Kevin Durant’s impending big decision and what it means for Thunder

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Kevin Durant No.35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder AFP PHOTO

Kevin Durant No.35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder AFP PHOTO

OKLAHOMA CITY: Across from the Chesapeake Arena that Kevin Durant has called his basketball home since 2008, just west of the railroad that cuts through town, there’s a poster of the Oklahoma City Thunder star plastered on the convention center wall.

There’s another one on the building over by the water tower, not far from the minor-league baseball park. Durant in the middle, teammates flanking him on both sides, all of them peering out over the downtown region that bleeds into the plains.

A short walk down the way, along the Bricktown Canal that harbors everything from hotels to a massive U-Haul storage warehouse, sits an oil mill and Durant’s “KD’s Southern Cuisine” restaurant, first opened in late 2013.

Ask anyone here, and Durant — East Coast roots be darned — is one of them. That’s how it is with the Thunder and their fans, and that’s why they’re so worried that things might look a whole lot different in these parts next season.

Durant, if you somehow haven’t heard by now, will be a free agent this summer. And the Thunder faithful, who were so elated on Sunday night when a Game 4 win over San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals tied the series 2-2 and ensured that Durant would play at least one more game here, are hoping against hope that he’ll stay.

“A lot of (star players) try to chase a championship, and I think that’s the wrong thing to do,” said Larry Nichols, a 68-year-old Thunder season ticket holder/local body-shop owner who was wearing a Durant jersey as he walked the Bricktown streets before Game 4. “He’s got just as good a chance of getting a championship here as anywhere else. If he goes somewhere else, where he can win a championship, he’s not going to be the star. I think he ought to stay here, really. He’s young enough. He still can get a championship here.”

If only it were that simple.

Durant plans to listen to at least a few recruiting pitches, with teams like Golden State, San Antonio, the Lakers and Boston expected to be in the mix and his hunger to win a championship at the forefront of his mind. The Thunder, naturally, will argue that staying put is the only way to go.

While Durant and co-star Russell Westbrook haven’t reached the NBA’s mountaintop just yet, it’s hard to argue with their sustained success. They have the second best regular season record in the NBA over the past six seasons; more conference finals appearances (three) in that stretch than every team but Miami; an average age of 26.3 entering the season that bodes well for the future. Not to mention the special bond between Durant and this community. As the local line goes, they could swap Governor Mary Fallin out for Durant tomorrow and no one would complain.

The Westbrook factor will likely play a part, too, as the five-time All-Star will be a free agent in the summer of 2017. One could safely assume, given how close they have come after all these years, that Durant and Westbrook have either already shared their views on their future or will do so before July 1 arrives.

But of all the considerations that will come into play, the money may ultimately matter much more than most realize. Put simply, the combination of the NBA’s soaring salary cap and the built-in economic advantages the Thunder possess mean Durant would be a financial fool to leave town. And if he stays for the long haul, he’ll have a chance to join the likes of LeBron James and Chris Paul as the highest paid players in the game.

Should he stay ($227 million over the next six seasons)? Or should he go ($110 million over the next four)? That’s the costly question.

The list of potential scenarios here is long and complex, but the two aforementioned figures are prominently in play when it comes to Durant’s options. His path to maximized profits, by way of that mind-blowing $227 million figure that is known to be in line with the Thunder’s own calculations, goes like this: sign a one-year deal ($25.9 million) with a team option in the second season this summer, then opt out a year later in order to maximize the league-instituted advantages that only the Thunder possess.

That strategy, which will be detailed below, would lead to a five-year, $201 million contract in the summer of 2017 that would end with him making $45.8 million in his final season (he’s making $20.1 million this season). By comparison, a four-year deal with Durant signing elsewhere this summer would be worth $110 million.

First, to address the question of the need for a one-year deal.

Only players with 10 seasons or more of experience can sign a max deal that occupies 35% of the team’s total salary cap, as players like Durant who have logged less time (he’s in his ninth season) are limited to a max deal that stops at 30 percent. With the NBA’s nine-year, $24 billion television rights deal with ESPN and Turner creating a salary cap spike the likes of which the league has never seen, Durant could expertly capitalize.

The cap, which was approximately $69 million this season, is expected to go from $92 million this summer to $107 million in the summer of 2017. And because the Thunder have Durant’s Bird rights, only they could do such a deal for five years (other teams are limited to four) and with larger annual raises (7.5 percent compared to 4.5 percent).

As for the prospect of Durant signing a one-year deal, then a four-year deal elsewhere in 2017 for combined earnings of $175 million over the five seasons, it comes with one major competitive disadvantage. The team signing him to the second contract would need to keep enough cap space for the second deal, a handicap if ever there was one when it comes to sound roster building and, ultimately, championship pursuits. The Thunder, as the team that holds his Bird Rights, can go over the salary cap to retain him and thus aren’t subject to such a potentially crippling complication.

Durant, in his successful attempt to stay focused during this season, has stayed mostly mum when it comes to his view on the many scenarios before him. He deserves credit for the focused way he has handled this unavoidable subplot all season, as there isn’t a soul inside the Thunder organization who would say a bad word about his leadership. But the $227 million plan, make no mistake, is very much in play.

As is often the case in this exceedingly wealthy world of professional sports, there is a central question of priorities here that only Durant can answer: how much money is enough? His 10-year endorsement deal with Nike that was signed in the summer of 2014 is worth as much as $300 million. According to the web site, Spotrac.com, which tracks the earnings of athletes, the 27-year-old Durant has already made approximately $105 million on his NBA contracts.

Just last week, in fact, Durant addressed this topic in a roundabout way. When asked about San Antonio forward David West, who left more than $10 million on the table last summer by leaving the Indiana Pacers and signing with the Spurs, Durant made his perspective clear.

It was an apples to oranges comparison, as the Thunder’s title prospects are clearly far more promising than those of the Pacers and West was a 35-year-old who has never sniffed superstar status. Still, it was insightful stuff.

“Money isn’t everything in life,” Durant told reporters. “I know we tend to think about taking care of your family, being financially stable. But from the outside looking in, it looks like he said, ‘Well, I’ve been blessed to make X amount and I’ll be happy chasing something that’s the grand prize in this league. So I respected him for it. A lot of guys wouldn’t have done it.”

Even Durant doesn’t know what he’ll do. But should he leave, there would be much more than lost money in his wake.

“Everybody would be disappointed,” Nichols said. “And then they’d say, ‘We’ve still got Westbrook.’ Maybe we’d get somebody to step up and get somebody in there if he leaves.”

It’s the one scenario they’re hoping doesn’t happen.

TNS

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