Now that Oklahoma City has become the 10th team to blow a 3-1 lead in a playoff series, the clock has officially started on Kevin Durant’s upcoming free agency. With the salary cap jumping to about $92 million this summer, almost half the league will be able to offer Durant a maximum contract at 11 p.m. on June 30th.
So, which teams have the best chance to sign one of the league’s top-three players? Here’s a look at the early odds.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 2-1. For financial and competitive reasons, Durant’s best move is to stay in Oklahoma City. With the cap jumping $20 million this summer and another $15 million in 2017, Durant can make an extra $40 million by signing a one-and-one contract with the Thunder in July, then opt out and sign a long-term deal in 2017. Plus, after taking the defending-champion Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference Finals, Durant has an excellent chance to win a championship with the Thunder next season. And, by signing for one year, he can align his free agency with Russell Westbrook’s in 2017. That way, if Westbrook decides to abandon Oklahoma City for a big-market team in Los Angeles or New York, Durant can bail from a sinking ship at the same time.
San Antonio Spurs: 10-1. Durant has a world of respect for the dynasty Gregg Popovich has built, and he would make the Spurs an instant title favorite if he made the move to San Antonio. The Spurs would have to jettison some contracts and nudge Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili into retirement to create cap room, but the thought of Durant joining Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge in San Antonio is pretty intriguing.
Miami Heat: 15-1. Never underestimate Pat Riley’s ability to sell a free agent on the ability to win championships by joining the franchise he runs. Riley worked his salary-cap magic to add LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010, and he even got a meeting with Aldridge last summer even though the Heat didn’t have the cap room to sign him. If Durant wants to get away from the top-heavy Western Conference for a better chance to get to the Finals, what better place to go than South Beach? The biggest problem in this scenario is Miami doesn’t have a lot of cap flexibility and would probably have to sacrifice the chance to re-sign free agent center Hassan Whiteside to make a run at Durant.
Golden State Warriors: 25-1. We’ve read the media speculation about the Warriors being the biggest threat to take Durant away from Oklahoma City, but if Golden State is able to win a second straight championship, do they really want to mess up team chemistry by adding a star player who would expect to get 20 to 25 shots a game? Sure, the triumvirate of Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson would be something to behold, but would it make the Warriors a better all-around team or just a nightly All-Star exhibition? The Warriors would have to let restricted free agents Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli go plus make some other roster moves to create the cap room for a competitive offer.
Los Angeles Clippers: 30-1. The Clippers won’t have the cap room to sign Durant, but Doc Rivers could propose an intriguing sign-and-trade deal sending Blake Griffin back to Oklahoma, where he starred as a collegian. The trio of Durant, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan could do some serious damage in the West, and Griffin might be a popular addition in Oklahoma City, though not quite the same franchise-altering talent as Durant.
Los Angeles Lakers: 40-1. Would Durant be willing to leave a championship contender in Oklahoma City and give up an extra $40 million to join a rebuilding Lakers team? Probably not, though the lure of Tinseltown can be appealing for a lot of athletes. Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant would give their best recruiting pitches, but the answer is most likely no.
Boston Celtics/Washington Wizards: 50-1. Danny Ainge is still searching for that elusive superstar to elevate the Celtics to contending status, and Durant grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, but neither franchise is exactly what Durant is looking for. As we mentioned with Miami, moving to the East would give Durant an easier path to the Finals, but he’s already gone on record saying he doesn’t want the pressure of playing in his hometown, so the Wizards are probably out. Boston might be a long-shot team to watch if Ainge can make a trade to bring in another star to pair with Durant.
Chicago Bulls: 500-1. Given the current state of the franchise, it’s hard to imagine Durant agreeing to a meeting with the Bulls, much less choosing to sign here. Sure, he knows Derrick Rose from playing together on a couple of U.S. national teams, and the Bulls could probably create the cap room by trading off the contracts of Mike Dunleavy or Taj Gibson. But Durant and the other top free agents will have better options to choose from when the market opens for business.
If the Bulls don’t re-sign Joakim Noah, look for the front office to shop for a center and wing shooter from the second tier: names like Zaza Pachulia, Timofey Mozgov, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights, Courtney Lee, Arron Afflalo, Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless — you know, the usual suspects. And, if they don’t draft a point guard, backup options in free agency include Shaun Livingston, Brandon Jennings, D.J. Augustin, Jeremy Lin, Mario Chalmers, Ty Lawson and Norris Cole.
The Bulls will also be impacted in free agency by the fact that unless they renounce their rights to Pau Gasol and Noah, they’ll have to wait until those players make their decisions before going out into the marketplace, since the cap holds based on last year’s salaries put them over the cap. That makes a serious run at one of the top-tier free agents even more unlikely.
So, unless the front office is able to pull off a major trade, it’s hard to imagine the Bulls significantly upgrading the roster for Year 2 under Fred Hoiberg. The Bulls will be banking on fewer injuries and internal improvement from the likes of Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Justin Holiday, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio. A return to the playoffs is possible, but the championship window for this core group is closed.