• Let the games begin.

    The biggest free agency period since LeBron James rocked the NBA years ago — the Kevin Durant sweepstakes has flown under the radar but now that the Finals are done and the draft is done it’s going to take center stage.

    ESPN reported the first set of teams that would get an audience with Durant and that included the obvious names.  The Spurs and Warriors joined the Thunder as early entrants in that report, and then Woj would come in and clean up the situation by naming the Celtics, Heat and Clippers as potential competitors.  Woj took it a step further and said that the Nuggets, Knicks, Lakers, Rockets and Wizards are “outsiders in the process now.”

    The Nuggets never had a shot and the Knicks lost whatever chance they had (none) by picking up Derrick Rose.  The Rockets don’t get laughed out of the room in this discussion, but it’s close.  Seeing the Lakers on the outside looking in confirms everybody’s belief that mere market size and franchise lore aren’t driving the discussion, and seeing the Wizards’ inclusion there so early sends an early message that going home doesn’t matter.

    Woj writes that Durant and his reps would like to be done with his free agency decision by July 9 and his trip to the Far East.  As the first domino to fall it will be interesting to see how much a delayed decision gums up the market.

    If we’re to take the report at face value he’s going to pick with “a singular focus,” which would be the chance to win titles immediately.

    Are we to believe that this is merely a basketball decision?  That his time with the Thunder doesn’t factor in on a different, non-basketball level?

    Most believe (as I do) that he’s going to stay in Oklahoma City and part of that is the basketball equation, especially after they fleeced the Magic to acquire Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova in exchange for declining Serge Ibaka.  In fact, it’s not hard to see them beating the Warriors a few weeks ago if they had this configuration of players in the fold, essentially omitting Sabonis from the equation.

    But that’s speculation that I’m not even willing to bet significantly on and after the Cavs shocked the Warriors, each of these top-tier teams can make a solid basketball case if Durant is merely using that as criteria.

    The Spurs boast Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Gregg Popovich and the NBA’s model organization.  The Warriors are going to be back hungrier than ever and they stand a great chance of improving this offseason, especially if they move on from Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli in exchange for any number of free agents that would love to go there.

    And then the Thunder, including the most electric player in the NBA in Russell Westbrook, and their Dothraki Warrior and Big Turkey combo at center.  They will probably pass on Dion Waiters but they have Cameron Payne in the fold to play behind Oladipo.  They have Andre Roberson to develop and then they have Ilyasova and Sabonis to give minutes where the key bigs and Durant can’t.

    Whether Ibaka’s decline occurred because of knee issues or not — it wasn’t a deployment issue and he just looked like a guy that lost his fastball.  So the team that pushed the Warriors right up to the point of breaking is going to get better.

    It’s hard to believe that non-basketball decisions are going to be completely off the table here.  Staying with one team, including all the good and bad that goes into one’s time with an organization, and whatever marketing value that has to him are obvious elements for him to sort out.  Does how he gets deployed matter at all?  In other words, is he alright with taking on a decreased role or simply a different role that he doesn’t like quite as much in order to improve his odds at a championship?

    Or what about the estimated $50 million gross loss he’ll take over a five-year span with another team that includes one more year with the Thunder and four after he changes his home court.  Or the estimated $25 million loss he’d take over a four-year span with another team if he leaves this summer.  And the kicker in that scenario is that the new team has to be able to absorb him into existing cap space, whereas the Thunder can use his bird rights to help build a better team.

    Durant will be able to function in any of these environments and all three of the remaining teams in the chase are good ones.  The Celtics, Heat and Clippers each add a unique pitch to the equation, too.  The Celtics boasts a dynamic perimeter lineup and if they can land Al Horford they pass the laugh test.  The Clippers seem more likely to trade Blake Griffin in an attempt to woo Durant with the proceeds from that trade rather than create some sort of super-team, but they also pass the laugh test.  And Pat Riley can do Pat Riley things so they round out an interesting second tier of teams.

    But back to what is the salient issue — the issue of whether or not this is truly a decision about the odds of winning a championship.  The more that talk appears to be real, the more credibility we all have to give to the idea that he could leave the Thunder in a few weeks.  It’s a proposition that most of us in the media have punted on.  Most of us believe that there’s a great basketball case to be made in OKC and there are compelling non-basketball reasons that tilt the scales toward the Thunder.

    But if we’re truly talking titles only, then we have to start playing mental war games between a trio of superstar-laden teams, a strong second tier of squads.

    In the end the Thunder’s chances simply have to decrease. If anything because we’ve all more or less penciled him into the Thunder’s starting rotation next season.

    Whatever the case may be, Thunder fans better hope the issues his camp is claiming don’t matter actually do matter.  They put Oklahoma City over the top.  But set them aside and the games are only getting started.

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