By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant believes friend and rival LeBron James made the only prudent move he could by exercising the early termination option in his contract earlier this week.
“I don’t know what the big deal is,” Durant said Wednesday at a Washington D.C. event promoting the release of his new Nike shoes, the KD7. “As a player, I think that’s the best way to go about it. You have all your options. It’s better for you as a player to opt out. You can get a bigger deal, get more years, you never know what happens. If you opt in, you pass up on that. I didn’t know what the big deal was. I’m sure it was a decision that he made, something that he was thinking about for him and his family.”
We don’t know with which team or co-star James, who opted out of the final two years and nearly $43 million on his Miami Heat contract, will prefer in the coming weeks. Could it be Miami and a return of the Big Three? Cleveland and Kyrie Irving? Chicago and Derrick Rose or, maybe, L.A. and Kobe Bryant? But we do know which team and with whom he won’t — the Thunder and Durant.
Durant has two more years remaining on his contract in Oklahoma City and the cost-conscious Thunder and have no room to add a player of James’ stature. Interestingly, when Durant signed his five-year deal in 2010, he specifically did not request an early opt-out. He wanted to fulfill the full five-year obligation.
But he said players who do choose to exercise their contractual right to opt out and look at opportunities elsewhere, or even switch teams, should not be subject to criticism. For instance, a billboard recently put up in San Antonio reads: “LOYALTY > ROYALTY”. The “O” in LOYALTY is the face of Spurs star Tim Duncan, who has spent his entire 17-year career with the franchise and just won his fifth championship. The “O” in ROYALTY is the face of James.
“He switched teams; he’s not the first guy to do it,” Durant said. “He decided to opt out; he’s not the first guy to do it. Sometimes a lot of people criticize him a little bit too much for doing normal things, doing stuff that everybody has done. [Even] Tim Duncan went into free agency before. He got courted by quite a few teams. We’ll see what happens with me, but everybody’s done the same thing. He’s not the first.”
Durant’s free agency already has front offices around the league planning ways to create cap space to offer the 2014 league MVP a max contract in the summer of 2016. If the Thunder captures a championship before then, it would seemingly greatly increase the odds that Durant would stay in OKC.
However, if the Thunder continue to fall short, it could force Durant, who will have completed his ninth year in the league and will have turned 27, took look around. OKC advanced to its third Western Conference finals in three years. Key injuries have plagued it the last two seasons. Point guard Russell Westbrook injured his knee in the 2013 first round and missed the remainder of the playoffs. The Thunder lost in the West semifinals.
This season, power forward and defensive anchor Serge Ibaka sustained a calf strain and missed the first two games of the West finals against the Spurs. He played through pain for the final four games of the series, but he was far from healthy.
“Being MVP and all that stuff is cool, but I have bigger goals in mind, bigger team goals,” said Durant, who recently got a tattoo on his right calf of a what looks to be a fearsome-looking saber-toothed tiger on the prowl. “I think just working on every aspect of my game and bringing it back to my group is what I’m most excited about. And I have a lot of work to do.”