Durant may not know it yet, but he is becoming this generation’s Jerry West: a fantastic talent and class act whose career was marked by finishing second.
In 14 seasons, West twice finished second in scoring (also winning once). He never won an MVP award, finishing third once and second a record four times. And he lost the NBA Finals seven times before finally winning in his 13th season.
In six seasons, Durant has finished second in scoring once (last season, ending his three-year reign). He has never won an MVP award, finishing second three times already. And he lost in the NBA Finals in 2012, his only trip thus far.
In an era when owners held all the power, West played his entire career with the Los Angeles Lakers. In an era where superstars call the shots, Durant has played his entire career with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And Durant figures to be in Oklahoma City a while. For one, he has three years and $57 million left on his contract. For another, he said so himself, just last week.
Speaking to fans during a Nike Tour in France, Durant was asked whether a different team was in his future.
“I like where I’m at right now,” he said. “I enjoy playing for OKC. As of today, I love it there, man. I want to be there. I love the fans, I love my team, I love everything about the city. I don’t have any plans to move.”
This is why Durant is a class act. He gave a fair answer to an unfair question. Not knowing what the future may hold, can anyone – let alone a superstar basketball player with a limited earnings window – really say they are sure they will be in the same city working for the same company three years from now? Note his use of the words “right now.”
One of the variables that could influence Durant is how much Thunder owner Clay Bennett is interested in not finishing second. And over the last couple of offseasons, that interest hasn’t exactly been prevalent.
Bennett’s net worth is $400 million. Since he bought the Thunder (as the SuperSonics) in 2006, he has not paid one dollar of luxury tax.
The Thunder certainly are not alone in that regard. In those same eight seasons, a dozen other teams also have paid no luxury tax. Those 12 teams have combined for just 36 playoff appearances in 96 opportunities, or 37.5 percent. And none of those postseason trips have resulted in a trip to the NBA Finals.
The Thunder bucked those odds when they reached the 2012 NBA Finals as a precocious group with loads of young talent and a very bright future. Perhaps too bright, because it seems to have obscured Bennett’s long-term vision.
Since reaching the NBA Finals, Bennett has maintained his red line stance on the luxury tax with diminishing returns. To wit:
- Last summer, the Thunder could have created more flexibility beneath the tax threshold and increased their chances of retaining James Harden – clearly a top-10 player masquerading as a sixth man – by using the amnesty clause on center Kendrick Perkins, whose lack of usefulness was on full display in the NBA Finals. They chose not to, even though Perkins’ remaining contract would not count toward the tax.
- With extension decisions looming on both Harden and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder first signed Ibaka, whose ascent to top-10 status is highly unlikely and years away. Nevertheless, they overpaid him at $49 million over four years, more money than All-Star big men Al Horford and Joakim Noah received from their clubs.
- Those decisions and Bennett’s refusal to pay tax forced the Thunder into one of the worst trades in NBA history when they sent Harden and spare parts to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, a pair of first-round picks and a second-round pick. No one who watched the playoffs last season would say Martin was an adequate replacement for Harden. And Ibaka didn’t pick up the slack, either.
- This summer, the Thunder again had the opportunity to use the amnesty provision on Perkins, whose contract got one year shorter as his play got even worse. But Bennett’s red line continued to include “dead money” even if it did not count toward the tax.
- Martin was a free agent and certainly wasn’t going to command the $11 million he made last season, given his advancing age and role reduction. Bennett’s unwillingness to use the amnesty provision and stance on the tax severely limited what the Thunder could give Martin, who signed for $28 million over four years with Minnesota — but said he would have taken less to stay in Oklahoma City. So ask yourself if you would rather have Martin at $6 million or Perkins at $8.3 million.
- To save some face, the Thunder engineered a sign-and-trade with the Timberwolves and Milwaukee Bucks that netted neither a player nor draft pick but the rights to Szymon Szewczyk and a $7 million trade exception. That means the Thunder’s net in the Harden trade is now Lamb, rookie center Steven Adams (who probably isn’t going to play much because Perkins is still around), a first-round pick, a second-round pick, a Eurostash who probably will never play in the NBA and a trade exception that expires in less than a year and can only be used to take back a player who makes real money that counts toward the tax. Shrewd? Not.
- Martin’s departure also means that in the last year, the role of first wing off the Thunder’s bench has gone from a top-10 player to Lamb, who has played 147 career minutes, including none that have ever mattered.
- After signing No. 12 pick Adams to the standard 120 percent of the rookie salary scale, the Thunder offered No. 27 pick Andre Roberson just 80 percent of the rookie salary scale, the lowest amount allowed. Faced with becoming a free agent in a closing market, Roberson felt he had no choice but to take the offer.
- The Thunder also expressed an interest in Mike Miller after he was waived by Miami via amnesty. As a 10-year veteran, Miller would command a minimum of $1.4 million from any team as a free agent. The Thunder could have easily claimed Miller with a bid of $2 million, which would have put them less than $1 million into tax territory, from which they could have escaped through a subsequent deal. Instead, they rolled the dice on trying to woo him with their “all for one, one for all” culture and lost him to conference rival Memphis.
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