There seems to be a lot of optimism about Kevin Durant re-signing with the Thunder because of how well they played against the Warriors.
Well, what if it’s the opposite? What if Kevin Durant is sitting around right now thinking, “if we couldn’t beat them under those circumstances, with a 3-1 lead, with Curry potentially hurt, how can we ever beat them?” The Thunder aren’t going to get a better opportunity to beat the Warriors than the one they just had. And they didn’t do it.
The question then becomes, if Oklahoma City can’t beat the Warriors, who can? There are plenty of fitting answers but no objectively correct ones.
Durant could go to Miami, Boston or some other Eastern Conference team with the hope that someone else knocks the Warriors off before he ever has to. That’s not exactly a bad plan. Stephen Curry’s ankles and now knee at least open the door for chronic problems that knock him out early in the playoffs. Only eight teams have made the Finals three years in a row since the merger, a big number, but not an overwhelming one. Plenty of great teams never did it, and if we expand this to the length of Durant’s next contract, it’s highly unlikely that the Warriors make the Finals six times in a row. There’s going to be at least one season where he has a chance to win the title without ever playing the Warriors.
Durant go to the Spurs hoping that joining a 67-win team would push them over the top. Golden State really doesn’t have the pieces to defend Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge at the same time (but then, no team does), especially as Andre Iguodala ages. But the Spurs have plenty of the same problems Oklahoma City just had as far as ball movement goes, and it’s likely impossible to defend the Warriors any better than the Thunder just did so betting on that end of the floor seems unwise. Plus, Durant just beat the Spurs. How many players have ever signed with a team they just beat under the premise of getting closer to a championship?
If it’s really about getting a ring at all costs, Durant could even sign with a young team like the Lakers or Wolves and just try to wait the Warriors out. He wouldn’t be the MVP-caliber player he is now when he gets that ring, but the odds suggest that if he stuck around long enough, the young players on a team like that would eventually surpass Golden State as they age. But no team in the history of basketball has ever waited their way into a championship. It just never happens. By the time one super team dies, two more take its place. We don’t know who they’ll be yet, but by the time any young team Durant chooses is ready to contend there’s going to be another 65-win juggernaut standing in their way.
So these other teams all have merits, but they’re all only really here because they’re 5% rule teams. With Durant, every team mentioned would have a 5% chance at winning the title in the near future. That’s not a bad place to be, it’s the bare minimum for teams to actively seek contention. But Durant isn’t going to leave Oklahoma City for a 5% rule team because with Durant invoked every team is a 5% rule team. It has to be a team that would automatically become favored in a seven-game series against the Warriors right now.
Really think about the Clippers’ roster as it compares to Oklahoma City’s right now, without Durant involved for either.
Chris Paul is better than Russell Westbrook. He might not be forever, but he is right now. He’s not going to gamble away the season on defense the way Westbrook does. He’s not going to shoot 8-for-31 in big games like Westbrook does. He’s not going to monopolize crunch time possessions the way Westbrook does. Maybe there are some teams Westbrook makes more sense for, but Paul is the ideal Kevin Durant point guard. He hounds Stephen Curry on defense. He makes sure everyone else stays involved and works their butt off. And he’d make sure Kevin Durant always got the ball in the right spots.
DeAndre Jordan is better than Steven Adams. He’s one of the five or 10 best defensive players in basketball. He’s an even better rebounder. He serves a much more defined offensive function as a designated roller. Adams obviously has room to grow, but his best case scenario is becoming DeAndre Jordan. DeAndre Jordan is already DeAndre Jordan, and if the hacking rules change as we expect, he’s about to become much more valuable.
J.J. Redick is better than Victor Oladipo. As a fit next to Durant, it’s not close. Lost in Stephen Curry’s greatness is the fact that Redick just had one of the greatest three-point shooting season in league history. He became just the second player ever to make at least 200 three-pointers and shooting 47.5% or better from long range. Only Kyle Korver has ever done that, and Redick is a significantly better rebounder and defender. Oladipo is a useful offensive player and a great defender, but his value is mitigated on a team with two high-volume ball-handlers. Redick is extremely effective even as a decoy.
Doc Rivers is better than Billy Donovan. Donovan may have improved significantly in the playoffs, but he’s still only coached one NBA season. He still needed most of the regular season to figure out that he should stagger Westbrook and Durant. He never solved Oklahoma City’s isolation problems. Doc Rivers has won a championship. Even if he’s overrated (which I believe he is), he’s been one of the league’s better coaches for a decade. He’s a known quantity. Donovan is not.
Forget about the advantages of living in Los Angeles versus Oklahoma City. Forget about the financial windfall of playing in such a major market (and yes, even with the money he’d leave on the table by signing this year instead of next, the endorsement dollars he’d get in L.A. would make him more overall money). Forget about the overall frustration of coming so close so many times and never actually reaching the top of the mountain.
In pure basketball terms, the Clippers just look like a better version of the team that almost beat Golden State. Maybe if Chris Paul had been his point guard, Durant would have made it to the Finals this season. Maybe if J.J. Redick were shooting for him he’d have a championship ring right now.
That’s going to be the deciding factor in all of this. Durant is going to go to the team that gives him the best chance to beat Golden State. Unless someone makes an unforeseen move, that’s going to be the Clippers.
If anything would hold Durant back from leaving, it’d be a desire not to screw over Oklahoma City and its fans. But if he chose the Clippers the Thunder would get Blake Griffin (and Oklahoma native) back in a sign-and-trade. That eases the pain. They’d have one more chance to win a championship before their best players all leave for greener pastures next year.
That’s the clincher. No other eases Durant’s guilt over leaving the Thunder. No other team allows him to better take advantage of his celebrity status and earning potential. And most importantly, no team gives him a better chance to win the championship right now.
Likely Contract: Four Years, Max