For it’s not every season – or maybe it is – that a player puts his skills on the free-agent market and, with the stroke of an owner’s pen, remakes the power hierarchy around the league.
Yet that’s what Durant’s decision will do. Durant will find good and bad teams alike in 2016, as LeBron did in 2014, moving money and bad contracts around like pieces on a checkerboard. He will fetch whatever the max NBA contract will be.
But how can any of it be about the money for Durant?
He’s already rumored to be within a yea or nay from Nike – the shoemaker has a right to match – of signing a promotional contract with Under Armour for as much as $285 million, the kind of money one of the best players on the planet deserves.
A pile of cash so large trumps what Durant’s max contract will be, even if he re-signs with the Oklahoma City Thunder. So it might not be about the money for Durant, the league’s reigning MVP, and his age should afford him an opportunity, as it did for LeBron, to later sign another max deal.
His low-key profile might not make Durant a popular pitchman, but that’s Under Armour’s problem to sort through. Its bottom line is fat enough to absorb such an inflated deal – bad business or not.
The Thunder, however, can’t be as certain. In front of them is their immediate present. They can’t afford to lose Durant anymore than the Cleveland Cavaliers could LeBron when he bolted for South Beach four seasons ago.
While the Thunder do have the splendid Russell Westbrook, they won’t stay atop the Western Conference rankings if Durant bolts. Westbrook’s good, but he’s no MVP – this year or in the foreseeable future.
So whatever the Thunder will be – championship contender or just a middle-of-the-road franchise – won’t be because of what happens to Westbrook. The team’s future rests firmly in Durant’s hands.
Thunder fans understand that fact well, which is why they’ll soon have fitful nights aplenty as they weigh what Durant might decide. They all remember the loss of James Harden a couple of years ago, and the team has yet to find the third piece who could, on a given night, step into the spotlight and carry the Thunder to a victory.
Such nights aren’t needed a lot, not with high-scoring Durant in the lineup. Take him out of the lineup, and you have a Thunder team with zero championship prospects. Add Durant, who flaked out on Team USA recently, to any NBA team and it becomes an instant contender.
No doubt, Durant knows that better than anybody else. He is the sole player who makes Oklahoma City relevant. But for all the awards and accolades heaped on Durant, one thing has eluded him: an NBA title.
Soon enough, he will have to decide whether staying in Oklahoma City can bring him that title. As good as the Thunder have been since fleeing Seattle in 2008, the team has been a piece or two short of winning a championship.
Durant knows that, too. The question is whether that means anything to him. Can he be fulfilled as a professional if he plays out his career in a splendid “little” big city that hasn’t any of the cache of Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, Washington, D.C., or most of the other NBA cities that seriously contend for championships?
Thunder fans will have a season to consider this question. Two summers from now, they’ll be wondering what Miami fans wondered this past summer: Is their star player staying or going?
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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