Warriors, Come out to play.
How exactly did Kevin Durant’s free agency play out?
In 1986, the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was released. If you haven’t seen it (spoiler alert), allow me to explain the gist of the plot. Admiral James T. Kirk and his crew have found a resurrected Spock and intend to return home to Earth. However, Earth is being blocked by a mysterious probe that will only answer to the call of a now-extinct humpback whale. The crew then decides to travel back in time, using Earth as a slingshot (because Superman did it too), to catch a whale and return home. They are successful but they now find themselves in San Francisco era 1986. A freak set of circumstances has led the crew of the Enterprise (they actually fly a Vulcan bird-of-prey…what, too nerdy?) to this impossible situation.
Fast forward 30 years later, It’s happened again. Kevin Durant is James T. Kirk.
A freak set of circumstance has led the roster of the Golden State Warriors to a previously impossible outcome. They had four All-NBA players, they had another who was a former All-Star. They had the only rookie coach to win a title and had five as a player. They had an executive with a history of winning seven NBA titles and one as a player. And now they have Durant.
There are 10 key factors, all of which I will try to explain:
- The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement
- The Rose Rule
- The Harden Trade
- Steph Curry’s ankles
- Golden State’s draft record
- Russell Westbrook
- LeBron James and the ten-year player max
- Al Horford & Serge Ibaka
- The rise of the NBA salary cap
- Jerry West
The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement
(thanks to cbafaq.com)
It’s the legal contract between the league and the players association that sets up the rules by which the league operates. The CBA defines the salary cap, the procedures for determining how it is set, the minimum and maximum salaries, the rules for trades, the procedures for the NBA draft, and hundreds of other things that need to be defined in order for a league like the NBA to function. After a players lockout, the salary cap was set for the 2011–12 season for $58.044 million. The salary cap is set by how much basketball related income is coming into the league, i.e television rights, ticket receipts, team revenue, naming rights. Therefore the more income, the higher the cap. That fact will prove to be key later on.
The Rose Rule
(aka the 5th year 30% max rule)
How much of that salary cap can be spent on one particular player is decided by how long they have played in the league. If it’s up to 6 years, they can get 25%. Anywhere between 7–9 years will get them 30% and once you reach 10 years, you can receive 35%. This is called a max deal as it is always the maximum any team can pay you and stay under the cap. There is an exception though which came into effect in 2011. It’s called the Rose Rule, after the 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose. After achieving so much whilst still on his rookie contract it was decided that if a player accomplished one of the following criteria like he did, they would receive 30% of the cap in their fifth year instead of their seventh.
- Named to an All-NBA team at least twice
- Voted in as a started in the All-Star game at least twice or
- Named the NBA Most Valuable Player at least once.
Kevin Durant was grandfathered into the “5th year 30% max” rule because although he signed a contract extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder before the 2011 CBA, he met the criteria. (He was First-Team All-NBA twice before the CBA). Now, it gets stranger. Even though Durant was now eligible for 30%, instead of 25%, the Thunder can negotiate anywhere between those two. For example, 5 years, 27% could have been agreed. But the NBA didn’t give the Thunder that option, they were forced to give Durant the full 30%.
The Harden Trade
(aka the “let’s ruin a dynasty” trade)
Let’s pretend you own the Thunder.
It’s 2012, your team consists of a young corps of Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook & Serge Ibaka and you’ve just been bounced from the NBA Finals by the Miami Heat dream team. The important fact is your team made the finals in the first place and it looks like you can run the table for the next decade. However, there are several catches. You’re paying KD 30% of your cap, you’ve just signed Russell Westbrook to a five year contract extension because he’s going to qualify for the Rose Rule. Serge Ibaka is entering the last year of his rookie deal, so you sign him to a four year $49 million extension, this has led to your team being forced to pay the luxury tax because you are over the salary cap and if you continue to stay over then you’ll be forced to pay a repeater tax. Oh, I almost forgot, your ownership group consists of oil tycoons from Chesapeake Energy who have lost most of their money thanks to the ongoing financial crisis.
This all leaves you with one simple question, Pretend Owner.
Do you keep Harden?
James Harden was NBA Sixth Man of the Year but he hadn’t made an All-Star appearance or been voted onto an All-NBA team. He was also entering the last year of his rookie contract and the Thunder had failed to offer him an adequate extension. This was partly due to their cap issues and if they resigned Ibaka and Harden in 2012, they would be paying the repeater tax right now regardless of Durant’s departure. There were options in hindsight, they could’ve traded Ibaka or they could’ve amnestied some of their older players but they would have to throw good money after bad and that wasn’t an option at time. The Thunder viewed Harden as expendable and the Houston Rockets pounced on the opportunity and then locked up Harden with the max extension that Oklahoma couldn’t provide. Unfortunately for OKC, the returns weren’t great. They got two first round picks which turned into Steven Adams, who looks like a solid frontcourt player, and Mitch McGary, who doesn’t. They main pieces were Jeremy Lamb & Kevin Martin but neither one of them was able to adequately fill the shooting guard void in Oklahoma. The Thunder went from being an all-time great team to a really good team that just needed one more star.
Steph Curry’s ankles
(aka “The best contract in the NBA”)
Meanwhile, in Oakland. Their star point guard is having his own Rose-like problems, except these were more of the “I can’t stay on the court” variety as opposed to “I want 30%”. Steph Curry was nowhere near his current level yet and, in 2012, he too was entering the final year of his rookie contract. Sadly, recurring issues with his ankles had prevented him from starting most of the 2011–12 season. In fact, he only started 23 games. As such, when Golden State offered him a four year $44 million extension, it was seen as a fair representation of his standing in the league. For comparison, Chandler Parsons only started 51 games due to injury last season and just signed a four year $94 million contract with Memphis.
This is the definition of freak circumstances.
Since then, Curry has reeled off three straight All-Star appearances, three straight All-NBA appearances, back-to-back MVP awards, four straight postseasons, an NBA title, made approximately 402 three-pointers last year (an NBA record) and he hasn’t started in less than 78 games since.
Steph Curry has not just over performed the value of his own contract, he has over performed every other contract in the NBA. Most importantly, it gave the Warriors just enough wiggle room with their salary cap to negotiate with Kevin Durant in free agency in 2016.
Golden State’s draft record
(specifically the 2012 NBA draft)
One of the best, if not the best, drafts for an NFL team was the 1974 draft for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They drafted four future Hall-of-Famers in the first five rounds. Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth & Mike Webster. It would be hard for an NBA team to try and replicate that success as the NBA draft only has two rounds. But Golden State came pretty damn close in 2012.
Thanks to a lost season in 2011–12 (mostly due to Curry’s aforementioned absence), they had the 7th overall pick which they used to take a small forward from North Carolina called Harrison Barnes. Then, with the last pick in the first round they picked up Festus Ezeli, a Nigerian center (Hakeem the Dream would be proud). Finally, in the second round, normally an afterthought, they gambled on a forward from Michigan State, Draymond Green.
Overnight, Golden State had created the nucleus of a championship team that would also go on to break the NBA regular season record for wins. And they did it on rookie contracts that gave Golden State the flexibility to renounce Harrison Barnes, waive Ezeli and pay Draymond to be the poster child of their smallball system of play. A system that attracted the attention of Kevin Durant and will have given him the confidence that the Warriors know how to build a contender.
(specifically his contract situation)
Back in Oklahoma City, their team had stalled. The Thunder couldn’t get past a resurgent San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals. At least though, Kevin Durant was named the 2013–14 NBA MVP and was the undisputed face of the franchise. Then, KD broke his foot. Multiple issues with his surgery and recovery allowed us to see what a Westbrook-led team could look like in 2014–15. Multiple triple-doubles from Russell during the season almost single-handedly got OKC into the playoffs but they were pipped to the post by Anthony Davis and New Orleans. It was a lost season but it proved to the league that Westbrook’s free agency a year after Durant’s in 2016 was just as important to OKC’s future. If Westbrook could be lured away after a year, would it make sense for Durant to stay? Or perhaps if Westbrook did commit, then Kevin would try and avoid a battle for the leadership of the team. As a result their situations were now entwined, one decision would make the other.
(specifically, pun intended, his decisions)
Kevin Durant’s free agency in 2016 was the most anticipated since LeBron’s “The Decision” in 2010 when he decided to take his talents to South Beach and form a superteam with Dwyane Wade & Chris Bosh. By doing so, LeBron created the era of the player option. The idea is simple, why sign a long-term extension at the current market price when I can opt out of my contract when the salary cap increases and I can evaluate my options and get paid more. James, Bosh & Wade synced up their contracts so they’d all be free agents in 2010. Now, LeBron has returned home to Cleveland and syncs up his contract with the rising salary cap. No one has better utilized free agency than LeBron James. As a ten-year+ veteran as well, he qualifies for 35% of the salary cap. A fact that has not gone unnoticed by Kevin Durant. KD could have signed a four year max with Golden State or a five year max with OKC, but he opted instead for an opt out. A two year deal with a player option so after this year he can go back into free agency as a ten-year player and get 35% of a salary cap that is set to rise even further. The Warriors needed to bring in Durant to match up against LeBron after the Cavaliers beat them in this year’s finals. Their hope is to bounce back and reclaim the title with KD and then resign him to potentially the biggest contract in the history of the NBA.
Al Horford & Serge Ibaka
(aka the fake reason)
We have now reached the NBA gossip portion. Before free agency, is the NBA Draft and OKC general manager Sam Presti is nothing if not proactive when it comes to the draft. His key trio are all either a free agent or going to be next year, so he decides that he can’t be held hostage by their contract situations. He promptly trades Ibaka to Orlando for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova & the draft rights to Domantas Sabonis. Therotically, he now has a shooting guard to pair with Westbrook and can play with a frontcourt of Kevin Durant (if he stays), Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. OKC is happy with the trade but is Durant? Remember he grew up with Harden & Ibaka, not to mention Westbrook might leave too. So now we enter free agency and it kicks off from day one. Hassan Whiteside is off the board immediately, he’s staying in Miami which also takes them out of the Durant sweepstakes. The Atlanta Hawks panic and sign Howard which makes Al Horford, also a free agent, unhappy. Horford is being recruited by several teams including Oklahoma City so he tries to call Westbrook and/or Durant to find out if they are commited to the Thunder. If so, the Thunder might add Horford to an already strong team. But Al can’t get an answer from either player and promptly commits to the Celtics. Suddenly, Horford is now trying to recruit Durant to Boston, maybe he knows Durant is on the way out and the rumor mill starts about a Jimmy Butler trade to the Celtics and a potential “new big three”. Durant turns down Boston, despite Tom Brady’s best efforts, and shocks the world by taking his talents to Northern California. However, if we play the “what if” game, would KD have turned down the chance to play with Westbrook and Horford? Maybe if Ibaka hadn’t been traded, none of this would’ve happened?
If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me
The Rise of the Salary Cap
(aka the real reason)
The more income, the higher the cap. In 2011, the salary cap was $58.044 million. Since then, interest in the NBA is at an all time high, thanks to the appeal of players like Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. Last season, the salary cap was $70 million. For the 2016–17, the cap is set at $94.143 million. There has never been a better time to be a free agent. Kevin Durant avoided the 5 year max that only Oklahoma City could provide. Instead, he’ll be a free agent next year and he’ll get 35% of the cap.
(aka the most obvious reason)
Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder had the Warriors (the reigning champs) on the ropes. They were up three games to one and just needed to win Game 5 at home to make only their second NBA Finals. Then Klay Thompson happened and the Dubs won in seven. Golden State are such a scary opponent because they have Steph Curry, who is the greatest shooter of all time and Klay Thompson, who might be second. Golden State didn’t see a need for him because of that very fact. Why draft Klay when you have Steph? Luckily, they had Jerry West in the draft room that day and he told them one fact:
“He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen”
Jerry West knew what he was talking about. As the general manger of the Los Angeles Lakers, he was responsible for creating “Showtime” with Kareem Abdul-Jabber, James Worthy & Magic Johnson in the 1980s. Then in 1996, he traded for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant and convinced the biggest name in free agency to take his talents to Hollywood, Shaquille O’Neal.
Fast forward 20 years later and it’s happened again. Jerry West is Spock
He might be semi-retired, but he has resurrected those recruitment skills. The narrative after OKC lost to Golden State was that they were so close, that Durant had to stay and try to win it next year. However, Jerry West knows two things, talent and pain. He lost eight NBA Finals, including one in 1969 when West was named as the only Finals MVP who played for the losing team. He called Durant and changed the narrative.
You weren’t so close, you were as close as you are going to get.
In order for Kevin Durant to get over the hump of winning the title. He needs to go to San Francisco and find the humpback whale.
(all player stats were from basketball-reference.com)