On Tuesday, a reporter with fantastic access to the Warriors and a stellar reputation, The Athletic’s Marcus Thompson, suggested that at this early juncture, his best guess is that Kevin Durant will leave Golden State as a free agent in 2019. There’s no sourcing or public hints from Durant — just a vibe.
It’s not an isolated vibe. Folks without access or, uh, reputations have been seeing those same vibes percolate. The fact that Durant keeps signing 1-year deals with the Warriors, and that last season didn’t seem particularly fun for Golden State despite the fact that they were on their way to a second title with him, and the reality that Durant will never be as beloved in the Bay Area as Stephen Curry — this all adds up. And while only Durant — and probably not even him — knows, the read from the outside, the inside, everywhere is not that the two-time Finals MVP is there for the long haul.
But put reality aside for a second. Consider what the mere specter of Durant leaving the Warriors in July 2019 does to the rest of the league. Consider what it means that Durant’s impending exit could become conventional wisdom, and consider how that impacts other teams’ and players’ decisions.
The Rockets’ windows
The Houston Rockets are working on two different windows.
The first is based around Chris Paul’s production. CP3 is getting older (aren’t we all?) and has a history of knee injuries. Most expect that when Paul fades, he’ll fade fast. But he hasn’t faded yet! If the Rockets can squeeze two more years of All-NBA adjacent production out of him, and if Durant leaves the Warriors in the summer, that gives Houston a huge all-in target season of 2019-20 (assuming they fall short with KD on the Warriors in 2018-19).
The second window is really James Harden’s prime, which should extend further out. The specter of Durant’s departure could influence the Rockets — currently in the Jimmy Butler trade mix to some extent — to remain patient, knowing that the Warriors should get worse from 2019-20 on.
Everyone in Rockets’ leadership seems to desperately want to beat the Warriors now, and so long as you’re relying on CP3, going all-in right now makes sense. But if Durant is decamping in a year, perhaps it makes sense to be a little more patient. Whatever the final decision — if there’s even a decision to make — vibes around Durant’s future matter in the calculus.
The Lakers’ push
By all indications, the L.A. Lakers are comfortable playing out this season with a motley crew of veterans and youngsters around LeBron James. But the season hasn’t really started. It remains to be seen whether LeBron will be perfectly copacetic with the roster as it stands come December and January, or whether he will influence Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to improve the team at the deadline.
The Lakers, of course, have lots of salary cap space on deck in 2019 and figure to be a major Durant suitor. If the vibes that KD will leave Golden State continue to strengthen, and if L.A. picks up any vibes Durant would be interested in joining LeBron next summer, the Lakers have to push pause on any midseason roster moves that affect the salary cap sheet and the prospect of adding an MVP.
It can be dangerous to get caught waiting on a wisp of a dream, and LeBron’s window is not going to be open forever. But sheesh, it’s really attractive to be patient for a chance at Durant.
Remember when Durant seriously considered joining the Celtics in 2016? If Boston for some reason falls short of the NBA Finals, and the Warriors win another ring, and Durant is looking to prove he’s the reason Golden State racked up a three-peat, why wouldn’t he strongly consider the Celtics again? He’d be the unquestioned best player on the roster, he’d make Boston instant title favorites, and he’d be in position to do what few legends have: win titles with multiple franchises.
All of the Boston superstar addition focus is on Anthony Davis, but finding a way to bring in Durant would be a perfectly Aingian coup in 2019.
Perhaps the most alluring wisp of a thought that stems from vibes surrounding Durant’s potential exit is that it could create a free agency feeding frenzy a la 2010.
LeBron was an unrestricted free agent going into 2010, as were a handful of other stars (including Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki, Carlos Boozer [shh he was a star, this was before he started painting his head], and Yao Ming). There were vibes that LeBron would be leaving Cleveland if the Cavaliers didn’t break through and win the title, and something like half of the league shuffled its cards to try to get in the mix for him and other top free agents.
Expiring contracts became some of the most valuable assets in the league before the trade deadline. It was the first time I remember a wide swath of reporters and analysts openly discussing max salary slots. It’s when the idea of package deals for superstars became omnipresent.
Let’s get that back!
Kyrie Irving has more or less committed to the Celtics, but Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, and other big names will be free agents in 2019, along with Durant. Since the Warriors seem relatively inevitable (is relative inevitability possible?) as NBA champions, this can be our focus for the year: July. It worked in 2010. No one actually remembers what dreadful NBA franchise won the title, or who won the Finals MVP by shooting 6-24 in Game 7. But everyone remembers The Decision.
Even if Durant eventually decides to stay with the Warriors as they move across the Bay to San Francisco, the mere idea he won’t will loom large as we move through the season. For now, maybe that’s enough.