LAS VEGAS — With free agency all but complete by the time the NBA convened in Las Vegas for summer league this month, the industry peered forward. It is evaluating the next crop of rookies making their professional debuts, predicting the season set to launch in three months and speculating about the prized possession in the free agent class of 2016.
That is when Kevin Durant, one of the world’s premier players, will become a free agent for the first time in his career. The Oklahoma City Thunder forward will draw fevered interest from big and small markets, from coast to coast, from perennial winners to starved losers. But only one franchise can offer a return home.
The Washington Wizards have meticulously prepared for the opportunity to coax Durant, born in the District and a product of Montrose Christian School , to Washington once the clock strikes midnight on July 1, 2016. But the courting of Durant, 26, will be wildly competitive: Thanks to the coming flood of money from a new television contract that will kick in next July, a bevy of franchises will have the salary cap space to offer the maximum possible contract to Durant, the 2014 league MVP. Other teams are only a couple moves from getting in the mix. It could become a free-for-all, raising the risks of going all in for one player.
“The one thing I know about my brother is he wants to win,” said Damion James, Durant’s best friend and a member of the Wizards’ summer league team. “He’ll do whatever it takes to win. Whoever gives him the best chance to win is where he’s going to end up.”
Predicting what Durant will do a year from now is, ultimately, futile. Injuries can puncture rosters, locker rooms can deteriorate and results can sting over the next 12 months. The recent movement of marquee free agents is evidence.
Two years ago, nobody pictured LeBron James bolting Miami. One year ago, nobody envisioned LaMarcus Aldridge, this summer’s top free agent acquisition, leaving Portland. Just a little more than a week ago, DeAndre Jordan stunned and captivated the industry by returning to the Los Angeles Clippers after he had verbally committed to the Dallas Mavericks. And Durant keeps things close to the vest — in 2010, he announced his five-year contract extension with the Thunder on Twitter.
In addition to the Wizards, the Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are expected to be among the franchises most aggressively courting Durant. But the Thunder is thought to be the favorite because of the bond Durant has established with the franchise since he was selected second overall in 2007, and because the team already boasts one of the NBA’s best rosters.
Russell Westbrook is a frightening triple-double machine. Serge Ibaka is the prototypical center of the future — a rim protector with three-point range. Enes Kanter, recently signed to a four-year, $70 million contract as a restricted free agent, is a defensive liability but can score in the post. There are other solid complementary pieces such as bruising center Steven Adams, Durant’s college teammate D.J. Augustin, three-point specialist Anthony Morrow and the combustible Dion Waiters. The Thunder can also offer Durant more money than any other team.
“It’s difficult to imagine him leaving that situation,” said a Western Conference executive, who spoke under condition of anonymity because league tampering rules bar discussing potential free agents who are still under contract with another team. “That team is loaded. If they can stay healthy, they’re championship favorites.”
Oklahoma City is one of the NBA’s smallest markets, a factor that would’ve repelled a player of Durant’s caliber just a few years ago. But technology has altered the NBA terrain. No longer does a player need to play in a metropolis to become a superstar and procure endorsement dollars.
Every game is available to anyone, anywhere. Highlights are instantly accessible on the Internet. Social media is replete with NBA fandom. Durant, a Nike pillar, and Westbrook, a fashion impresario of sorts, are two poster boys of the shift. The fact that Aldridge spurned a meeting with the Knicks and turned down the Lakers to sign this month with the San Antonio Spurs seemed to solidify the change.
But there will be pressure on the Thunder next season after injuries doomed their 2014-15 campaign. Durant missed 55 games with a fractured right foot that required three surgeries in six months — a troublesome development, particularly for the playing future of a man who stands 6 feet 11.
Ibaka missed 18 games. Westbrook missed 15. The result was a ninth-place finish in the brutal Western Conference and the team’s first non-playoff year since 2009. Scott Brooks was fired as coach and Billy Donovan was hired from Florida to oversee an organization that has won 66 percent of its regular season games over the last six campaigns but has only one NBA Finals appearance to show for it.
“I don’t know, man. We have to see,” said Damion James, who was part of Durant’s college recruiting class at Texas and added that Durant’s foot is “great” after recently training with him. “He has a great team out there in Oklahoma City with Russell and those guys. So we’ll see. He’s got to get through this season. He’s going to make the right decision. But he’s so focused on coming back and showing the world that he’s better than when he left since he broke his foot.”
Every Wizards personnel decision over the past two years has been executed with the silent but precise objective of balancing progress in the short term with having the means to recruit Durant and become perennial title chasers in the future.
Financial flexibility has been a box to check before any other, and a fervent fan base has greeted the strategy with a mix of exhausted impatience and desperate anticipation.
The Wizards filled their 15-man roster Monday when they formally re-signed Drew Gooden III to a one-year contract. Barring a trade or release, the move concludes the team’s modest offseason activity. General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and his lieutenants remained patient. They stuck to their plan.
Every player the Wizards have acquired since the February trade deadline — Ramon Sessions, Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson, Gary Neal and Gooden — will have his contract expire in time for the Summer of Durant. Paul Pierce left for the Clippers in free agency a couple weeks ago after Washington refused to offer him a contract with two guaranteed years. The only players currently guaranteed money from the Wizards for the 2016-17 season are John Wall ($15.7 million), Marcin Gortat ($12 million), Martell Webster ($2.5 million) and Kelly Oubre Jr. ($2 million), though Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are expected to be retained as well. With the salary cap projected to spike to $89 million per team for the 2016-17 campaign, there is room to offer Durant a maximum contract and re-sign Beal to the max if he enters restricted free agency next summer, with money left over for other players.
The Wizards’ pitch, beyond the homecoming angle, will center on the young talent that would surround Durant. He could partner with both Wall, giving him an elite pass-first point guard for the first time in his career, and Beal, an ascending sharpshooting star. Wall would be 26, Beal 23, and Durant 28 in their first season together. The trio could form the NBA’s next Big Three for years to come and compete for Washington’s first championship since 1978 in the less destructive Eastern Conference.
“Yeah, I think so,” Wall said Tuesday in Las Vegas when asked if Washington will be an attractive landing spot for Durant. “I think we’re one of those teams on the rise. You look at free agency, a lot of people want to come and play for us. The main thing is it’s going to be his decision. You got to sit back and let him make the best decision for him and his family. All we can do is sit back and just try to focus on us. Try to win as much as we can and if that can attract him to come play with us then so be it.”
Homecomings have become a league trend this summer — Pierce, Aldridge, LeBron James and Deron Williams are among those who decided to return to their hometown teams. It didn’t take long for NBA TV’s summer league broadcast to highlight the #KD2DC movement that has percolated among fans in the District for the past year. During the second quarter of Washington’s loss to the D-League Select Team last Sunday, a sideline reporter delved into a post by Bullets Forever, SB Nation’s Wizards blog, that highlighted connections, both legitimate and far-fetched, between Durant and every member of the Wizards’ summer league squad.
“If you’re an OKC fan, you might want to close your ears right here,” one of the broadcasters later warned. “Because, me personally, I would love to see it. Oh, I mean, John Wall, Bradley Beal, KD? Come on. On the same floor, wearing the same uniform?”
The Wizards can only dream for now.