Monday, May 8, 2017
Kevin Durant’s Second Big Decision
If we can be honest with ourselves as we approach the midway point of the second round of the NBA playoffs, things have gone almost completely according to plan thus far.
In the first round, there was only one minor upset according to the odds, with Utah beating the Clippers in seven games, and even that was a toss-up at best for L.A. after Blake Griffin went down during Game 3. While favorites like Toronto and Boston got off to very shaky starts in their first series, the better overall teams eventually prevailed.
Thus far in round two, Boston and Washington has been a physical but offense-heavy series, like it was pulled out of the 1980s, but with significantly more three-point attempts. Houston and San Antonio looks like it could be the clash of the playoffs, a stylistic battle royale between offense and defense.
But most importantly, there's been nothing to convince anyone that we aren't on a collision course for a third-straight Warriors/Cavaliers NBA Finals. As of writing time, before Game 3 of the Jazz/Warriors series, neither Cleveland nor Golden State has dropped a single game in the playoffs, which have now been going on for three weeks.
The most dramatic moments in this playoff round for the teams prohibitively likely to face Golden State and Cleveland in their respective Conference Finals aren't likely to occur for another several days. So, I'd like to focus on something that will be decided in the offseason that isn't being talked about much, but could change the face of the league's current top team as much as anything in the past year did.
Last year at this time, it felt like the only pending personnel issue that anyone wanted to talk about was Kevin Durant's pending free agency.
A year later, after Durant signed a two-year contract with Golden State with an opt-out after the first year, he could become a free agent again. If he opts out, he could re-sign with Golden State for five years and more than $200 million under the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement
Let's take a step back and realize that Durant is probably not going anywhere. He's made comments in reference to last year's free agency courtships like, "I'm not going through that again."
Yet, his decision could be the difference between Golden State continuing to dominate the NBA for years to come, or having a bare-bones team around the Warriors' four all-stars.
This summer, assuming Durant opts out, four of Golden State's top eight rotation players are going to be free agents, with Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston all reaching the end of their contracts.
However, if Golden State wants to lockdown Durant for half a decade longer under a full max contract, it would have to carve out $36 million in cap space for the 2017-18 season since the Warriors don't own full or partial Bird rights on Durant that would enable them to go over the cap to keep K.D. The Warriors could still keep their four all-stars together and sign Curry to the same max as Durant, but it would mean surrounding the quartet with as many as eight or nine minimum salaries or rookie contracts, plus one or two possible spots for signings in the $4 million per year salary range. That's about the salary level that journeyman players like Greivis Vasquez, Devin Harris, and Derrick Williams were paid in 2016-17, with a salary cap not as high as next season's $100+ million number.
The Vertical's cap whiz, Bobby Marks, has a great explainer on this conundrum for the Warriors if you're interested in the cap math.
If we can be honest with ourselves, Durant and Curry are probably worth far more than $35-45 million a year, and they'll each deserve every penny of their new contracts when you compare the amount of revenues that the NBA makes and look at the value of each player to their team's success. However, the league's cap dynamics mean there's an artificial cap on their salaries. That max salary, mind you, also allowed Golden State to have the opportunity to put together the super-team that included Durant.
However, if Durant wants to take about $4-5 million less than the max next year, he could be signed using non-Bird rights, which allow a player to come back to a team after one year of service, for 120 percent of the previous year's salary. Then, Warriors could re-sign Curry, Iguodala and Livingston regardless of cap space with their full Bird rights.
I won't ever be the type of fan or writer who tells an athlete he needs to take less money for the team, and I especially won't do so for someone who will likely retire as one of the 20 best players to ever play the game. If Durant wants to come back to the Warriors and be paid max, he will.
But a lot sure rests on his choice, doesn't it?
If he demands max, and the Warriors have to use cap space, it means they'd essentially be four stars and 11 players from the bargain bin, or force players like Iggy and Livingston to sign for well below their worth.
Who knows what would follow from that kind of roster? But it would be hard to see the Warriors having such a gaudy record and being so unstoppable with so many league-average (or worse) players, though.
If he takes the 20 percent raise, it means the four all-stars could all come back, plus the league's best all-around bench player in Iguodala and an integral part of their yearly 60-win nucleus since 2015 in Livingston.
From the players' and front office's point of view, it sounds like the plan to keep everyone around this summer may have actually been hatched when courting Durant last summer.
If that's the case, fans of 29 other teams better hope that there's a change of heart somewhere along the line. Otherwise, Golden State may be just as good as they are now for several more years to come.