With a game seven loss eliminating the Oklahoma City Thunder from the postseason, followers of the league will now turn to the next big storyline in the NBA.
For some, that will be the NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. You know, actual basketball. For others, their attention has already been captured by the 2016 NBA Draft. However, a not insignificant portion of NBA fans will move directly ahead to free agency and be left to ponder the future of the top name on the market: Kevin Durant.
The Thunder superstar himself told reporters following the loss that he hasn't even thought that far ahead yet, but that hasn't stopped NBA executives from doing so. ESPN's Marc Stein reported on Monday night following the loss that, as one would expect given the rarity of a player of Durant's caliber becoming available, the list of teams expected to pursue him is already growing quite lengthy.
There are no unexpected names there. Durant's hometown team, the perpetually aggressive Pat Riley, Danny Ainge, and Daryl Morey, the forever star-chasing Lakers and Knicks, and the league's top two regular season juggernauts have all been reported to have some interest in Durant over the past year.
However, before all of those fanbases start working on their welcome parades, Stein reports that as of right now the incumbent may still have the lead
And there will inevitably be more Durant suitors who emerge come July 1. But ...— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 31, 2016
Most insiders see the most likely scenario at present to be Kevin Durant staying in OKC on a two-year max deal with an opt-out after Year 1.— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 31, 2016
At present!— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 31, 2016
Signing the type of deal Stein describes would make financial sense if Durant wants to lock in the most long-term money. With the league's TV deal set to cause another cap spike (this one north of $100 million) next offseason, Durant would be able to get a much larger yearly salary next season no matter where he signed, as Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders breaks down here:
The NBA's salary cap is expected to make yet another jump in 2017, exactly when Durant reaches 10 years of NBA experience.
If Durant signs a long-term deal this summer, he'll earn in the $27-28 million range in 2017-18. Opting out of a one-plus one, Durant would be eligible to sign a deal starting at roughly $36 million.
LeBron James has taken similar deals with the Cleveland Cavaliers the last two seasons, so there is a precedent for a transcendent superstar passing up the opportunity to immediately lock in long-term money in exchange for the likelihood of a larger payday down the road.
As far as Stein confirming the Lakers' interest in signing Durant, it's not exactly shocking that the team would want to continue its tradition of swinging for the biggest stars on the market over the past few summers. The hope for fans should be that the front office realizes how much of a longshot luring Durant is and has backup plans in place should he return to Oklahoma City or jump ship to another team on his long list of suitors.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.