Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant: How the 2016 Free Agent Pool Will Redefine the NBA Landscape

In 2016, unprecedented salary expansion and several big name free agents may radically alter NBA pay structures.

Have you seen The Offseason: Kevin Durant on HBO? It premiered on November 4th, and for any hardcore NBA fan, it was a must watch.

That HBO special made one thing abundantly clear - all Kevin Durant does is play basketball. The reigning MVP, currently still recovering from a broken foot, is considered by the majority as either number-one or number-two in the NBA alongside LeBron James (who is now finally returning to his eerily effortless assault on the rest of the NBA).

Right behind them, however, is Anthony Davis: the Kentucky alum, The Brow, a player who has quickly been winning the hearts of the NBA community during this young season. And although his current production is certainly worth marveling over, it’s his potential and his value in comparison to Durant’s 18 months from now that really grabs my attention.

Why 18 months? In precisely 18 months, the reigning MVP will be a free agent in potentially the most transformational free agent summer in NBA history (I’ll get to that) and for the purpose of this piece, let’s play with the idea that Durant does not re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Zach Lowe of Grantland will help us understand this situation:

"It might seem crazy to talk this early about Durant’s free agency, and to link a team like Golden State to Durant. But we’ve been through this before with Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, and others: The machinations surrounding a star player’s free agency don’t start when his contract expires, or even in the final season of his contract. They start the year before, when everyone can see the end of the contract in the distance, and maximizing the star’s trade value becomes a pressing issue if that star is disgruntled.”

As far as we’re concerned, Decision 2016 could likely be looming, and a discussion of who will be worth top dollar is compelling, if not necessary. It’s important to understand how much will have changed in these 18 months. Kobe Bryant will be 75% through his farewell tour, the 2015 World Series champion will be crowned and opening day for 2016 will be underway, Peyton Manning could be retired, the 76ers could actually be good, Interstellar 2? (please, please please!), the new SNL cast might be funny after some shows under their belt…You get the idea.

But above all, 18 months from now will signal the official beginning of a new era of contracts that could very easily lead to basketball fans’ worst nightmare: an NBA Lockout. Although seemingly impossible to predict this far in advance, there are a number of factors - the upcoming multi-billion dollar yearly TV deal, a resulting salary cap expansion potentially exceeding 50%, and the lingering frustrations of a players union that felt it was slighted by the 2011 CBA compromises - that make a lockout after the 2016-17 season seem as likely as Bears fans turning on Jay Cutler at some point during the season.

The main culprit will be the preceding summer’s free agent period, where significant salary cap expansion may trigger contract increases of up to 90%. If a gradual plan to incorporate the massive influx of TV revenue is not agreed upon, players signed to max deals could be making over $30 million dollars starting that season. With this logic in mind, the most prized commodity on the 2016 free agent market may be more important (financially, at least) than any other marquee free agent in league history, as the breadth of market value - lockout or otherwise - reaches unprecedented levels.

This is not to say that actual talent is at an all-time high; by just looking at the current top NBA salaries, you can easily tell that monetary value is not tightly linked with actual on-court production this season. Instead, the 2016 NBA market climate will mark the beginning of an unparalleled period of spending - and the first wave of high profile free agents for this period may very well set the precedent for years to come.

And that’s exactly what I’m getting at here. Saying Anthony Davis will be more valuable than Kevin Durant in 18 months is a gamble, but it’s also a discussion worth having. Davis is still very young (only 21 years old), and its always a risk making these kinds of bold statements so early on, but labeling Davis as such may result in a payoff very similar to what the Indianapolis Colts received with Andrew Luck.

Luck, also in his third season, is widely regarded as an expensive, high-upside young quarterback in discussions for a max-level extension. Still, Luck has been dominating the NFL and is looking every bit worth a lucrative long-term deal - leading all quarterbacks in our advanced metrics. But even if we decide to value Davis as a top free agent commodity, its important to remember with whom he’s competing. To bring this entire piece back down to earth, let’s first look at Kevin Durant’s impressive numbers over the past five years.

During these five seasons, Durant has lead the league in scoring four times, made the playoffs each year with a continually dominant Thunder squad in the brutal Western Conference, and played in every All-Star game, all while averaging 29.3 points and 7.5 boards with a 48% shooting percentage. In other words, he’s almost approaching the terrifying stats that LeBron posted in Miami.

After last year’s 32.0 points per game mark on a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 56.0, Durant rightly became the league’s Most Valuable Player and is definitely in the “best player” discussion. Here at numberFire we use our own metric called nERD, which measures the expected performance of teams and players based on an aggregate of statistics. Last season, Durant ended the season with a 27.02 nERD rating, good for first in the league ahead of LeBron's 20.4.

However, these numbers don’t predict the league landscape in two years, a fact which may serve as a reminder of how foolish this entire thought exercise may be, but which also allows for rampant speculation, which is quite a bit of fun. Although only two weeks into the 2014 NBA season, it’s important to note that Durant has yet to play a game while recovering from a potentially nagging foot injury for a Thunder team whose current rash of injuries have derailed the first part of their season entirely.

For teams, a nERD of 50 is considered league average, and a team’s nERD represents its expected winning percentage for that year. The Thunder thus far this season have nERD of 30.1, meaning they are expected to win only 30.1% of their games. Obviously, this will certainly change with the return of Durant (and Russell Westbrook), but their paltry state at the moment demonstrates just how fragile this team can be without its star player.

All the meanwhile, Anthony Davis has been emphatically introducing himself to even the most casual of NBA fans. Davis has been an absolute monster and is easily the best big man in the league at the moment. He has averaged 25.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game game, including a 9-block performance on opening day. He’s also been taking care of the ball and staying out of foul trouble, all while efficiently expanding his range and improving his 18-foot jumper.

Thus far, his Pelicans have a nERD of 61.7, good for ninth in the NBA. Davis’ individual nERD score, which combines efficiency stats such as usage rate, offensive rating, and defensive rating, is an astounding 24.8, the highest in the league by a significant margin. This is why he is the front-runner for NBA MVP. (The next two closest are Stephen Curry at 18.6 and James Harden at 16.1)

No matter how you slice it, Davis is making his presence felt around the league. While this improvement was widely expected, actually seeing it happen is doing wonders to Davis’ standing among NBA management and fans. If his improvement somehow remains on this absurd trajectory, Anthony Davis will be devouring the NBA by the 2016 offseason, and the inflated salaries that will be available to top-tier players could dissuade Davis from agreeing to any long-term extension beforehand.

And by that time he won’t even be 24 years old.

At the end of the day, the ordering of Durant and Davis on the free agent hierarchy is less significant than the money they will be pocketing as a result of their success. What is important is not if and why Davis will be more valuable than Durant but rather that this offseason in particular will launch a new standard for player value.

Oh, and what if that whole "LeBron back in Cleveland" thing does’t work out? His two-year deal is up that summer too.

Just some food thought.