Where Should Kevin Durant Sign in Free Agency?
The biggest question this NBA offseason is where superstar forward Kevin Durant will land during free agency once it starts July 1st.
According to CBS Sports, Durant will not take meetings with the Lakers or Wizards, which isn’t surprising considering his top priority in his new team is to win a championship. Sorry everyone, no KD-Scott Brooks reunion in his hometown.
The presumed leaders to lure Durant away from the Thunder are the Warriors, Heat, Spurs and Celtics.
Let’s run down the scenarios and see which teams fit.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are the presumptive favorites to retain Durant’s services -- and rightfully so. The Thunder finished 55-27 this past season, defeated a historically good Spurs team (which according to FiveThirtyEight was the fourth best defensive team in the last 20 years), and brought the record-setting Warriors to 3-1 before losing the final three games of the Western Conference Finals to end their season. If Durant wants to win now, the Thunder present the best opportunity to do so, being one win away from the Finals, having a young core, and scoring a huge deal on draft night.
In that trade, the Thunder dealt Serge Ibaka (who is generally a good player but had seen his role diminished to a spot-up three point shooter) for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Domantas Sabonis. Since his peak as a shot blocker in the 2011-12 season, having a block rate of 9.8%, Ibaka has seen a decline every season. In 2015-16, his block rate was 4.5% (the worst of his career).
His 32.6% from beyond the arc was also a sharp decline from the 37.6% he averaged last year, and that occurred even though he took fewer shots. Despite the waning production, Ibaka was due a huge pay raise, and the ability of the Thunder to flip him for their haul was a masterful move by general manager Sam Presti.
Oladipo represents a massive upgrade from Andre Roberson in the backcourt, providing improvements in every category besides rebounds and blocks. Oladipo is more efficient beyond the arc (33.9% three-point percentage to 24.7%), a much better passer (19.3% assist rate to 7.4%), more careful with the ball (14.2% turnover rate to 17.2%), almost twice as good from the free throw line (81.9% to free throw percentage to 47.9%), and is better at generating steals (2.4% steal rate to 2.1%). In almost all aspects of the game, Oladipo represents an upgrade from Roberson, outside of his ability to guard more positions.
Oladipo and Westbrook also combined to average 3.65 steals per game, which would rank as the top backcourt in the league. This will play well into a great transition team like the Thunder, who placed fifth in the NBA in transition points per game with 17.2 points. With Oladipo at the two spot, the Thunder's athleticism is off the charts.
Ilyasova represents an upgrade in spot-up three point shooting over Ibaka, clocking in at 40.9% from beyond the arc on more shots per game. Ilyasova shot 38.6% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers, which ranked 41st among 80 players with at least 200 such attempts last season. Ibaka shot just 33.5% on 179 attempts. On the flip side, Ilyasova ranked 83rd among 100 qualified power forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, and Ibaka ranked 39th.
In Sabonis, the Thunder get a player with a high basketball IQ and who can be brought along slowly.
All of this points to the Thunder being in the conversation for NBA Finals favorites right now (without even touching on the production of Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter) and should make the Thunder the favorites to resign Durant. Not only that, it makes the most sense financially for Durant to sign a two-year deal with a one year player option. By sticking with the Thunder for at least a year, Durant could give the Thunder a chance to avenge their Western Conference Finals loss, earn around $27 million next season, and receive a five-year deal with the Thunder that could total close to $200 million. It is a win-win for both sides.
Can anyone else compare?
Golden State Warriors
According to numerous sources, the Golden State Warriors are the most likely team to sign Durant away from the Thunder. Going after Durant could be seen as the step to push the former champions over the edge and get them back to the promised land.
But there's a bit of a disconnect. Namely, back when the Warriors were up 2-0 in the NBA Finals, CBS Sports reported that Warrior’s players didn’t understand why they need to add Durant.
As center Andrew Bogut put it: "Why?"
Per NBAWowy.com, with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor this season, including playoffs, the highest usage rate of any other player with at least 200 possessions with them was Draymond Green's 18.4%. Durant's usage rate in the past three seasons has been 31.5%. Durant would impact their chemistry, and it's hard to think it will be a positive change unless the players embrace it.
In basketball, unlike many other sports, having too many good offensive players can be a curse. Adding Durant would corrupt their unbelievable chemistry unless someone came off of the bench. Curry is the MVP, and Thompson sees himself as the best shooting guard in the league. The addition of Durant could lead to an unstoppable squad on paper, but on the court, it's not a particularly promising pairing.
Pat Riley is one of the greatest recruiters in the game. He assembled the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh and led them to two championships, and the Heat right now are a blank slate. Wade and Hassan Whiteside and almost all of their complementary pieces are free agents, which means that the Heat can sign the players that Durant would want, if they went that route.
Playing in the East is not as big of an advantage as it used to be, but the advantage is still there, with likely only the Cavaliers standing in the way of getting to the Finals. Although the makeup and identity of the Heat is to be determined, the allure of Miami and playing with a player like Durant could allow them to amass a gluttony of talent that would fit around his skill set and pair well with their up and comers Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson. With so few guaranteed deals on the roster, it's hard to imagine what a Durant-led team could look like.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs would be a better fit than the Warriors (and were a better regular-season team this year) because their main scorers, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, are not volume shooters but rather efficient and selective with their shots. Combined, they accounted for 35.4% of the Spurs attempted field goals, which would rise to 58.7% with Durant. While the distribution of shots would change on the Spurs would change, Gregg Popovich (an all-time great coach) would know how to make it work while still getting other people touches.
This would become even easier as the Spurs transition away from their original Big Three. Durant would provide an instant upgrade in scoring but also tremendously in three-point shooting. After Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Mills, there are no three-point shooters on the floor who averaged over 35% from beyond the arc with at least 100 attempts. This would allow the Spurs to space the floor even more and let their motion offense wreak havoc.
On defense, Kawhi would be able to take the toughest wing matchup every night and allow Durant to use his 7'4" wingspan to wrap up the weaker wing night after night. Durant would also assuredly improve on defense under the tutelage of Tim Duncan, who hopefully defies father time for another year and comes back in search of his sixth ring.
The Celtics are an extremely young team -- their average age of 25.2 years last season ranked ninth in the league -- with an incredible coach in Brad Stevens and a solid roster all-around.
The problem with the Celtics is that they thrive without a superstar and might not have enough talent to lure Durant, who is basing his decision solely on winning a championship. Despite this lack of star power, Boston had the 10th highest offensive rating (106.8) and fourth highest defensive rating in the league (103.6).
That, coupled with their newfound cap space after dumping David Lee's cap hit and letting Jonas Jerebko sign with another team, gives them a strong selling point for potential free agent big men to pair with their young and deep backcourt. The only knock is that Durant may not be able to fit in seamlessly with Boston's havoc defense. Although defense has not been Durant's strong suit, his length and increased focus on that side of the ball could allow him to see marked improvement in this category.
Boston's pace (98.5 possessions per 48 minutes, third in the NBA) and ability to cause turnovers (14.6% opponent turnover rate, third in the NBA) would be a boon for Durant, who could take advantage of the extra shots and convert transition opportunities caused by the turnovers (Durant is in the 86.6th percentile of transition scorers).
While the Celtics are certainly a dark horse in luring Durant, they do have a compelling story and play in the Eastern Conference.
Durant has the chance to shape his legacy in this upcoming free agency.
He doesn't have the personality to suggest a LeBron-like Decision spectacular, but his decision will swing the current balance in the NBA.
People love when players stick with a franchise for their entire career and build something special, and Durant has the ability to do that with his current team.
And, for many reasons, his best decision would be to stay with the Thunder, where Oklahoma City loves him and he would have the best chance to win now and for the foreseeable future.