In less than a week, the NBA will begin the best free agent period in sports. Fans love the frenzied pace and the wild dollar amounts on contracts, and this year especially, teams will be fighting for pieces of one of the best free agent classes in years. Players such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, and Kyrie Irving will demand max contract offers and will have teams lining up at their door for a chance to make their pitch to do just that. Even with this plethora of talent, perhaps the biggest fish in the pond is Kevin Durant. Though currently dealing with a ruptured Achilles, Durant is a former NBA champion, Finals MVP, and when healthy, may be the best player in the world today. But would it be in Durant’s best interest to enter into this year’s free agent class at all?
Durant has a player option in his contract that would allow him to exercise the right to stay with the Golden State Warriors next year at a salary of $31.5 million. Why might this make a lot of sense for Durant to consider? There are a variety of factors at play.
The biggest issue, obviously, is the Achilles injury itself. Even with modern medicine advancements, a ruptured Achilles could take anywhere from 6-12 months to properly heal and rehabilitate, especially to the point of allowing Durant to play in the NBA at the level we have been accustomed to seeing him play- a go-to scorer who can get his shot off from anywhere on the court and is capable of averaging thirty or more points per game, even in the playoffs. Some, perhaps even most, around the situation believe that Durant will not play at all next season due to the injury. If you are Durant, there are definitely benefits to rehabbing the injury with a training staff you are familiar with, in an area where you are already living, and making $31.5 million for the year in the meantime. If you had a lot of downtime to spare, would you rather do so in Brooklyn or California?
Along with rehab comes the questioning, by both NBA teams and probably Kevin Durant himself, of what kind of player Durant will be when he returns. Everyone would love to believe that Durant will come back 100% and ready to rule the league once again. You have to look no further than just this past season and what Kawhi Leonard did for a story of how a player can come back from a season ending injury the year before and perform at the highest level the next (thought I grant you that Kawhi’s injury may deserve a bit of an asterisk, but still). If Durant were to enter free agency this year, you would have to think the offers he would receive from clubs could reflect some sort of pause or contingency policies due to his injury. I’m sure he would still receive max offers, but perhaps they might not be for the amount of years he would like to see, or maybe it would include team options on the back end. I would think a guy who just saw his career flash before his eyes is looking for four or five more years of guaranteed money, not just two or three.
Imagine a scenario in which Durant takes the Warriors’ $31.5 million this year just to rehab. He gets himself healthy and on the practice court. Video starts to leak of Durant in the gym shooting and then eventually dominating 5 on 5 games like the Durantula of old. By the time we reach next July, what would those contract offers then look like as teams vie for a healthy and rested Kevin Durant? Heck, imagine what the Warriors might offer if they can re-sign Klay Thompson this summer and get a first-hand look at Durant’s rehab all year and are confident he is ready to go for 2020? Could he get $40 million per year? I think it’s a possibility.
Finally, also consider that the NBA salary cap will go up for the 2020-2021 season. Reports are that teams were informed this week that the 2020-2021 cap and luxury tax threshold would increase from initial estimates by $2 million. That might not seem like much, and probably wouldn’t affect the per year dollar amount Durant would garner, but it could still represent an additional contract that Durant’s new team could carry. It would make room for another solid veteran chasing a ring to sign on in a supporting role for one year with Durant at the lead. This is similar to the effect most thought LeBron would have on a new team when he entered free agency last year. That didn’t quite work out as Lakers fans had hoped, but I think players would be more agreeable to wanting to play with Durant as opposed to LeBron anyway.
Durant will command many suitors with high dollar contracts when free agency hits, regardless of his injury status. He’s just that good, and teams will be willing to take the risk. But when considering maximizing earning potential and the pursuit of another NBA championship, there is a possible upside to exercising his player option this season and taking the year to rehab his injury before entering free agency next summer.