This time next year, Kevin Durant will be eligible to re-sign with the Thunder for up to five more seasons beyond the 2010-11 season.
In Monday’s paper I wrote about Durant’s contract situation and how he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, in large part because, no matter how hard it might be for some to believe, he really has grown fond of Oklahoma and the Thunder. But I wanted to post some additional information about Durant’s forthcoming decision and give you an even clearer idea of why Durant isn’t likely to leave after his rookie deal.
In short, players like Durant just don’t walk after their rookie contracts.
Whether we believe Durant will do what he’s repeatedly said he wants to do — remain with the Thunder for as long as possible — is up to us at this point. It’s certainly understandable how fans and media types have revoked the benefit of the doubt from athletes and coaches. There are far too many examples of a player or coach insisting his or her heart is somewhere only to jump ship weeks later.
But if Durant’s good old-fashioned word isn’t enough, let’s examine history.
Out of 70 top 10 picks from 1999-2005, 40 players went on to sign an extension with the team that drafted them or the club that traded for them.
(I chose this seven-year time frame because the second most recent CBA was instituted in 1999 and still contained rules with similar structuring of rookie contracts to today. I stopped at 2005 because the jury is still out on the class of 2006, which just became eligible to sign extensions this summer and so far has seen No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani become the lone top 10 pick from that class to re-up.)
Of the remaining 30 players from 1999-2005 who didn’t sign extensions, 15 were players who can be considered busts or simply didn’t live up to early expectations: Marcus Fizer, Rodney White, Nickoloz Tskitishvili, Dajuan Wagner, Jarvis Hayes, Stromile Swift, Keyon Dooling, Joel Przybilla, Channing Frye, DeSagana Diop, Michael Sweetney, Darko Milicic, Rafael Araujo, Ike Diogu and Luke Jackson.
Thirteen of the final 15 moved on for reasons that included health concerns, unhappiness, a sign-and-trade, a freak accident that derailed a promising career or other unique circumstances. (Some players, listed in italics, fit more than one description.)
Personal issues: Eddie Griffin’s alcoholism, Eddy Curry’s feared heart condition and Michael Sweetney’s obesity.
Wanted out: Lamar Odom with the Clippers and Joe Johnson in Phoenix.
Sign-and-trade: Kenyon Martin from New Jersey to Denver, Jamal Crawford from Chicago to New York, Kwame Brown from Washington to the Lakers and Eddy Curry from Chicago to New York.
Freak accident: DerMarr Johnson’s car accident, Jay Williams’ motorcycle accident and Shaun Livingston’s knee injury.
Unique circumstances: Josh Childress opting to go overseas after Atlanta didn’t offer him as lucrative of a deal as he wanted, Charlie Villanueva signing with Detroit after Milwaukee chose to not offer him a qualifying offer to retain his rights as a restricted free agent for financial reasons and Ben Gordon signing in Detroit after playing for the qualifying offer.
The final two players from the list of 30 remain in limbo this summer, Atlanta’s Marvin Williams and Charlotte’s Raymond Felton.
Of all the instances, Ben Gordon’s case spells out what Durant or Jeff Green or Russell Westbrook or any of today’s NBA free agents would have to go through if they wanted to leave via free agency as soon as their rookie deals expire.
It’s a long and risky process.
Under the league’s current collective bargaining agreement, contracts of first-round draft picks are guaranteed for the first two seasons and come with team options for the third and fourth seasons. A team can sign its first-rounder to an extension in the summer following his third season, with the new deal kicking in at the start of his fifth season. A club also can allow a player to become a restricted free agent following his fourth season if an extension is not reached prior to Oct. 31 of the player’s fourth season. The team would then have the right to match any offer the player receives from another team.
Essentially, for a player of Durant’s caliber to walk following his rookie deal he would have to be incredibly desperate to get out. Gordon didn’t want out of Chicago. He simply wanted more money than the Bulls were offering. That won’t be the case with Durant since his talents command a maximum contract.
But if for whatever hypothetical reason Durant wanted to leave, he would have to decline a likely maximum extension next summer, play his fourth season and become a restricted free agent after his fourth season. But since the Thunder could and would match any offer he’d receive from another team, Durant couldn’t even sign an offer sheet if he wanted to leave. Instead he’d have to play for his one-year qualifying offer of $7.9 million, foregoing almost half as much as he could have made in the first year of an extension and the security that comes with a long-term deal. Only after his fifth season would Durant become an unrestricted free agent and be allowed to sign with any team.
Even then, he’d be walking into free agency under a new collective bargaining agreement, which could tilt the chips in favor of the owners rather than the players. For example, instead of being allowed to sign a maximum five-year contract with another team as the current CBA permits, the new rules could lower the maximum length of contracts to four years for teams signing another team’s players. Maximum salaries and annual raise percentages could also take a hit.
So considering the alternatives, and the fact that he enjoys Oklahoma City and the Thunder organization, Durant’s career figures to be headed in the direction of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire, Deron Williams, Yao Ming, Chris Bosh and several other stars who signed extensions with their original teams.
The day may come when Durant really is plotting his exit strategy. But it certainly won’t be after his rookie deal.