MANILA, Philippines – The one mistake NBA fans usually make about their favorite players is they think they know them so well.
Here’s the bottomline: no, they do not, nor should they ever believe they know them well enough to assume that a certain player would stay with his team once he hits free agency.
The movement of players in the NBA, more than any professional league in the world, is absolutely unpredictable. One move is all it takes to transfer a lottery team to the top of the league standings.
This has taken place countless of times – most recently in 2010 and 2014, when a certain King altered the course of the league in different occurrences.
Anything is possible in the NBA. Anything.
So, when Kevin Durant hits free agency in 2016, don’t scoff on the notion of him leaving the legacy he has built in Oklahoma City to return back home to Washington D.C.
In fact, the Thunder right now should be very, very concerned.
D.C. is home for Kevin Durant. He grew up watching the Washington Bullets and Wizards games, admires the Washington Redskins until this very day, and even spent some time checking out the Washington Mystics.
( @KDTrey5) pic.twitter.com/kwy2vid66K — NBA Pictures™ (@NBAPICTURES1) July 30, 2014
"I'm going to do what's best for me," Durant said to the media during Team USA’s training camp for the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
"It's hard to talk about that right now when I've got two years left in Oklahoma City. I'm just going to focus on that. I'm not going to make a decision based on what anybody else does. I grew up watching the Bullets, Wizards. I grew up taking the train to that arena all the time to watch Georgetown, the Bullets, the Washington Mystics.”
“That whole city is a part of me. It's in my blood. I love going back home, seeing my family, and playing there. But I love Oklahoma City, too."
Those quotes sound dangerously similar to the ones LeBron James used to say prior to leaving the Miami Heat for the Cleveland Cavaliers a few months ago. Could Durant already be dropping hints? Maybe he’s sending a warning to OKC management that he isn’t theirs to keep forever.
James always dropped hints regarding him potentially ditching Biscayne Boulevard to go back home, not to mention the certain events that took place prior to the Sports Illustrated letter.
All the signs were there, from him saying he saw himself going back and playing for the Cavs while still under contract with the Heat – something Miami fans assumed would never, ever take place.
1. LeBron going to Cleveland in the midst of a Heat road trip to be a part of former teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ retirement ceremony in Cleveland.
2. The time his wife posted a picture on Instagram of “Akron, Ohio,” following Miami’s embarrassing loss to San Antonio in the 2014 NBA Finals.
3. The moving trucks that was spotted at his South Beach home, which Miami fans shooed away as an annual thing that usually takes place.
4. The tracking of Dan Gilbert’s private plane during free agency which was laughed about as being silly and too desperate, but turned out to be the first step to the rekindling of Gilbert and James’ relationship, which let alone took place in Florida.
Could Durant, like James, a close friend of his whom he commended for handling his 2014 free agency with dignity, begin sending signals that he could possibly be headed home, despite being still under contract with the Thunder until 2016?
"To be honest, I just didn't know. I was 21. I didn't know,” Durant said about the contract extension he signed with the Thunder in 2010. “Obviously, when you sign a deal, you want to have the best options for yourself, the best flexibility for yourself. But I loved Oklahoma City so much, I just wanted to dedicate and show them that I'm all about the team."
Leaving Oklahoma City, if it comes to that, would be a very tough decision for KD. With the roster they have now, the Thunder have a group of guys who will contend for an NBA championship as long as they stay together, and Durant has shown in many instances his competitive fire and desire to win.
Russell Westbrook is coming off three knee surgeries in the span of a year, but he looked as explosive and athletic as ever during the Playoffs and you could make a case for him being the best point guard in the NBA right now.
Serge Ibaka is one of the better two-way power forwards in the league today. Reggie Jackson is a stud who will be a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year if he continues coming off the bench for OKC. Steven Adams showed a lot of potential in his rookie season and will only continue to improve. The team has a lot of other young talents in the roster as well.
The Western Conference is a hellacious derby. The ninth seed in the West last year had a better record than the third seed in the East, which goes to show the disparity between both conferences in the NBA. The list of contenders in the West are endless.
Despite that, OKC has still managed to make three of the last four Western Conference Finals, and a case can be made they would have made it in 2013 as well had Westbrook not torn his meniscus. Furthermore, Scott Brooks has shown no signs of being a great Xs and Os NBA head coach, which means the Thunder have practically made it so far in the West year in and out over the past four seasons just on the talent of their players.
Leaving OKC, basketball-wise, would be tough to muster for Durant for all they have accomplished. However, it’s not like the Thunder franchise has been perfect.
They continue to earn the reputation of being one of the cheapest teams in the league. They constantly try to avoid the tax line, and refuse to pay extra even if it means losing the chance to bring in more talent. It’s the reason why James Harden, who you could make a case for as being the best shooting guard in the league today, is gone.
Also, during the 2014 NBA Draft, rather than bringing in talent who could help right away, OKC manipulated the system and drafted a guy whom they had a pre-determined arrangement with, Josh Huestis, who was projected to go in the second round.
OKC could have used the pick on Cleanthony Early (drafted by the Knicks) or Kyle Anderson (drafted by the rival Spurs), but instead the Thunder used it on a guy whom they plan on keeping in the NBA D-League for the entire season, in order to not pay for his guaranteed rookie scale contract.
Here’s another caveat: no one knows if OKC will remain as good as they are now in 2016. Westbrook’s knees have acted up more than the team would like, and even Ibaka showed a tendency to get hurt in the Playoffs. No one thought Dwyane Wade would break down or Chris Bosh’s averages would decline just four years after the Big 3 in Miami came together, but it took place anyway and it drove LeBron straight out of town and back to the arms of the guy who brandished him a traitor in an open comic sans-captioned letter a few years prior.
Washington’s roster is anything but perfect. John Wall was an All-Star last season and Bradley Beal played like one in the Playoffs, but the team has their holes. History shows Nene is injury-prone and he’s only got two years left in his deal. Paul Pierce just signed on but he’s closer to retirement than he is of being the player that he was with the Celtics. He’s also got only two years left. Marcin Gortat was just inked to a long extension, but he’ll be 32 in 2016 with a few more years remaining in his expensive contract.
Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. showed flashes of brilliance in the 2014 Summer League but were non-contributors for the team last season. Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair were good pick-ups but neither are game-changers.
However, there are some pros in going to the Wizards for KD besides the prospect of heading back home.
Wall averaged 19.3 PPG and 8.8 APG last season and is arguably a consistent jump shot away from being as good as Westbrook, if not better because of his superior distributing ability.
Last year, Wall shot 64.4% from the restricted area but just 36.6% from mid-range, per NBA.com. If the latter increases even by just a few, it would make defenses more wary of his shooting ability and open up the lane for easier drives. Wall’s potential is scary good.
Beal, meanwhile, as a 21-year-old, averaged 19.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG, and 4.5 APG in the 2014 NBA Playoffs. His three-point shooting is already superior and the other areas of his game are just going to get better. By the time 2016 rolls around, both Wall and Beal will be All-Stars, making KD at least consider shifting teams from a talent perspective.
John Wall & Bradley Beal Postgame Presser (VIDEO): http://t.co/30KXhQngGN #dcRising #WizBulls pic.twitter.com/PrCLIE3llB — Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) April 30, 2014
KD would also be shifting conferences, making the road to the NBA Finals much, much easier. The entire league knows of the disparity in talent between the West and East, but contenders in the East will always have the advantage because of less challengers in their path to a title. Even with LeBron, there’s no way Miami would have made it to four straight NBA Finals appearances had they been in the West from 2010-2014.
One issue could be the tricky part of making the cap procedures work. Durant will unquestionably have to be paid the max, while Wall is already under contract under the same stipulation, though with less guaranteed dollars. Beal, if he continues his current pace of improvement, will deservingly warrant what Wall’s making, which will handicap the Wizards if they can acquire KD. Sacrificing Gortat will likely be essential, though NBA teams are always in need of serviceable big men so trading him won’t be that huge of a challenge.
Moreover, veterans in search of rings will flock to D.C to play with KD, Wall, and Beal, in a weaker conference, for a shot at a title. It’s similar to how Miami put together championship-caliber rosters despite the hefty contracts of James, Wade, and Bosh over the past few years, with of course some convincing from Pat Riley.
Washington and OKC aren’t the only choices Durant is going to have come 2016, as the Lakers, Knicks, and Heat will also be lining up to audition for his services. Each club – yes, even the Knicks – have better track records of success than the Wizards do.
But, Washington does have the allure of coming back home for KD and helping lead the franchise to their first championship since the late 70s. Durant’s presence would also energize and add relevance to a team that has been pretty much irrelevant before this past season, not to mention increase the city’s economic production – similar to what LeBron does for Cleveland.
OKC will likely have the early head’s start in Durant’s 2016 free agency because of the relationship they have built with the superstar dating back to his second year in the league. KD, surely, also has constructed great relationships with some of his teammates that could still be in Thunder uniform two years from now.
But here’s the thing: nothing is predictable. Durant is not LeBron, but OKC fans would be making a mistake if they assume they know KD well enough to believe there’s no way he’s leaving. Cavs and Heat fans made the same error with James in 2010 and 2014, and he left them crippled.
“He’s like an older brother to me. He’s happy to see the things I’m doing and what I’m doing for the city of D.C., especially since that’s where he’s from. That’s a big honor to me and an honor to him, so we enjoy it. We enjoy our conversations. We enjoy hanging out. We have our fun times,” Wall said about his relationship with Durant during Team USA training.
It’s a nightmarish though for Oklahoma City supporters, seeing Durant run the break with Wall instead of Westbrook.
But, Durant did say something about OKC that should give Thunder fans some breathing room.
“I just tell everybody that I'm here in Oklahoma City,” he said, before latter adding: “I like where I'm at right now.”
However, he did say this, too: “I never close the door on anything.”