Analysis: For Durant and Leonard, the move is to stay put
Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Golden State’s Kevin Durant are both very difficult to figure out. They seem to enjoy giving cryptic answers, a minimum of clues, and clearly relish having enigmatic status.
It makes free agency tough to forecast.
Luckily for Toronto and Golden State, the math should be very simple.
Leonard and Durant are the biggest dominoes that will fall sometime after the free-agent window opens Sunday evening — unless, of course, neither ends up falling elsewhere and decide to stay put for now. And that is what the math says both of them would be wisest to do.
Durant will be offered a $221 million, five-year contract from Golden State. That’s one year and $57 million more than any other team can offer. Provided that he won’t be playing next year anyway because of his ruptured Achilles and that there’s no guarantee that the after-surgery version of Durant will remain in the best-player-on-the-planet conversation, it would be less than prudent to leave that much money on the table.
“He’s been everything to us,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said earlier this month.
With Leonard, it’s all a bit more complex.
The NBA champion Raptors could offer him anything from $32 million for one year to $190 million for five years, and the reality is that Leonard probably wants something in between. In the summer of 2021, after Leonard completes his 10th year in the league, he goes from being able to command 30% of a salary cap to 35% of a salary cap.
That 5% is going to be a lot of money. That’s why, for Leonard, the smarter play in terms of finances is to sign a shorter deal this summer — two years, $68 million or so, maybe with a third year at his option — and cash in for all he will have coming two years from now.
“He’s a confident human being,” Raptors President Masai Ujiri said. “He’s an unbelievable person. He is his own person. ... I think we’ve built a trust there.”
Of course, all that is the money aspect of things.
Leonard has already pocketed about $85 million in on-court earnings and the big money is really going to start rolling in now. Durant is up to around $190 million on the court, with probably just as much off the court. They’re both set for life, so money won’t be the sole driving force in their respective decisions.
The basketball stuff still matters. No matter how much Durant and Leonard have in the bank, they cannot buy championship rings.
This is where the ambiguity starts to kick in, although there shouldn’t be much. Even with the Los Angeles Lakers about to get Anthony Davis in a trade, even with the Brooklyn Nets quite possibly about to land Kyrie Irving in free agency, it’s fairly clear that the Raptors and Warriors — this past season’s NBA finalists — will go into next season with the most realistic championship aspirations.
The Warriors won’t have Durant because of his Achilles injury. They will still have Stephen Curry and, probably, Klay Thompson — provided he re-signs, as is expected. They will still have Steve Kerr calling the shots. They will have deep-pocketed, free-spending owners who won’t want the team’s first season in the new Chase Center to be, by Warriors’ standards, a step backwards after five consecutive NBA Finals appearances.
The Raptors have a chance to go back-to-back and even though the Eastern Conference is deeper now than it has been in recent years — Milwaukee won 60 games this past season, Philadelphia should be strong again, Boston and Indiana have some work to do but could find themselves right back in the mix — there’s an argument to be made that Leonard’s best path to a third title ring would lead him to stay in Toronto.
For Durant and Leonard, all the talk about New York and Brooklyn and Los Angeles should be just that — talk.
The simplest, and right, move for both is this: Run it back. Stay put. Be the dominoes that don’t fall, and let the rest of the league react to that.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org