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Why Kevin Durant Could Bolt Thunder for a Dark Horse Team in 2016

The summer of 2016 will be all about Kevin Durant. Sure, there will be the rest of the free agents, but what he does will be the thing that ESPN is reporting on 24/7 from the moment the regular season ends.

The general feeling is the most likely scenario is that he sticks around in Oklahoma City with the Thunder. There are a lot of reasons to think that, but the biggest one is the colossal amount of money he can make.

There are two factors that are at play here. First, he’s an eight-year pro, and under the current CBA, a player with Bird Rights and 10 years of service can sign a max deal for five years at 35 percent of the max. Second, the cap is expected to swell a second time in 2017.

Therefore, if he pulled a “LeBron” and took a two-year deal with a player option for the second season, he could make $26.7 million next year. Then, the following year he could sign a five-year deal for $217.4 million. That’s a combined $244.1 million over the next six years.

A quarter of a billion dollars is a pretty big incentive to stick around. But that advantage is a bit overstated.

Here’s the other side of things. Let’s say he were to go somewhere else and play with one-year options. His first two seasons would be the same because he’d be eligible for the same chunk of the cap — 30 percent the first year and 35 percent the second.

For his third year, in OKC he’d be getting a 7.5 percent pay raise, but in his new digs he’d have to settle for a five percent bump. That’s the “non-Bird exception” for teams re-signing players whom they don’t have Bird Rights for. It’s what LeBron James signed under this year.

So, staying in Oklahoma City, he’d make $105.1 million the first three years. Going elsewhere, he’d make $104.2 million his first three seasons. And from that point, he could sign a max deal for four years under the Bird exception. And depending on what the cap is (and whatever happens with the new CBA), he could potentially make even more than he’d earn in OKC.

The biggest incentive to stay with the Thunder then really isn’t money, it’s guaranteed money. And with the foot injury Durant dealt with last year, that’s not a small thing. But if he stays healthy next season (and let’s hope he does because injuries suck), that could calm a lot of fears.

And that, correspondingly, could open up the door for him leaving.

Now, there are two reasons a player of Durant’s stature would bolt: money or winning. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, that whatever team he signs with he’s making as much money as he possibly can. With the volume of teams having cap flexibility, the money won’t be an issue.

Which means there’s only one thing Durant needs to base his decision on: Where is his best chance to win? And this is where the notion of a dark horse candidate suddenly becomes incredibly realistic.

If he doesn’t win with the Thunder this year, it’s not unfeasible that he starts to wonder if it’ll ever happen there. Some argue the Enes Kanter signing was a decision the Thunder “had to make” to keep him, but ironically it could be what pushes Durant out of the door.

Kanter’s awful defense could be the doom of the Thunder in a postseason series, and it would limit Oklahoma City’s flexibility in the near future, as first Durant, and then Russell Westbrook, will need their contracts renewed.

There’s a lot of chatter about Durant going to the Washington Wizards, but that’s based mostly on the precept that he wants to “come home.” Kind of like Dwyane Wade was going back to Chicago, Dwight Howard was going to Atlanta and Deron Williams was going to Dallas (the first time). Point being, “home comings” are nice fodder for stories, but aren’t historically much of an issue in free agents deciding where to play.

When James went back to Cleveland, it was to join with young talent on the precipice of breaking out (as well as some unfinished business). And there’s good reason to believe this thinking will set the precedent for the truly elite players to use in building their future.

It’s the perfect combination. The veteran player helps mentor the young, rising stars, molding the team into winners. And as he ages and his skills decline, they bear more and more of the onus. Thus, the championship window remains open longer.

So, if I’m Kevin Durant, I’m looking at teams which are going give me the best chance to win the longest, not just a team that’s going to have a one or two-year window. And in Washington, Nene will be 34 and Marcin Gortat will be 32. John Wall and Bradley Beal are a nice backcourt, but there’s no help inside. The Wizards are too incomplete, and I’m looking elsewhere. (Although, if their move to small ball works out, who knows?)

One route worth considering is the stacked team route, and on that front, the Orlando Magic look incredibly attractive. Elfrid Payton started to break out towards the end of last season, averaging 8.7 dimes over the last 21 games, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

Nikola Vucevic averaged 19.3 points and 10.9 boards. Aaron Gordon suffered through injuries, and never quite got any traction, but clearly has the strength and athleticism to develop into at least a solid starter and possibly an All-Star.

And the Magic added Mario Hezonja in this year’s draft. It’s probably only a matter of time for the talented do-everything European player who wowed in the Summer League with plays like this:

Victor Oladipo is a combo guard on the verge of breaking out. Tobias Harris is also around.

Orlando is the perfect situation for Durant. All they need is a superstar to come in and carry them. If they make the playoffs this year (a distinct possibility), it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Durant took his talents to Daytona Beach.

Another possibility is that he joins up with another young superstar. And if you’re going to ally with a player of the future, who better than the future of the NBA, Anthony Davis.

I mean, how much do I need to expand on this?  Davis and Durant have the two best career Player Efficiency Ratings of any active players under 30. Not only that, at the time they teamed up, they’d both be under 28, making them the best pairing under that age in all of NBA history, at least based on PER.

And it’s not like the Pelicans don’t have a pretty solid team around Davis already. Supplementing Durant and Davis would be former Rookie of the year winner, Tyreke Evans, whose all-around game would be a perfect fit. Omer Asik would be the defensive anchor.

Or the Pelicans could go “small” (without being small) and play a frontcourt with Durant, Ryan Anderson and Davis — which would just be borderline cheating. Especially when you consider that the mastermind of that offense would be Alvin Gentry.

Whether it’s Orlando or New Orleans or someone else, there’s little question that Durant has seriously attractive options when it comes to winning. Certainly, some are better than Washington, and arguably even better than the Thunder.

And if that’s the deciding factor in his decision with money not a part of the equation, don’t be surprised if he goes somewhere unexpected.

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