Fresh off consecutive NBA championships and NBA Finals MVP awards, nobody expects Kevin Durant to do anything but stay with the Golden State Warriors this summer. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has described his intended negotiating position with Durant as “whatever he wants,” and the man himself made it clear on several occasions — most recently at Golden State’s championship parade — that he’s quite happy to stay put and keep being the favorite to win the title for the next few years.
So you’d be forgiven if you didn’t bat an eye at this Monday night tweet from Marc Stein of the New York Times …
Just to clarify on Kevin Durant: Friday's deadline compels Durant to opt IN on his $26.3 million for next season if he chooses, but league sources say he has already informed the Warriors that he will let the deadline pass quietly so he can become a free agent July 1
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) June 25, 2018
… but while there’s been no indication that Durant’s going to pull up stakes, his decision not to exercise his $26.25 million player option for the 2018-19 season — thus making him an unrestricted free agent come 12 a.m. ET on Sunday morning, if only briefly — is still newsworthy, because it helps offer at least some insight as to what KD’s looking for on his next deal.
Opting out gives Kevin Durant a bunch of really good contract options
For one thing, opting out to re-up suggests that, this time around, Durant’s not taking a discount. After agreeing last summer to a one-plus-one contract that paid him nearly $10 million less than his maximum possible annual salary, ostensibly to entice Warriors brass into digging deep to re-sign key veteran reserves Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston by reducing the luxury-tax bill associated with keeping all of them — and following it up with another excellent season, Durant has seemed reluctant to set a precedent or get taken advantage of by ownership.
The bet, then, is that KD looks to secure a bag stuffed with every last penny he can make for the season ahead. The question: how long a pact would he prefer?
Will an “early Bird” get KD?
Because the Warriors don’t yet hold Durant’s full “Bird rights” — you have to be with a team for three years for that — the most the capped-out Warriors can do this summer is an extension using his “early Bird rights.” That limits them to an offer of up to 175 percent of last year’s salary (or the maximum salary allowed to a player by the collective bargaining agreement) with annual raises of up to 8 percent over the Year 1 amount. For KD, a vet with 10-plus years of service time, that means a deal would start at 35 percent of the salary cap — a projected Year 1 salary of $35.35 million for next year — which would mean a top-dollar, four-year “early Bird” extension would pay him just under $158.4 million through the end of the 2021-22 season.
As Danny Leroux of The Athletic recently noted, though, going the early Bird route would preclude Durant from building in an option year in the first two seasons. That’d mean he wouldn’t be able to re-enter the market next summer, when Golden State would hold his full Bird rights, enabling them to offer him the richest contract available — a full-fledged five-year max deal worth an estimated $219.2 million.
Or does Kevin Durant want to get back into the market as soon as possible?
If Durant doesn’t care about making as much as humanly possible in this situation, but does want a long-term max-level deal, he could go for the early Bird extension this summer. If he’s got his heart set on reaching the full five-year agreement as soon as he can, he could go for the “non-Bird exception.” That would pay him up to $30 million next season (120 percent of last year’s salary) with maximum 5 percent year-over-year raises ($1.5 million) for up to four years.
The most Durant could make in a deal like that is $129 million, though he probably wouldn’t want to see out the full length of it. The attraction there would likely be structuring it as another “one-plus-one” agreement — a two-year contract where he’d hold a player option for Year 2 — so he could re-enter unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019, when he’d have access to the full Bird rights bonanza. Going the one-plus-one-then-five-year route would net KD a cool $249.2 million by 2024. (For what it’s worth) Leroux suggests that Durant might opt for a two-year, full maximum-salaried contract with a player option for Year 3 — the same deal LeBron signed with the Cavs after the 2016 title — to hit the sweet spot between getting him top dollar today, keeping the Warriors’ core locked up for another couple of title pushes, and giving him the chance to re-enter unrestricted free agency before his age-32 season.)
The bottom line: Kevin Durant’s not going anywhere
Durant long ago took the drama out of his free-agent decision. By making the widely expected choice to opt out, he put a plethora of enticing options on the negotiating table as he and his representatives work things out with Myers, Joe Lacob and the rest of Golden State’s string-pullers. Now, all the drama that remains is waiting to find out which path to a monster payday Durant’s chosen, how long it’ll take him to let us know, how long he’s deciding to lock himself into the core of the most dominant team in the NBA … and just how much scratch in salary and luxury tax payments Lacob’s going to have to fork over for the privilege of remaining light years ahead.
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