Kevin Durant has the option to become a free agent in summer 2016. Due to rules of the current CBA giving max-level players financial incentive to test the open market as opposed to signing extensions with incumbent teams, the reigning MVP will surely exercise it.
None of that means Durant is leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder in 16 months, of course, and nor does so much reported momentum that he wouldn’t mind returning home to play for the Washington Wizards. Sam Presti and company have the upper-hand on the legion of KD suitors from multiple perspectives, the most important of which is an ability to offer him an extra season of maximum salary. The Thunder’s half-decade long status as legitimate championship contenders is a feather in their cap, too.
But logic and likelihood often lose out to conjecture and clicks in the modern sports media world, especially when it comes to potential player movement.
There’s indeed a chance that Durant will sign somewhere other than Oklahoma City next July, and also a chance that Presti would trade his superstar if he believed the 26 year-old future Hall-of-Famer was bound to usurp the Thunder in free agency. The former possibility is slim, though, and the latter one is close to non-existent – dealing a player of Durant’s caliber would be an unprecedented preemptive strategy.
Nevertheless, ESPN’s Tom Penn submitted the last prospect during an appearance on “The Herd With Colin Cowherd,” adding the qualifier that Russell Westbrook’s historic dominance this season makes a trade “more likely” to occur. Freak out, internet!
Below are Penn’s incendiary comments via ESPN SportsNation:
“I think this burst from Westbrook makes it much more likely that Durant ultimately gets traded next year. … Sam Presti has proven that he does not ever want to lose anybody for nothing. So he traded James Harden a year early to avoid a potential luxury tax problem a year later.
“The Kevin Durant drumbeat next year is going to be so loud because he will not commit early to Oklahoma City contractually because the rules are against that. He can’t get the same contract if he signs early as if he just goes to free agency and resigns.
So if Sam Presti doesn’t get that commitment, he’ll look to to trade Kevin Durant. And looking at the performance of Westbrook and the team around Westbrook will make it easier for him to do that potentially.”
Note the ambiguity of Penn’s language: words like ‘think’ and ‘potentially’ and phrases like ‘look to trade.’ He’s doing no reporting whatsoever, instead spewing opinion based on widely acknowledged common sense and barely related recent history.
The trades of James Harden and Reggie Jackson aren’t at all analogous to one involving Durant. The former was made in efforts to avoid luxury tax territory, and the latter to shed a destructive locker room presence and better balance a guard-heavy roster. What’s the biggest difference between dealing the Thunder’s young reserve guards and Durant? The very presence of The Slim Reaper himself remaining on the Oklahoma City roster after they were completed.
Rest assured that Presti would have done everything in his power to keep Harden if Westbrook was OKC’s lone superstar in the fall of 2012. And if the best scorer in basketball wasn’t playing for Scott Brooks’ team last month, the Thunder certainly would have been more inclined to make it work with Jackson. Presti took small gambles that Oklahoma City would remain competitive following those roster shuffles, and those were smart bets that could still pay off in a big way.
Could the same be said if the Thunder shipped Durant out of town to avoid losing him for nothing? Though he’d return perhaps the most valuable trade package in league history, teams never receive fair immediate value anytime they’re forced to trade a mega-star – those pay-outs are meant to come down the line, and are based on ancillary factors like lottery ball luck and player development.
Oklahoma City wouldn’t be title contenders without Durant, just as they weren’t two seasons ago when Westbrook was lost for the playoffs with a torn meniscus. It’s been proven time and again the Thunder need them both to ultimately succeed, and should do all they can to ensure that tandem’s longevity going forward.
Yes, even if such a strategy allows for the possibility of Durant leaving for D.C. or somewhere else in July 2016.
Penn, a former executive with the Portland Trail Blazers, knows as much, and so do his superiors at ESPN. But unsubstantiated hot takes make headlines, headlines make hits, and hits make money – but certainly not as much as Oklahoma City would lose if it preemptively traded its franchise cornerstone.