An Analysis of Kevin Durant’s Free Agency Decision

There is much controversy over whether Kevin Durant should leave OKC and if so, what team he best fits with. In evaluating what makes the most sense for him I’d like to cut through emotional clutter and start with objectives:

  • To be rated among the best ever, a basketball player needs to win championships – which is why LeBron James left Cleveland originally and why Bill Russell (8 championships) usually gets rated above Wilt Chamberlain (2 championships) despite the fact that Wilt was clearly a much more complete player and why you don’t typically see the great Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson or Elgin Baylor (all 0 championships) getting ranked that high among the greatest players of the century .
  • When you win championships, people soon forget how stacked your team may or may not have been – LeBron is sometimes referred to as a failure in his first Cleveland stint despite taking the worst team in the league to the NBA finals and few talk about how good Michael Jordan’s supporting cast was in making the playoffs even when he was playing baseball instead of basketball.
  • I believe Durant understands that and his primary objective is to win championships so that he can rank higher among the greats.

How can he best accomplish that?

  • Kevin Durant could stay in OKC because of the emotional concept that it’s “his team” and he should not abandon them. The idea being that helping them win is somehow better than helping someone else win. If he does, his chance of winning a championship would be less than 12.5% (1 in 8) since they would probably need to beat San Antonio, Golden State and Cleveland and it’s hard to rate them as favorites in any of those matchups.
  • If Durant went to Golden State they would likely win the Western Conference again and have an easier schedule than a Durant led OKC could have in the playoffs. They are already the favorite to win the title even without Durant and the odds of them winning would increase significantly should they land him. Golden State is also a perfect fit for him as it plays a team game that would improve the quality of his shot opportunities. How does a team simultaneously double team Durant, Curry and Thompson? So not only would this increase his chance of winning, it also would likely increase his shooting percent and his assists.
  • The other team that he could pick with the best opportunity to win would be Cleveland but there is no cap space there and it’s unlikely that this would be a fit.
  • The third strong opportunity is San Antonio. While this would be a fit, the path to a title would not be as likely as Golden State or Cleveland because several key players are aging. However, adding Durant would create a strong trio that could challenge Golden State and possibly would be favored over them. But not the overwhelmingly favorites that the Warriors would be with Durant. Also going from one small market to another would not add the media draw that would lead to maximizing endorsement income.
  • Although there are rumors of Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Houston and Miami also courting Durant, none of these teams would solve any of his objectives. None would give him a high probability of winning a championship and would solve even less for the emotional component of the decision.
  • The question that was rattling around all year was “Why would the Warriors want Durant.” The answer is obvious and even more obvious after their game 7 loss – he will make them better. Adding one of the 5 best players in basketball, who shoots for a high percentage, plays defense well and is team oriented makes any team better.
  • What about the argument that adding Durant would use up so much cap space that the Warriors would need to shed other key players? I agree that they would not be able to keep Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli. But the reality is that Ezeli is not a key player and they should not match the high price he is likely to get in the free market, regardless of whether or not they get Durant. By Durant (and in the future Curry) taking less than a max salary, the Warriors could make sure that they kept Iguodala and Livingston plus all starters (including Andrew Bogut) other than Barnes. The rest of the team could be filled in and I would predict the Warriors could attract others who are willing to take lower salaries in order to be on a championship team. So, I suspect the remainder of the supporting cast will be as good as this year. If Durant is willing to take a salary that enables keeping the 6 key players mentioned, then he will maximize his chance of winning a title. When the cap goes up next year, he and Curry could take higher, but not maximum, salaries so that the team around them could continue to include Iguodala and Livingston.
  • What about the argument that Durant should maximize his compensation? My answer is that he will maximize his compensation by taking a lower salary and going to the Warriors because his endorsement money will increase by far more than any salary he forgoes since he would be playing on the highest profile team in a major market and winning championships. To quantify the opportunity, Michael Jordan made more in 2015 from endorsements (12 years after his last retirement) than he did in all 15 years in NBA earnings. Curry is already proving that and can easily take a lower than max salary when his contract expires in another year as his endorsements will dwarf his salary. And winning more championships will only increase all the key players’ outside revenue dramatically.

 

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