Kevin Durant’s free agency loomed over the NBA leading into the 2019 off-season.
Speculation that he would leave Golden State put the NBA on edge as teams cleared cap space to ensure they were in the running for the 2014 MVP.
Early reports had the Knicks as favourites to sign Durant, giving him the opportunity to revitalise a famous franchise in the USA’s biggest city. There were rumours he would join forces with another All-Star, most likely Kyrie Irving, to create his own super team.
More recently the Brooklyn Nets have emerged as another possible landing place for Durant, again with Kyrie. The Clippers also threw their hat in the ring for his services and made a compelling basketball case given their success without a star, providing a ready-made contender should Durant parachute in.
The equation changed dramatically in Game 5 of the NBA Finals when Durant ruptured his Achilles. The injury will probably sideline Durant for the entire 2019-20 season.
It is an injury that players do not have a great record of success recovering from. It is by no means impossible, but it will be at the forefront of teams’ minds.
Durant, who turns 31 in September, will likely be 32 before he plays NBA basketball again. Offering a player a max contract to sit out a season and then hope they can be their best MVP-level self in the twilight of their career following a devastating injury is not without huge risk.
Durant held a player option with the Warriors for the 2019-20 season worth US$31.5 million, which he has now declined. Typically a player in his position, recovering from a major injury, would take the guaranteed money and recover.
His Golden State team-mate DeMarcus Cousins reportedly struggled to find suitors as an unrestricted free agent coming off an Achilles tear last off-season. He had to contact Golden State and express his interest before signing a $5.3 million, one-year deal. A healthy Cousins was in line for a max contract offer somewhere in the order of $30 million.
The demand and interest in Durant remains so high, he has been able to decline his player option in favour of signing a long-term contract that will protect him should he have any issues with his rehabilitation. Following the lead of LeBron James as the league’s best players, Durant signed two-year deals with player options.
Knowing his status as a superstar was essentially ensured, these deals allowed him to flexibility manage his own career, moving on when required and re-signing if he so chooses. That strategy has worked wonders for Durant, who now can sign a long-term deal no matter how his recovery goes.
Despite major speculation that Durant was eager to leave the Warriors, Golden State are in the best position to re-sign the two-time Finals MVP. The Warriors can offer him the five-year super max worth $221.3 million. The best offer he will get from a rival team will be four years and $164 million.
Given the amount of uncertainty surrounding his injury, Durant’s priorities may have shifted towards security over legacy.
Prior to the injury, the Warriors would have likely ended up making Durant a max offer. These dynasties do not come along very often and if you can keep your championship core, you do it.
Now the Warriors have to the consider the implications of the injury, however the optics of a team jettisoning a superstar player following a major injury he suffered while pushing himself to return early to help his team recover from a 3-1 deficit are not good.
However, recent reports have suggested Durant is unhappy with how his injuries were managed by the Warriors during the playoffs and may have already ruled the Warriors out.
The Nets have emerged as the biggest challenger for Durant’s signature. Their pitch to Durant is based on pairing him and their core with another max player, most notably Kyrie Irving. Irving has all but signed with the Nets.
After Anthony Davis was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, it seemed as though years of smart and savvy work by the Boston front office went straight out the window, and Kyrie appears to have jumped out after it.
Without the draw of another star, Kyrie appears determined to leave and he’s been linked to the Knicks along with Durant all season.
With Irving headed to Brooklyn, the Nets become a very attractive destination for Durant, however he would be making a significant financial sacrifice of about $60 million to join Irving and the Nets. If he struggles to recover from his injury, he may not be able to recoup that $60 million in the next contract.
That said, should he get back to 100 per cent fitness, signing a four-year contract with a player option in the fourth year would allow him to re-enter the free agency market at 33 years of age – certainly young enough to sign another massive deal, taking him through to age 39. Given the projected cap increases, this may actually be more lucrative for Durant.
The Warriors can’t be criticised for paying up to keep their championship core together. That isn’t a luxury the Knicks, Nets or Clippers have. Signing an MVP-calibre player coming off a severe injury will be heavily scrutinised and could be hitching a franchise wagon to a lame horse.
There is an inherent risk of committing 40 per cent of a team’s salary cap to a player with an uncertain future.
However, conventional wisdom suggests teams need a generational talent, not just All-Stars to win an NBA title. And Durant is exactly that player. Indeed, he has proven himself in the Finals already.
Signing Durant also has an unintended benefit – it restricts a team’s ability to make much larger free agency mistakes.
For instance, if Durant were to sign with the Knicks, the team wouldn’t be able to offer DeMarcus Cousins or Jimmy Butler max contracts. Butler and Cousins are nice players, but neither is the man you want as your first option if you hope to contend for a title.
Both players have well documented personality and chemistry issues. Durant offers a genuine swing at the title.
Building a championship team is not easy. Signing one of the best players of all time is a proven path. If he doesn’t work out, fine – at least you know you took your shot.
There is one way this goes poorly for the Nets or the Knicks, and that is signing Kyrie Irving and missing out on Durant.
Irving is an unparalleled talent. His ball-handling and inside shot-making are the best in the league, however his defence has always been below average and he has proven to be a polarising personality in locker rooms.
Boston have lacked the harmony they possessed during the Isiah Thomas era. Signing Irving would mean renouncing restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell. Russell came to the Nets looking for a lifeline and has turned into an All-Star and a talent you can feature in a title contender.
Irving is a definite upgrade over Russell in terms of basketball skill, but when it comes to value for money and the effect Irving has on his team-mates, Irving is not a net gain when compared to Russell.
If Irving is what it takes to attract Durant, it is a no-brainer, but teams will be nervous about signing Irving as a solo act.
While Irving is a 95 per cent chance of heading to the Nets and a slim five per cent chance of going to the Knights, it’s a toss of the coin that Durant stays at Golden State, with Brooklyn (45 per cent) and New York (five per cent) potential suitors.