."
Durant will be a free agent after the 2015-16 season when the NBA salary cap is going to skyrocket with the new TV deal in place. So it makes no sense for Durant to sign an extension now with the Thunder, other than possible long-term security as Durant comes off two major foot procedures that cost him most of last season. But Durant is still only 26 so clearly in his prime. Just about every team in the NBA (other than Cleveland) will have the cap room to sign him next season. Might he want to play in the media spotlight of New York (Knicks) or Los Angeles (Lakers)? Durant really doesn't seem that kind of guy. He likes living a low-key life in Oklahoma City.
So this is almost surely going to come down to the Thunder and Wizards next summer. Durant's hometown is Seat Pleasant, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. He started his MVP speech following the 2014 season by saying: "I come from a small county outside of Washington, D.C., called P.G. County." So clearly he still has affection for growing up there.
I do believe that one off-court decision could play a role in all this. Also last summer, Under Armour, which is based in Maryland, made Durant an offer worth somewhere around $275 million over the next 10 years. That led even more to speculate that Durant might return home. But Nike had the right to match and did, even at that obscene price.
A couple of months ago, Durant said he wants to have his jersey retired in Oklahoma City: "I love it here, man. I love my teammates, I love the city, I don't really think about anywhere else.
"Kobe [Bryant], Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki type. That's awesome," he said. "But you never know what the future holds sometimes and how teams may feel about you after a while, but I love it here and I would love to get my jersey retired here."
So there's that. The Thunder also will be able to offer Durant an extra year on a contract and more money than any other team by virtue of holding his Larry Bird rights.
I believe this comes down to what the Thunder do on the court this season. They should be legitimate title contenders -- currently +750 on the NBA odds at Bovada -- as long as Durant is healthy, Russell Westbrook also stays on the court and the team re-signs restricted free agent big man Enes Kanter. Durant barely got to play with Kanter after he was traded from Utah last season. The wild card might be Thunder rookie coach Billy Donovan, the two-time national champion winner at Florida. Those titles would seem to give Donovan, who played very briefly in the NBA, a better coaching resume that either Steve Kerr or David Blatt had and those two guys led their teams to the 2015 NBA Finals, won by Kerr's Golden State Warriors over LeBron's Cavaliers. Kerr he had no coaching experience, while Blatt's was overseas.
Also one thing to consider is the free-agent status of Westbrook. He will be eligible in the summer of 2017 and many believe he is the type of guy who wants to play in a big market, namely Los Angeles, where he's from. Durant surely will have a conversation with him. There is some talk they aren't always on the same page.
If Durant went to Washington, the Wizards would seem to be title contenders themselves with of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter (maybe) and Marcin Gortat around Durant. Getting out of the ultra-deep Western Conference might seem to help Durant's chances, but does he really want to get in the same conference as LeBron? Ask the Knicks' Patrick Ewing or Pacers' Reggie Miller what it was like being in the same conference as Michael Jordan.
NBA Free Pick: As things stand now, I'd say Durant staying in OKC is an even-money favorite and leaving at +250. But if the Thunder don't have a good playoff run, swap those.