The Kevin Durant free agency sweepstakes are well and truly underway. Anybody with even a tiny chance of recruiting the league's biggest free agent in years will throw everything but the kitchen sink to bring the uniquely talented seven footer to their city. Despite the ongoing rumors and exclusives, he seems likely to stay put.
With this still in question, Las Vegas released its Championship Odds for next season per ESPN. The Champion Cleveland Cavaliers do not take the favorites tag, as they sit at 5-2. The NBA Finals runner-up Golden State Warriors take early favoritism, opening at 3-2 odds.
The Thunder sit behind the San Antonio Spurs, who Vegas likes at 6-1. The Thunder, however, opened at 8-1, and this is under the premise and assumption that Durant returns to his current team at least for next season. The Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors share much longer odds, with the Clippers closest at 16-1.
It seems the bookmakers expect Durant to return, considering he is 1-8 to stay in Oklahoma City. Another year minimum makes the most sense on a playing and financial level, but the league won't know for at least a week where his heart lies going forward.
Providing he does re-sign, what does this mean for the league? Obviously a Durant departure results in a shake up, with reactions expected across the league to match whomever snags him away from the Thunder. But staying begs the question of whether to expect more of the same, or perhaps if any change will still come.
The Thunder certainly aren't standing pat, sending reportedly unhappy forward and mainstay Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic, receiving former number 2 pick Victor Oladipo, stretch-four Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to the 11th pick in this year's draft, Domantas Sabonis, who the Thunder have been scouting ruthlessly for months.
Outside of the league's elite, it's hard to believe the NBA title could be heading anywhere else but Cleveland, Oakland, Oklahoma or San Antonio.
So what can the real contenders do to help their case for the 2017 NBA Championship if Durant re-signs with the Thunder?
- Find a suitable trade for Kevin Love. Love doesn't have to be traded, but he's not as useful in series against better teams (Warriors) and is a similar problem that the Thunder have in Enes Kanter. It appears the rumors about his back and knee troubles may very well be real, and with $93.5 million and four years remaining on his contract it might be the right time to cut the chord. Also; LeBron is the best power forward on that roster and that isn't changing.
- Jettison Iman Shumpert for an upgrade. Shumpert has struggled with his shot and health all season, posting just under 30 percent from the perimeter in the regular season and whilst he hit 38 percent in the Playoffs, the team still posted a +11.4 net rating when he was on the bench and +6.8 overall in an On/Off rating. It might be time for a fresh start.
- Let Timofey Mozgov go, and don't replace him. There's no need to throw big money at a center unless they can get the right one via trade or cheap in free agency, which will be difficult. Mozgov couldn't get on the floor when it mattered, and team owner Dan Gilbert would no doubt be happy to save a few luxury tax dollars where he can. Replacing the retired Richard Jefferson is more of a priority, and it should be.
- Bring J.R. Smith back. The Cavaliers were +11.5 per 100 possessions with J.R. on the floor, and he had the second best net rating behind LeBron when he sat on the bench (+2.2). He's one of LeBron's "guys" and there's no way they can't bring him back. Smith bet on himself taking a short term deal, and now's earned his dollars.
Golden State Warriors
- There's no reason not to maintain what the Warriors already have. Without a Draymond Green suspension (however warranted) and an Andrew Bogut series-ending knee injury, they might be champions right now. They still have a 73-win roster, and bringing everyone back isn't the worst solution if they strike out this summer.
- It's not the end of the world if the Warriors' pitch to Durant fails. Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Hassan Whiteside have all been linked with a move to Oakland. Nicolas Batum is also an intriguing option. Whiteside shapes up as an interesting Bogut replacement with the Australian's health concerns ongoing, whilst Noah, Horford and Batum fit the constant movement and passing-centric system they run.
- Don't panic. The Warriors have a championship team already; barring a disastrous off season that's not going to change. Unless they overpay to keep Harrison Barnes (they won't) it's hard to foresee them having an off season that means they'll be anything less than they already are.
San Antonio Spurs
- Replacing what they lost in acquiring LaMarcus Aldridge last summer couldn't hurt. The Spurs lost key depth which had been a strength in their success, particularly the 2014 Championship run. Losing Cory Joseph hurt their back court, whilst the departures of Tiago Splitter, Aron Baynes and Mario Belinelli hurt their depth more than first anticipated.
- They need to get more athletic in size and strength. Both the Warriors (in the regular season) and Thunder (in the Playoffs) killed them with physicality and athleticism. The Spurs couldn't score against the Warriors and they couldn't stop the Thunder defensively or in the paint. Kawhi Leonard is a freak athlete, but he can't do it on his own.
- Work on the back court. Tony Parker is not what he was physically and Patty Mills has struggled defensively and cannot penetrate offensively. Getting more punch in their back court would help in a conference where every good team seems to have an All-NBA caliber guard.
- Find the real Danny Green. Green took a pay cut compared to what he could have received elsewhere, taking a four-year, $40 million extension to stay with the Spurs. The basket seemed to have a lid on it from there on, as his shot from deep disappeared. After shooting between 42 and 44 percent from the perimeter since 2011, Green only hit 33 percent from three and 38 percent overall, a career low.
Oklahoma City Thunder
- They've already started their work with the Ibaka trade, getting more perimeter defense in Oladipo, who held opponents to 28 percent shooting from three. His shooting will need to improve (35 percent from 3 last season). That should improve in an offense like the Thunder's, the potential is there (he hit 48 percent in January and 39 in March).
- They have too many rotation players and perhaps not enough top-end quality. It couldn't hurt packaging two of these players together into a better one. Sam Presti has shown a knack for making clever trades, and he might need to do so.
- Stick with what worked in the Playoffs. Billy Donovan's year-long experimenting paid off in the postseason as the Thunder's vast versatility was on show. They beat the Spurs with size inside, battering them out of 4 of the last 5 games. Then they defeated the Warriors in three of seven going small, with Kevin Durant showing incredible defense.
- Find a way to relieve Russell Westbrook of his incredible offensive burden to allow more defensive focus, whilst finding enough defensive relief that Durant doesn't have to play the 4 full time. He was incredible there in the postseason, but playing power forward nightly will take far too much of a physical toll. Like Draymond Green playing the 5 for Golden State, it needs to be reserved for when it's needed. Is Jared Dudley an option? A free agent who excels in small lineups, defending 4's and shooting threes. He might be the perfect fit in the rotation.