CHICAGO – The NBA Finals still is the big story in basketball, and it will be for the next week or so no matter the conclusion.
Can the Golden State Warriors finish off the greatest winning season in NBA history?
Will Stephen Curry continue to amaze?
Will LeBron James get in the way?
Can he finally win a championship for Cleveland?
It’s a series of wonderful stories and potential dramatic outcomes.
But once it ends, the story of the NBA will be the free agency of Kevin Durant.
And since LeBron technically can be a free agent-though no one has generally considered the possibility-would he again gather his talents in a suitcase.
The conventional wisdom has been James cannot afford to leave Cleveland again and potentially wreck his “brand” and popularity. At least until he leads the Cavs to that elusive first NBA championship.
But what if it occurs to James — and assuming the Cavs lose to the Warriors — that he cannot win with the team he has around him with the defensive-challenged Kevin Love and isolation-oriented and injury-prone Kyrie Irving?
Does legacy triumph loyalty?
The most popular theory is Durant, who never has tested the free agency waters in the NBA, will remain one more season with the Oklahoma City Thunder after they came within one game of the finals after having a 3-1 lead over the Warriors. He would sign a two-year deal, as James does, with an opt out after one season.
With the salary cap growing exponentially these next two summers, Durant could sign a contract with the Thunder for more than $200 million after next season vs. about $150 million this summer. He’s closing a $100 million contract, so he has plenty of money.
So wait, right?
Take one more shot in Oklahoma City?
But the way the Thunder faded those last three games against the Warriors suggests perhaps the same situation LeBron faces: The Thunder may not be good enough. And, similarly, because of the mismatch at point guard with Russell Westbrook.
As happened the last several years, as soon as the pressure mounted, Durant and Westbrook reverted to isolation play, poor shots and shooting percentages. While Westbrook gets a lot of assists, they’re mostly from passing to Durant and standing around. He doesn’t involve the team much, similar to Irving.
So go to Golden State to win a title?
It’s been much rumored about Durant, but I’m sure that’s the last place Durant would sign.
You can only look bad with the Warriors. Even if the team wins a title, they’re not winning 74 games. The Warriors may be the worst team for a major free agent because you can only look like you’ve ruined the chemistry short of a championship. It’s like the 76ers being the best coaching job next season: No way you can be worse and you would have to be unconscious to not be much, much better.
One theory floating around regarding Durant if he wants to move on is to inform the Thunder, and then have them trade him to the Los Angeles Clippers for Blake Griffin, an Oklahoma native and the state’s most popular player after Durant and Westbrook.
Then the Thunder get something, and something pretty good. Plus, Griffin’s relationship with the Clippers has suffered with his fight with a team employee and subsequent suspension.
Perhaps LeBron tries the same thing (or at least tells management to) and the Cavs offer Love for Durant so the Thunder remain close to whole.
LeBron actually might be a great fit with Durant because unlike Westbrook, LeBron at his age more wants to pass and scores more out of necessity. It’s not quite the Allen Iverson 2001 model in Philadelphia. But I believe Durant needs more of that sort of team with everyone looking to defend, rebound and get the ball back to him in the Iverson/Durant model. Durant’s so much better a shooter and scorer than Westbrook. But because Westbrook shoots so much, Durant has to take so many tough shots. Imagine if someone were actually looking to set him up?
Though LeBron was condemned for leaving Cleveland in 2010, he did want to stay. He just knew he needed more talent. He tried to persuade Chris Bosh and then Amare Stoudemire to sign with the Cavs. Neither wanted to live in Cleveland, which isn’t a big surprise as it comes with brutal weather, a sagging center city and limited cultural options.
LeBron knew the clock was ticking down on his chance to win championships and assure his basketball legacy, and Durant now going into his 10th NBA season faces the same dilemma. Time is running out to be a champion, which is the dividing line for true sporting immortality.
Durant has been criticized under the notion of fraternizing for spending several summers in recent years working out together with James. They are friends.
Would they get together and go somewhere else?
There’s so much money now for free agents that numerous teams could take on two free agents. And several could dump players — like the Lakers did in 1996 to create cap room to sign Shaquille O’Neal — to provide enough financial space for the two superstars.
The Lakers could do it with Kobe Bryant off the books. The Nets might be able to do it. Same with the Celtics.
After all, it was Danny Ainge who pulled the big coup to add Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
The Wizards could probably do it by giving away Marcin Gortat.
With so many teams having cap space and not enough top free agents to go around, many teams would grab players like that. The Bulls had to in 2010 to create more cap space to make a run at James. So they gave the Washington Wizards Kirk Hinrich and threw in a No. 1 draft choice for them to take him.
LeBron may see his waning years in Cleveland with no way to win another. Durant could likewise worry about wasting his prime.
Could two of the game’s greatest stars align next season?
The NBA is the league of stars. That’s where stuff like this happens.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”