On July 1, 2016, Kevin Durant will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his NBA career. He'll be free to break bread with folks from Madison Square Garden to STAPLES Center and everywhere in between. He'll hear detailed pitches on how teams intend to help him win championships, help him become a legend for all time, help him make ungodly sums of money. There will be expensive meals, there will be promises and there will be so much PowerPoint.
We know all this to be true. It's right there in the superstar free agent's textbook under how to make one of the biggest decisions of your career. You talk to everyone, even if you already know what you want.
Before we get to July, there's the small matter of the 2015-16 season. How these next 100 or so games go will surely affect how free agency proceeds. And this could go several different directions. Let us count the ways.
Don't laugh. The Thunder are amazing ... when healthy. They didn't make the playoffs last season, and rarely will a team jump from the lottery to the Finals. But this is a rare team. We even have a fair comparison of a lotto-to-Finals squad staring us in the face: the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers were awful in 2013-14, landed LeBron James and Kevin Love and nearly won the championship. The Thunder weren't that bad last season, but they had Durant for just 27 games (33 percent of the season) and both Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka missed double-digit games. The team still won 45 games and was a whisper from the playoffs. That shows the talent this club has in the cupboard.
So do these numbers. Over the past three regular seasons, the Thunder are 110-42 when Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are all available. That's a .724 winning clip, or the equivalent of a 59-win season. That's spectacular! Over the past three years, only five teams have won more than 59 games in a season, and one of those was the 2012-13 Thunder (60 wins). Winning that many gets you into elite company. Obviously, the projections are much less rosy when Durant or Westbrook are unavailable. The Thunder are 30-22 in all regular season games in which Westbrook is out over the past three seasons, and just 28-29 when Durant is out.
Of course, that's the regular season. To say Oklahoma City should have an excellent regular season is not that bold. What matters is what happens in the playoffs. Those numbers are even more striking. The Thunder are 12-7 when all three are available in the playoffs since 2012-13, and just 3-8 when any one of them are out. Since OKC missed the derby last year, this data covers the 2013 and 2014 postseasons.
When the core is healthy, the Thunder have been just fine in the playoffs. The key is getting to the end in one piece.
Oklahoma City has been a popular title pick in recent years for a reason: the Thunder are damn good, on par with recent champions from a talent and performance standpoint. OKC is not as popular a pick this season for various reasons. That could very well be an overcorrection if Durant is indeed healthy and new coach Billy Donovan assimilates to the pro game quickly. In Oklahoma City's last campaign before Durant hits free agency, there's still a strong chance KD could win a title with the Thunder. And if he does, that changes the July calculus immensely.
That said, the West is loaded. No one is really a favorite because the gauntlet is so imposing. The Spurs went to back-to-back Finals, had a down year and added flippin' LaMarcus Aldridge. The Warriors won 66 games and brought almost the entire roster back. The Clippers fixed their gaping hole -- the bench -- without losing anyone of much importance. The Rockets added an eight-figure point guard at essentially no cost. The Grizzlies added another good big man. This is an Odyssian challenge.
And then there are the Cavaliers, starring the man most responsible for keeping the Thunder narrowly short of their last major title run in 2012. LeBron James is the only basketball player in the world better than Durant, and should Oklahoma City manage to make the Finals and meet Cleveland, the story writes itself. LeBron, after all, had to leave Cleveland to win his first title. Imagine if LeBron keeps Durant from bringing the O'Brien to OKC this June. The narrative pressure bestowed upon KD by the Basketball Gods might be too overwhelming to snub.
We don't really know what Durant will do in any situation. But this is the most intriguing scenario. Getting close enough to taste the champagne will prove the Thunder can win the title as presently constructed. Yet ultimately failing even if everything breaks right might be enough to push KD for a fresh start elsewhere. "Close" really isn't good enough at this level.
Like we said, the gauntlet is imposing. Many felt the Spurs and Clippers were the second- and third-best teams in the league last year; neither made the conference finals. What if the Thunder make the playoffs but run up against a titan in the first or second round and exit early? What if this goes like 2010 went for Cleveland, when LeBron couldn't get the Cavaliers back to so much as the conference finals let alone close to the title? What if it becomes clear that the Thunder are no longer, as presently constructed, among the very best teams in the league?
What does Kevin Durant do then?
This is on the table, and it's not pretty. Misfortune has befallen the Thunder in recent years. The Westbrook injury in the 2013 playoffs cost them a shot at revenge on the Heat. Ibaka's absence completely changed their 2014 series with the Spurs and Durant's maladies last season ruined everything. No one can dispute that specific spites of fate have led to the Thunder's failure to return to the NBA Finals since 2012. But there's also the matter of James Harden.
Concerned with his ability to maintain a complete roster and avoid the luxury tax, GM Sam Presti traded Harden right before the 2012-13 season. It remains one of the most controversial, argumentative trades of the modern NBA. It's becoming impossible to defend given the heights Harden has reached in Houston, and especially given the salary cap explosion that renders concern over fitting the paychecks of staggered superstars irrelevant.
You can't exactly fault Presti for failing to see the future, but decisions have consequences and this is the decision on which Presti's OKC legacy will live and die. (The decisions to draft Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden should carry as much or more weight, but the Harden trade sticks out for obvious reasons.)
If the Thunder fall dramatically short of a championship in Durant's final year under contract, the Harden trade will take center stage and be front of mind as we dissect the future of the franchise. That will apply treble if Harden's Rockets eject the Thunder or get closer to glory. If we're thinking about the Harden trade and its impact on the eventual fate of the Thunder, we can be sure Durant and the people around Durant are thinking about it too. KD said all the right things when it went down (when does he not?) but Harden was his friend, a trusted teammate and a star-in-the-making. That the Thunder will have never again reached the heights they did that last season with Harden isn't entirely dependent is impossible to ignore.
There are a dozen other situations that could impact Durant's decision, from how the top suitors (like the Wizards) fare, whether the West powers show fallibility, how KD connects with Donovan. But all eyes are going to be on the Thunder precisely because what happens in Oklahoma City should be the single biggest factor in what happens in July. And this could go any which way.