The Du­rant sweep­stakes

Wizards think they can lure su­per­star — but there’s plenty of oth­ers who do, too

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY JORGE CASTILLO

LAS VE­GAS — With free agency all but com­plete by the time the NBA con­vened in Las Ve­gas for sum­mer league this month, the in­dus­try peered for­ward. It is eval­u­at­ing the next crop of rook­ies mak­ing their pro­fes­sional de­buts, pre­dict­ing the sea­son set to launch in three months and spec­u­lat­ing about the prized pos­ses­sion in the free agent class of 2016.

That is when Kevin Du­rant, one of the world’s premier play­ers, will be­come a free agent for the first time in his ca­reer. The Ok­la­homa City Thun­der for­ward will draw fevered in­ter­est from big and small mar­kets, from coast to coast, from peren­nial win­ners to starved losers. But only one fran­chise can of­fer a re­turn home.

The Washington Wizards have metic­u­lously pre­pared for the op­por­tu­nity to coax Du­rant, born in the Dis­trict and a prod­uct of Mon­trose Chris­tian School, to Washington once the clock strikes mid­night on July 1, 2016. But the court­ing of Du­rant, 26, will be wildly com­pet­i­tive: Thanks to the com­ing flood of money from a new tele­vi­sion con­tract that will kick in next July, a bevy of fran­chises will have the salary cap space to of­fer the max­i­mum pos­si­ble con­tract to Du­rant, the 2014 league MVP. Other teams are only a cou­ple

moves from get­ting in the mix. It could be­come a free-for-all, rais­ing the risks of go­ing all in for one player.

“The one thing I know about my brother is he wants to win,” said Damion James, Du­rant’s best friend and a mem­ber of the Wizards’ sum­mer league team. “He’ll do what­ever it takes to win. Who­ever gives him the best chance to win is where he’s go­ing to end up.”

Des­ti­na­tion un­known

Pre­dict­ing what Du­rant will do a year from now is, ul­ti­mately, fu­tile. In­juries can punc­ture ros­ters, locker rooms can de­te­ri­o­rate and re­sults can sting over the next 12 months. The re­cent move­ment of mar­quee free agents is ev­i­dence.

Two years ago, no­body pic­tured LeBron James bolt­ing Mi­ami. One year ago, no­body en­vi­sioned LaMar­cus Aldridge, this sum­mer’s top free agent ac­qui­si­tion, leav­ing Port­land. Just a lit­tle more than a week ago, DeAn­dre Jor­dan stunned and cap­ti­vated the in­dus­try by re­turn­ing to the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers af­ter he had ver­bally com­mit­ted to the Dal­las Mav­er­icks. And Du­rant keeps things close to the vest— in 2010, he an­nounced his five-year con­tract ex­ten­sion with the Thun­der on Twit­ter.

In ad­di­tion to the Wizards, the Mav­er­icks, Los An­ge­les Lak­ers, Mi­ami Heat, New York Knicks and Brook­lyn Nets are ex­pected to be among the fran­chises most ag­gres­sively court­ing Du­rant. But the Thun­der is thought to be the fa­vorite be­cause of the bond Du­rant has es­tab­lished with the fran­chise since he was se­lected sec­ond over­all in 2007, and be­cause the team al­ready boasts one of the NBA’s best ros­ters.

Rus­sell West­brook is a fright­en­ing triple-dou­ble ma­chine. Serge Ibaka is the pro­to­typ­i­cal cen­ter of the fu­ture — a rim pro­tec­tor with three-point range. Enes Kan­ter, re­cently signed to a four-year, $70 mil­lion con­tract as a re­stricted free agent, is a de­fen­sive li­a­bil­ity but can score in the post. There are other solid com­ple­men­tary pieces such as bruis­ing cen­ter Steven Adams, Du­rant’s col­lege team­mate D. J. Au­gustin, three-point spe­cial­ist An­thony Mor­row and the com­bustible Dion Wait­ers. The Thun­der can also of­fer Du­rant more money than any other team.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine him leav­ing that sit­u­a­tion,” said a Western Con­fer­ence ex­ec­u­tive, who spoke un­der con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause league tam­per­ing rules bar dis­cussing po­ten­tial free agents who are still un­der con­tract with another team. “That team is loaded. If they can stay healthy, they’re cham­pi­onship fa­vorites.”

Ok­la­homa City is one of the NBA’s small­est mar­kets, a fac­tor that would’ve re­pelled a player of Du­rant’s cal­iber just a few years ago. But tech­nol­ogy has al­tered the NBA ter­rain. No longer does a player need to play in a me­trop­o­lis to be­come a su­per­star and pro­cure endorsement dol­lars.

Ev­ery game is avail­able to any­one, any­where. High­lights are in­stantly ac­ces­si­ble on the In­ter­net. So­cial media is re­plete with NBA fandom. Du­rant, a Nike pil­lar, and West­brook, a fash­ion im­pre­sario of sorts, are two poster boys of the shift. The fact that Aldridge spurned a meet­ing with the Knicks and turned down the Lak­ers to sign this month with the San An­to­nio Spurs seemed to so­lid­ify the change.

But there will be pres­sure on the Thun­der next sea­son af­ter in­juries doomed their 2014-15 cam­paign. Du­rant missed 55 games with a frac­tured right foot that re­quired three surg­eries in six months — a trou­ble­some de­vel­op­ment, par­tic­u­larly for the play­ing fu­ture of a man who stands 6 feet 11.

Ibaka missed 18 games. West­brook missed 15. The re­sult was a ninth-place fin­ish in the bru­tal Western Con­fer­ence and the team’s first non-play­off year since 2009. Scott Brooks was fired as coach and Billy Dono­van was hired from Florida to over­see an or­ga­ni­za­tion that has won 66 per­cent of its reg­u­lar sea­son over the last six cam­paigns but has only one NBA Fi­nals ap­pear­ance to show for it.

“I don’t know, man. We have to see,” said Damion James, who was part of Du­rant’s col­lege re­cruit­ing class at Texas and added that Du­rant’s foot is “great” af­ter re­cently train­ing with him. “He has a great team out there in Ok­la­homa City with Rus­sell and those guys. So we’ll see. He’s got to get through this sea­son. He’s go­ing to make the right de­ci­sion. But he’s so fo­cused on com­ing back and show­ing the world that he’s bet­ter than when he left since he broke his foot.”

The Wizards’ case

Ev­ery Wizards per­son­nel de­ci­sion over the past two years has been ex­e­cuted with the silent but pre­cise ob­jec­tive of bal­anc­ing progress in the short term with hav­ing the means to re­cruit Du­rant and be­come peren­nial ti­tle chasers in the fu­ture.

Fi­nan­cial flex­i­bil­ity has been a box to check be­fore any other, and a fer­vent fan base has greeted the strat­egy with a mix of ex­hausted im­pa­tience and des­per­ate an­tic­i­pa­tion.

The Wizards filled their 15man ros­ter Mon­day when they for­mally re-signed Drew Gooden III to a one-year con­tract. Bar­ring a trade or re­lease, the move con­cludes the team’s mod­est off­sea­son ac­tiv­ity. Gen­eral­Man­ager Ernie Grun­feld and his lieu­tenants re­mained pa­tient. They stuck to their plan.

Ev­ery player the Wizards have ac­quired since the Fe­bru­ary trade dead­line — Ra­mon Ses­sions, Jared Dud­ley, Alan An­der­son, Gary Neal and Gooden — will have his con­tract ex­pire in time for the Sum­mer of Du­rant. Paul Pierce left for the Clip­pers in free agency a cou­ple weeks ago af­ter Washington re­fused to of­fer him a con­tract with two guar­an­teed years. The only play­ers cur­rently guar­an­teed money from the Wizards for the 2016-17 sea­son are John Wall ($15.7 mil­lion), Marcin Gor­tat ($12 mil­lion), Martell Web­ster ($2.5 mil­lion) and Kelly Oubre Jr. ($2 mil­lion), though Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. are ex­pected to be re­tained as well. With the salary cap pro­jected to spike to $89 mil­lion per team for the 2016-17 cam­paign, there is room to of­fer Du­rant a max­i­mum con­tract and re-sign Beal to the max if he en­ters re­stricted free agency next sum­mer, with money left over for other play­ers.

The Wizards’ pitch, be­yond the home­com­ing an­gle, will cen­ter on the young tal­ent that would sur­round Du­rant. He could part­ner with both­Wall, giv­ing him an elite pass-first point guard for the first time in his ca­reer, and Beal, an ascending sharp­shoot­ing star. Wall would be 26, Beal 23, and Du­rant 28 in their first sea­son to­gether. The trio could form the NBA’s next Big Three for years to come and com­pete for Washington’s first cham­pi­onship since 1978 in the less de­struc­tive Eastern Con­fer­ence.

“Yeah, I think so,” Wall said Tues­day in Las Ve­gas when asked if Washington will be an at­tracgames tive land­ing spot for Du­rant. “I think we’re one of those teams on the rise. You look at free agency, a lot of peo­ple want to come and play for us. The main thing is it’s go­ing to be his de­ci­sion. You got to sit back and let him make the best de­ci­sion for him and his fam­ily. All we can do is sit back and just try to fo­cus on us. Try to win as much as we can and if that can at­tract him to come play with us then so be it.”

Homecomings have be­come a league trend this sum­mer — Pierce, Aldridge, LeBron James and Deron Wil­liams are among those who de­cided to re­turn to their home­town teams. It didn’t take long for NBA TV’s sum­mer league broad­cast to high­light the #KD2DC move­ment that has per­co­lated among fans in the Dis­trict for the past year. Dur­ing the sec­ond quar­ter of Washington’s loss to the D-League Se­lect Team last Sun­day, a side­line re­porter delved into a post by Bul­lets For­ever, SB Na­tion’s Wizards blog, that high­lighted con­nec­tions, both le­git­i­mate and far­fetched, be­tween Du­rant and ev­ery mem­ber of the Wizards’ sum­mer league squad.

“If you’re an OKC fan, you might want to close your ears right here,” one of the broad­cast­ers later warned. “Be­cause, me per­son­ally, I would love to see it. Oh, I mean, John Wall, Bradley Beal, KD? Come on. On the same floor, wear­ing the same uni­form?”

The Wizards can only dream for now.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GLUEKIT FOR THE WASHINGTON POST, ORIG­I­NAL PHOTO BY JOHN MCDON­NELL/THE WASHINGTON POST

Washington Wizards The Dis­trict is home for Du­rant, but the Wizards aren’t bank­ing on lo­ca­tion alone. They have formed a promis­ing young core of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. that, with Du­rant, would bat­tle for Eastern Con­fer­ence supremacy.

Los An­ge­les Lak­ers The Lak­ers do re­builds quicker than any other or­ga­ni­za­tion; they’ve missed the play­offs just four of the last 38 sea­sons. Du­rant could join an in­trigu­ing cast of young tal­ent to help Kobe Bryant win that elu­sive sixth ti­tle.

Ok­la­homa City Thun­der Ok­la­homa City is the only pro­fes­sional fran­chise Du­rant has known. He has been the face of the or­ga­ni­za­tion since he was drafted sec­ond over­all in 2007. The Thun­der also hap­pens to boast one of the sport’s most tal­ented ros­ters. The fran­chise is caught be­tween re­build­ing and ap­peas­ing Carmelo An­thony as the su­per­star ages. Du­rant could join An­thony to ex­pe­dite the process on the sport’s big­gest stage and bring the city its first ti­tle since 1972-73.

New York Knicks

SUE OGROCKI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ok­la­homa City’s Kevin Du­rant, left, will have no short­age of suit­ors once he be­comes a free agent. Du­rant was the league’s MVP in 2014.

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