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In recent weeks the Kevin Durant free-agency buzz drifted momentarily to New York, city of big basketball dreams (and even bigger desperation for the Knicks) and then to Los Angeles, where a post-Kobe Bryant fantasy pairing has Durant signing with the Lakers followed a season later with Russell Westbrook coming aboard.
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Yes, the speculation-fueled projections of where Durant will land once he hits the market next summer is floating around in a few places but no longer in the original destination. Remember the feel-good fairy tale of KD to DC? The Wizards, however, are in danger of falling off both the playoff radar and, more importantly, the Durant radar.
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It has been that kind of season so far in Washington, where the team has regressed and, by extension, the sweepstakes for Durant are seemingly fainter. Put yourself in Durant’s hightops and ask yourself this: other than returning home — Durant was born in DC and raised in the Maryland suburbs — why would you sign with the Wizards when you could go almost anywhere else?
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The Starters: Kevin Durant to DC?
Can this possibly happen? Is it inevitable? What are the chances? The Starters discuss.
He’s a franchise player still in his prime. The Wizards boast a young All-Star point guard and maybe a few other decent pieces. And yet, the common-sense pairing of Durant and the Wizards could now be classified as a long-shot or even illogical. Indeed, anything can happen in the screwball stakes known as free agency, but what once appeared to be a realistic possibility is now dropping faster than the Wizards in the East standings.
That’s the perception among some in the NBA community, anyway.
What in the heck happened? The Durant-to-Washington belief was jump-started last summer, not long after the Wizards ambushed the Toronto Raptors Jerseys in the first round of the playoffs and established themselves as an up-and-comer. Washington had all of the necessary ingredients: A terrific point guard (John Wall), a shooter who hadn’t even tapped his prime (Bradley Beal), a pair of front-court brutes (Nene Jerseys and Marcin Gortat) and oodles of salary cap room. At this point last season, they were 31-18.
All-Star Top 10: Kevin Durant
Check out the top 10 plays from Western Conference All-Star Kevin Durant!
And one other thing: Washington plays in the East, the more forgiving conference that’s not as top-heavy as the West, giving Durant better odds of reaching another NBA Finals.
Back in early November when the Thunder and Durant made their only appearance of the season in Washington, the magnetic pull for Durant was still strong. That’s when Durant said his courting by Wizards fans was “disrespectful” and that they should support their own. (Earth to Durant: Why can’t fans be supportive of both?) The comment wasn’t as bad as it sounded; Durant was merely putting his situation in perspective. But the fans got the message and booed him that night.
The Wizards did their part as well. They hired his high school coach in 2014. They put a picture of Durant in a Redskins’ jersey over the big screen that year. Their biggest show of support for Durant came in another form, when they declined to give Beal an extension by the October deadline in order to keep space and money available for Durant this summer.
But the Wizards, so far anyway, haven’t made good on the one factor that could swing Durant in their direction: They haven’t won enough. They’re 23-29 since winning that first-round series in 2015 and easily rate (along with the MIlwaukee Bucks) as this season’s big disappointments. They’re precariously on the playoff cutoff point and the last time they had a winning record was just before Thanksgiving. They’ve had a few injuries but also subpar performances from players they counted on. And while the season has another two-plus months, the Wizards haven’t given any indication lately that a turnaround is coming.
GameTime: David Aldridge
David Aldridge joins the GameTime crew to discuss Tuesday night’s Fan Night game and Kevin Durant’s return to Washington.
Meanwhile, Durant and the Thunder are once again thriving and in position to have a seat at the championship discussion table.
“I’m sure for any of these guys they’re probably going to evaluate every situation — who they’re going to be playing with, the coaching staff,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I’m sure all of those things play a factor.”
At this point in his career, Durant has said he’s not interested in taking a step backward. He already owns all of the individual goodies that come with being a top five player. He’s lacking championships and, at 27, doesn’t want to chase titles in his twilight. You can look no further than Carmelo Anthony to see the challenge of that. While playing for the Denver Nuggets Jerseys, ‘Melo had the chance to wait for free agency and sign with a contender. Instead, he forced a trade to the Knicks mainly because he wanted to play and cheap sports jerseys live in New York and reap the benefits of that, which he has. He’s also no closer to a championship and now, in his early 30s with iffy health, and will probably be a role player if and when that day arrives.
Kia Awards: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
The Thunder’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the Kia Western Conference Players of the Month in December.
And so, when summer arrives, Durant will be led by his championship desire and not his wallet (he’s already rich) or big-city dreams (which are overrated anyway).
That doesn’t mean the Wizards have decided to junk the idea and move on. They appear less inclined to add salary at the trade deadline and ruin whatever odds they have of signing Durant in July. To keep their cap lean enough to give Durant a max contract, they’ve made no commitment to give a contract extension to Nene Jerseys or anyone else on the roster who’s approaching free agency. (Washington has only four players under contract for next season, although it must use a cap hold for Beal.)
They also haven’t extended Randy Wittman, just in case they feel they’ll need a new coach if they get Durant, or even if they don’t.
It’s obviously a smart decision by GM Ernie Grunfeld. Why tie up cap space when there’s no need to? Why try a quick fix to this season and bring in a player whose contract could backfire this summer? Better to take your lumps now and deal with everything else then.
Grunfeld knows, in one sense, nothing has changed. The Wizards will still have Wall, Beal (assuming he re-signs), Gortat and Otto Porter Jr. to help entice Durant, plus enough cap space to add others through free agency. Just because the Wizards are a shaky team now doesn’t mean that will be the case next season should they reconstruct the right team around Durant.
Inside Stuff: KD Holding Court
Kristen Ledlow meets up with Kevin Durant of the Thunder at North Highland Elementary School in Oklahoma City for a court dedication.
But does Durant feel that way, or has his faith been shaken by what he sees now?
Wall is an All-Star once again but isn’t on the same planet as Westbrook as an impact player. Beal is always hurt although his scoring (18.1) and shooting are both up this season, hinting that he’s ready to take the next step. Gortat remains a strong rebounder (9.9 average) but he may not have many prime years left, and the level of Porter’s growth in the near future is pure guesswork.
Durant will be a man with options come summer, the most attractive being staying in Oklahoma City, although he’d need to get assurance that Westbrook won’t flee in free agency in 2017 and leave him hanging. (If Durant leaves OKC next summer, then you best believe Westbrook will follow him out the door next.) Plenty could depend on whether Durant is threatened by the potential dynasty that’s happening in Golden State and feels compelled to jump to the East.
We know the Wizards won’t give up on the idea of adding a free agent who can reshape the franchise. The question is, has Durant?
Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.
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