Pat Riley’s best hope in landing Kevin Durant rests in something LeBron James said that may no longer be true.
It was late on a February 2014 night in Phoenix, as a postgame sandwich rested on the then-Heat forward’s lap. Seizing upon his relaxed state, I asked James when he believed the title pressure would shift to his contemporary superstar, Kevin Durant. James, finally stamped as a champion during the prior two postseasons, didn’t mince words between munching.
“When I retire,” James told me. “When I retire. They’re still talking about, am I going to win a third? You know ... ”
James then recalibrated, insisting that neither Durant, nor any other “unbelievable” player, should be defined by championships anyway.
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“But I don’t know when he’s gonna start hearing it,” James said. “I hope he doesn’t. I don’t think he should have to go through that. What he’s been able to do for that city of Oklahoma City, what he’s been able to do for his teammates is amazing. And we’ll just see what happens with it. He’s going to be in contention every year because of the player that he is, and they’ve got a great team. And we’ll see what happens.”
Three postseasons have passed since, and we have seen what has happened for Durant. Not enough. In 2014, Serge Ibaka’s calf tear derailed the Thunder in the Western Conference finals against the eventual champion Spurs. In 2015, Durant’s own foot surgery tripped the Thunder short of the playoffs. Now, in 2016, Oklahoma City squandered a 3-1 series lead against the defending champion Warriors, a juggernaut primed for an extended joyride.
So that is Riley’s best play here:
Spin James’ words forward.
Insist that any free ride is over. Argue that people are starting to care, to wonder whether Durant is doomed to follow Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller down a ringless path until retirement.
Point out parallels between James and Durant when the Heat came calling. James had reached the playoffs five times, the conference finals twice and the NBA Finals once in his initial seven seasons before fleeing Cleveland. Durant has reached the playoffs six times, the conference finals four times and the NBA Finals once in the nine seasons with the Seattle/OKC franchise. James was 25 years and six months old during the free agent summer of 2010. Durant will be 27 years and nine months old when becoming a free agent on July 1st, making the urgency even more acute.
James won here, Riley can say.
You will, too.
Even more often, if you, unlike James, commit to stay.
Actually, this isn’t just Riley’s best play.
It’s his only play.
Everything else about this pursuit appears less promising than the Heat’s long-shot 2010 bid for James. This isn’t a Steph Curry stepback from 30 feet. This is Curry from 60 feet, back to the basket, blindfolded.
Start here: Oklahoma City is much better positioned than Cleveland was then. The Cavaliers’ next-best scorers were spot-up shooter Mo Williams and 34-year-old Antawn Jamison. The Thunder’s next-best scorers are the explosive Russell Westbrook and 26-year-old Ibaka. Cleveland’s bigs were the limited Andersen Varejao and the ancient Shaquille O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Oklahoma City has 22-year-old Stephen Adams on a rapid rise. Cleveland’s front office repeatedly failed to find help. That is Sam Presti’s Thunder specialty.
Yes, James had a connection to Cleveland by birth, but that was always complicated; his allegiance was actually more to Akron, which tends to resent the larger city to the north. Durant was born in Washington D.C., and played collegiately in Austin, Texas, but he has become Oklahoma City’s adopted son, with a downtown restaurant and a deep history of community deeds, including a $1 million donation for tornado relief. He doesn’t seem as drawn to brighter lights as James, nor as concerned about how a bigger-market move might bolster earning power.
Speaking of money: unlike in 2010, when sign-and-trade structures allowed James to make up most lost earnings from leaving Cleveland, the new collective bargaining agreement makes it financially foolish for Durant to depart. The most lucrative move is to sign a one-year, $25.9 million deal to align his free agency with Westbrook — with a player option to protect against a health setback — and then sign a five-year Thunder deal for roughly $202 million.
All of this points to a return and little points to Miami as a preference if he leaves. So little that Durant would do the Heat a favor by committing to the Thunder early so Riley can return to reality.
Durant has no close relationship with any Heat player like James’ with Dwyane Wade. Wade, 28 then, is nearly 35. Chris Bosh is better than Ibaka, but his status is mysterious, even to Miami. Hassan Whiteside trumps Adams as a defender, but Miami’s cap would likely be too cramped to keep him and Durant. San Antonio, Golden State, Los Angeles (either team), New York, Boston and even Washington could have more appealing aspects to their offers.
The Heat has Riley.
Riley has one play.
We will see what happens.