I wrote a thing on ESPN.com about Kevin Durant’s looming 2016 decision, and what he might be able to learn from the one LeBron just made.
Obviously the two players, and more importantly, the two people, are different. Durant has his own interests, his own motives, his own goals, his own connections. There’s always been this assumption that Durant would leave Oklahoma City because LeBron did. As if he showed him the path to prominence or something. A guy that couldn’t win in a small market bolted to go somewhere he could.
The solution to making sure it doesn’t happen? Just win a title in the next two years, right? Thing is, I don’t think it’s actually that simple. Sure, winning a championship would reinforce the Thunder’s plan to Durant and send a strong message that he can indeed accomplish big career goals. But then again, what if KD just has his heart set on playing in D.C.? What if he’s always dreamed of being a Laker? Winning back-to-back titles isn’t going to stop him from doing what he wants, because that’s what free agency is — a player doing what he wants.
And at the core of Durant’s decision will be this important question: Where can he win next? Building championship equity doesn’t guarantee anything if you don’t have a plan in place to make sure that team continues that. During the Thunder’s offseasons, that’s always been the cry — you better take advantage of this window of opportunity with Durant otherwise he’ll leave you if you don’t win.
LeBron is coming off a stretch in Miami where he won two championships and went to four Finals. So why in the world is he leaving that? Yes, obviously, the homecoming angle is an important factor. But bigger than that is the fact the Cavs present the opportunity for LeBron to sustain success for a longer period of time. He’s looking at his career and is trying to see himself competing at age 34, 35, 36 and beyond. The Heat weren’t going to give him that. The Cavs can with their young core of Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins.
That thinking is what’s at the heart of Sam Presti’s decision-making. While you pound your fists and shout about the front office not “going for it,” the reason is that Presti wants to have the best possible roster assembled for Durant in 2016. Overextend now, mortgage assets and dump young talent for veterans that may or may not help you win something now, and you’re in the position the Cavs were in 2010 when LeBron left. Look at the roster he dumped. Why in the hell would he have ever stayed with them?
If Presti could sign a player that would guarantee a championship, he’d pull that lever instantly. But our speculating and prognosticating doesn’t hang anything in the rafters at The Peake. That lesson should’ve been learned, and then some, with the injuries to Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. What if the Thunder had decided to “go for it” the last two years, breaking into the luxury tax and selling off young talent and assets, only to have had it derailed by bad luck? That would’ve been dumb, right?
The fear of Durant leaving is overwhelming, and it’ll only worsen as time ticks by. Two years is kind of a long time, but with the insecurity Oklahomans have, it feels more like two weeks. It’s not just the terror of losing a player that helps you win. It’s more about losing someone as special and transcendent as Durant. The Thunder have done their best to establish a culture where no single player is bigger than the team. Around Oklahoma City, there are as many billboards with Andre Roberson on it as there are Durant. But here’s the thing: Durant is the Thunder’s culture. He’s a stakeholder. He went through the relocation, he went through 3-29, he went through the trades, the bumps, the rise. It all works — on and off the court — because of him. Losing him would be about more than losing a good basketball player. That’s why people are afraid.
Obviously a championship between now and then only strengthens the Thunder’s case. While the D.C. area is where Durant’s from, Oklahoma City is trying to become his spiritual home. That bond is already strong and by the time Durant is unrestricted, he’ll have spent eight years in OKC, nine with the Thunder organization. He may decide that was long enough regardless of what happened in the past. But what he’ll care about most is what the next nine years of his career will look like.