Pump the brakes on a Durant exit

VIDEO: Kevin Durant speaks after Sunday’s practice

SAN ANTONIO — The Thunder are three defeats away from kicking off the Summer Of Durant, which will be slightly less intense than the Summer Of LeBron (2010 version), because of course Kevin Durant will be the most desired free agent to hit the market since LeBron James.

But the closer you look, and the more you apply common sense, Durant stands a far better chance of staying in Oklahoma City than a tumbleweed does on a windy day. Because there’s one advantage the Thunder have going for them, one factor you cannot easily dismiss:

The Russell Westbrook factor.

Even if OKC doesn’t rally after being buried in Game 1 against the Spurs and get eliminated in the conference semis, Durant will probably feel he still has a chance to win with the Thunder and that’s because of Westbrook. Their roots run deep, and their chemistry on and off the court, by all accounts, is strong enough to convince Durant to give it one more try. The sensible solution is to stay linked with Russ, sign for one more year, and then that creates the Really Big Summer Of Russ And Durant in 2017, when both are free agents.

This way, Durant accomplishes three things: One, he gives himself a shot of making even more money a year from now when the salary cap rises; two, he knows he’ll still be in demand by contending teams in ’17; and three, he can continue riding with Westbrook well into the future either in Oklahoma City or elsewhere as a — compose yourself, now — package deal.

Not many A-list free agents would hitch themselves to a teammate with so much on the line, but then again, not many teammates have the bond that ties Westbrook and Durant together. Just a hunch here, but Durant probably believes he’ll never find a higher quality of co-star, and that likely includes Steph Curry; going to Golden State would be trading the known (Westbrook) for the unknown (Curry).

And really, Durant’s decision this summer is only about the Warriors or Thunder. Durant can sign with the Wizards, Lakers, Knicks or almost any other team in ’17 and still get the max or close enough to it. But if he wants to join the Warriors, he must do it now, because otherwise Harrison Barnes will swallow up a good portion of Golden State’s cap going forward.

There is another inducement that would keep Durant in OKC for at one more year: He’s comfortable in the city, OKC has a solid nucleus and the franchise is steered by a sharp GM in Sam Presti. But it starts with Westbrook; walking away from him would be difficult.

Just last week, the depth of their relationship was revealed when Durant ran to the rescue of Westbrook when Mavericks owner Mark Cuban declined to elevate Russ with the game’s greats, saying the point guard was just an All-Star.

When Westbrook was pressed for a response, he was waved off by Durant, who called Cuban “a idiot” while Westbrook sat back and allowed his friend to have the floor.

“Russ already knows that Kevin has his back,” said Nick Collison, who has been their teammate from the start, “but it’s just one more thing to say it publicly and take some of that on himself. It was definitely appreciated by Russ, for sure.”

Collison has had a point-blank view of the development of both players and how they’ve bonded. He noted how it’s not easy for two stars to always be in-step; history says that egos and agendas often get in the way. But that hasn’t been the case here. Even when Westbrook developed a habit of taking more shots than Durant, and caused outside observers to howl, Durant never took offense. On the contrary; he constantly harps on Westbrook never getting his due, and made a point to predict Westbrook would become the second Thunder player to win an MVP.

“They really appreciate each other,” said Collison. “There’s so much shared history. They’ve been through a lot together. They recognize how important each other is to the team. Look, there’s things that happen on the court that don’t always go over well, but they’ve always been able to figure it out. They have a common respect for each other and know how tough it is for them to do what they do. That allows them to get through anything that comes up.”

If Durant was looking to score his first big contract this summer, maybe money would get in the way. But he’s already had one big contract. And he’s making additional money in endorsements. And so Durant is one of the few NBA players who doesn’t need to seek the financial security of a long-term deal right away. He can go short-term and give OKC another try.

It’s the smart move this summer: Return for one more year, score a financial blockbuster later, and most important, keep Westbrook by his side.

 

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