As usual, the NBA talking point du jour has nothing to do with what's happening on the court. It's about Kevin Durant's free agency in 2016. Yes, 2016.
The topic surfaced after Tuesday's Team USA practice when Durant, who grew up just outside the nation's capital, was asked about the obvious efforts his hometown Washington Wizards are making to convince him to follow in LeBron James' footsteps. His response, via ESPN's Ramona Shelburne:
"Look, we going to put it out on tape," Durant said. "It's been talked about. Everybody's asked me about it every time I go on Instagram or Twitter. All my friends ask me about it. So I'm not going to sit here and act like I'm naïve to the fact that people think about that stuff. But I just tell everybody that I'm here in Oklahoma City, [and] I love it here. Who knows what will happen? I never close the door on anything. But I like where I'm at right now, so I can't answer that question."
That set off an explosion of Internet copy and there's much more to come. If you thought the endless speculation about LeBron's free agency was overwhelming, just wait until Durant's arrives. He's handled the questions well, but he's still in a no-win situation. Everything he says will be put under the microscope, and there's little he can do to avoid the madness.
Thus, now's a good time to lay out where we actually stand with this saga.
Photo credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Photo credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
WHEN IS KEVIN DURANT ACTUALLY A FREE AGENT?
July 1, 2016, which is 679 days and two full seasons from now. Two years ago, LeBron James was coming off his first ring, Mitt Romney just emerged from the Republican primary and Justin Bieber was in Billboard's Top 100. A lot can change in two years.
SO WHY DO WE CARE ABOUT THIS NOW?
Several reasons, some reasonable, some not so much. Let's start with the latter:
1. It's (nearly) August: Free agency is over. Summer League is over. We're still a month away from the actual FIBA World Cup beginning. The Kevin Love trade is in a holding pattern and has already dragged out for too long. Next season doesn't begin until the end of October and excitement doesn't really begin until a couple weeks before then. There's not much else to talk about.
2. Hope sustains fandom: The Wizards, for example, are on the upswing, but have a short (and long) history of ineptitude. We're just a decade removed from a 40-year-old Michael Jordan putting the franchise in a holding pattern just to scratch his competitive itch ... and that was a really exciting time in D.C.! Imagine how exciting it'd be if the league's MVP chose to sign there.
And now, the former.
1. Free agency dominates NBA interest: Sad perhaps, but definitely true. Look at the attention LeBron's return to Cleveland drew this year. With a rising salary cap coming thanks to a new TV deal and shorter player contracts, teams can easily clear the room needed to pay the best free agents. When that happens, you get July magic. It's what the NBA wants to some degree because it lengthens the season, allowing the league to dominate a time when not much else is happening in the sports calendar. I can understand those who long for the days when the game mattered most, but that's not today's world.
2. Teams already are planning for Durant's free agency: Washington's had its eye on this moment for years and really kicked its planning into high gear this summer. Instead of meeting Trevor Ariza's long-term contract desires, the Wizards let him walk to the Rockets and replaced him with veteran Paul Pierce on a two-year deal. Bench upgrades Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair each received three-year contracts ... with team options for the final season. Only John Wall and Marcin Gortat are technically under contract for 2016-17 (though Bradley Beal is due an extension, Martell Webster has a partial guarantee and Otto Porter's rookie deal may still be in the picture).
Lots of salary next year, lots of salary the year after that, and then ... POOF, almost nothing. (A caveat: Deron Williams can opt out of $22.3 million, but at this rate, he probably won't). You think that's an accident? In today's NBA, no salary structure is an accident.
The Nets and Wizards surely aren't alone. The Lakers finally get Kobe Bryant's massive deal off the books by 2016. The same is true for Miami and Dwyane Wade. The Knicks promise to have lots of space to pair Durant and Carmelo Anthony should they strike out in 2015. You can also expect half a dozen less obvious suitors too -- with the cap rising, there are more places for teams to dump their worst contracts to open up space.
Worth noting: You know who else signed a two-year deal? LeBron James. The possibilities are already in motion.
BUT REALLY, THE WIZARDS?
I DON'T BELIEVE YOU
Wall and Beal's future is now
John Wall and Bradley Beal are growing up before our eyes, leading the upstart Wizards to a 3-1 advantage over the battle-tested Chicago Bulls.
Your skepticism is understandable, but things are looking up in D.C. Yes, this franchise is managed by the same people who thought building around Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young was a good idea. Yes, it has often shown signs of fleeting success, only to see things fall apart. Yes, there have been many stumbling blocks on the path to relevancy. (Say, where's Jan Vesely these days?).
But they also have arguably the league's best young backcourt with 23-year-old point guard Wall and 20-year-old shooting guard Beal. One provides incredible speed and vision, the other a sweet shooting stroke and the temperament of a 10-year vet. Both are currently training with Team USA and could make the final 12-man roster. A proper mix of veterans around them was finally discovered, leading to last year's surprising second-round appearance that was ever-so-close to something more. It speaks volumes that Pierce, in the twilight of his career, believed Washington best sets him up for contention when he could have signed anywhere.
Also ... did I mention that Durant grew up just a stone's throw from Washington D.C. and cheered for all the local teams?
OK BUT DOES DURANT ACTUALLY LIKE D.C.?
@RGIII My why is inspiring every kid that comes from Prince George's county Maryland. Letting them know that they can achieve anything!— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) July 20, 2014
KD on DC: "That whole city is a part of me. It’s in my blood. I love going back home, seeing my family & playing there but I love OKC, too."— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) July 29, 2014
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
That's just a tiny sampling of his public thoughts on his hometown. It clearly holds a special place in his heart, and he's not afraid to share that.
BUT I HAVE LOVE FOR MY HOMETOWN TOO, AND I'M STILL NOT ABOUT TO RETURN TO IT
A fair point. In fact, many NBA players loathe the idea of playing where they grew up because it adds unnecessary distractions and places them closer to childhood friends they outgrew. All those family members that are endearing from a distance become a bigger part of their lives that must be accommodated. Durant himself actually hinted at this issue in February:
"I just told you I had to buy 100 tickets. I spent a lot of money on tickets. Imagine if I played here," Durant said with a laugh. "I don't even want to think about that. I haven't given it any thought, playing up here. I love Oklahoma City. I love coming here and visiting."
Then again, Durant also said this when asked about James' decision to return to Cleveland and embrace all those "distractions."
"I thought it was well-thought out. It was classy," Durant said. "That was pretty cool. It's fun seeing guys think about more than just basketball for once. He thought about the city where he comes from, about Northeast Ohio and how he can affect so many of the kids just being there playing basketball. I love that. I love that. So many guys get criticized for making the decision that's best for them instead of what's best for everybody else. He's a guy that did that. You got to respect that."
And ... dammit, now I'm trying to read too much into Durant's words one way or the other.
ALSO, WHY WOULD HE LEAVE OKLAHOMA CITY?
Another fair question. The Thunder have yet to win a title, but are in a position to be in contention for the next decade. Even Russell Westbrook's biggest detractors have to admit he's about as good a sidekick as Durant will ever find. If Serge Ibaka doesn't get injured, the Thunder may have defeated the Spurs and won the Finals themselves this year. A starting lineup of Westbrook (27 in 2016), Reggie Jackson (25), Durant (27), Ibaka (26) and Steven Adams (22) is about as good as it gets if Durant values winning over all else.
That's true even if Durant doesn't win a title in the next two years, which is, of course, possible. The West remains loaded, but unless Kevin Love ends up in Golden State, it's still the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and everyone else. Among that trio, Oklahoma City has as good a shot as anyone. If Durant wins a title, that'll go a long way toward reinforcing the Thunder's on-court supremacy compared to his other options.
A title could work the opposite way too. Perhaps Durant will feel more comfortable leaving Oklahoma City knowing that he at least gave the city a title during his time there. We don't know.
But even as Durant has been vocal about praising D.C., he's also praised Okahoma City and his current teammates. You can't fake an MVP speech like this.
FINE. WHO'S GOING TO SIGN DURANT IN 2016?
Nope. I refuse to do this. Sorry.
YOU'VE JUST WASTED MY TIME
You can bury your heads in the sand and ignore this story. It's your right.
But it is a story, even if it's too early to make a prediction. NBA teams are already making plans to be in a position to sign Durant in 2016. The Thunder are thinking about what they have to do to keep Durant and Westbrook, who can leave a year later.
And while executives from other teams can't officially get in Durant's ear, there's nothing the NBA can do to police player-to-player contact. Wall has admitted on multiple occasions that he's already "informally" recruited Durant, including in an interview with USA Today's Sam Amick:
"To be with one of the top two best players in the league, in my opinion, who can score at will and do whatever he wants (would be great)," Wall said. "You could have a Big Three with me, him and Brad (Beal), and I feel like that's what you need to win a championship now is a Big Three. It'd be great to have him back home."
All of these stars are now together training for the FIBA World Cup, so it's easy to plant seeds. It happens, whether we like it or not. And thus, like it or not, Durant's free agency will continue to be a story for the next 23 months.
This is the way NBA free agency now works. We best start getting used to it.