I’m sorry to burst the bubbles of any teams with a lot of cap space next offseason, but Kevin Durant will not seriously be in the mix of the free-agent class of 2016. That may be tough to hear for Washington fans, or anyone else who was hoping to steal Durant from the Thunder, but it seems more likely that Durant will sign a one-year deal with an additional option year with the Thunder before making a serious jump into free agency in 2017.
Why is 2017 a better year for Durant to test the market? Mostly because that’s when he’ll have a much better idea of what the Thunder can offer him in terms of quality teammates. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka’s contracts are both set to expire during the 2017 offseason, and while I’m sure Durant likes and trusts his teammates, there’s no reason for him to sign a long-term contract and risk being stuck on a Thunder team whose second best player is Enes Kanter if Westbrook and Ibaka sign elsewhere.
Since talking to and getting assurances from Westbrook and Ibaka that they’ll re-sign if Durant signs long term would be a form of collusion, we have to assume (or pretend) that the players aren’t planning their free agencies together. Therefore, Durant can’t be totally sure Westbrook and Ibaka are staying in 2017, making a long-term deal with OKC a sizable risk to his prospects of winning a title. It’s safer for him to sign a one-year deal and maintain the flexibility of being able to move on if he feels his best interests are found outside of Oklahoma City.
Even if Durant’s primary goal is to stay with the Thunder, he’ll stand to make a lot more money as a free agent in 2017 than 2016. The values of max contracts are based on a percentage of the total salary cap for a team, and the cap is projected to be at its highest in 2017 before falling slightly in 2018. Durant’s best financial move is to sign his long-term deal in the year when the cap is highest so his contract’s annual value is based on the largest possible cap figure.
Some might counter that Durant may want to play it safe given his recent injuries, but honestly, I’d find it hard to believe any series of hypothetical injuries would stop every team from offering Durant a max deal two years from now. As long as Durant doesn’t lose a leg, there will always be the potential that he becomes 2013-14 Kevin Durant again. What would a team like the Sixers have to lose by signing him to a max deal? At some point, they’re going to have to spend some money, and Durant would be worth the risk. He doesn’t need to worry about injuries for the sake of his financial well-being, because more than one team would be willing to take a chance on him.
The real thing I’d be worried about as a Thunder fan is Durant deciding he doesn’t want to spend any more years than he already has trying to claw it out in the West. The Thunder will be competing with three to five other elite contenders in the West, and Durant may look at joining a team like the Wizards as a possibility to cut his conference rivals down to one or two.
So I’m guessing Durant will take another year in OKC before finally making that call. It might be because of the money, it might be because he doesn’t want to abandon his teammates or it might be because they have an incredibly talented top three players who can lead the team to a title if healthy. Whatever the case, there are enough reasons for Durant to put off free agency for another year.