When Kevin Durant went down with a torn right Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Monday night, the future became murky.
Not only for Durant and the Golden State Warriors, but for the rest of the NBA.
Durant is arguably the best player in the league, and what he decides to do once free agency begins on June 30 could change the league for years.
Durant has options. He could exercise his player option and stay with the Warriors for another year; test the free-agency waters and sign a max contract elsewhere; or re-sign with the Warriors for the long-term to try and keep the dynasty rolling.
We picked five teams that will be most affected by Durant's injury, which could keep him out for all of next season.
Maybe 2019-20 finally is the season James Harden and the Rockets advance to the NBA Finals. The Warriors have been their road block time after time, but a Warriors team without Durant — and perhaps other key players that have been part of their five consecutive trips to the Finals — will be a much different foe.
In 2015, the Rockets lost to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, 4-1. In 2016, first round, same result. In 2018, the Rockets lost the Western Conference title to the Warriors, 4-3. This season, it appeared the Rockets had the advantage. Durant injured his right calf in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals and the Rockets could have wrapped the series. But they came up short again, casting doubt on coach Mike D'Antoni and his adjustments with this group.
Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant dribbles the ball as Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon defends. (Photo: Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)
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Harden, the 2018 regular-season MVP and a strong bet to be named it again later this month, cannot carry this team on his own. While some believed the Rockets, who still haven't firmed up a deal with D'Antoni, might consider trading Chris Paul to sign a younger playmaker in free agency, that seems unlikely due to his age and massive contract.
Still, the Rockets could pick up one or two key bench players to help absorb some minutes for Harden and be on their way to their first Finals since they won back-to-back titles with Hakeem Olajuwon in the mid-'90s.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers can’t squander another season of LeBron James’ career, not when he turns 35 in December. This puts pressure on the front office to make a move this offseason that puts them in position to win the Western Conference, which may be much more open without Durant. That means making a deal for New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and luring the right free agents, including the possibility of another All-Star caliber player in addition to Davis.
The Lakers weren’t expecting this window of opportunity in the West, and now general manager Rob Pelinka can’t afford to let this offseason go by without significant improvements to the roster. James knows what’s at stake. Can the Lakers help him?
New York Knicks
New York’s front office executives, president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry, have preached prudence when it comes to their rebuild. They say they're going to make the right moves and not spend money for the sake of spending just because they have immense salary cap space. That patience will be tested because Durant, one of their potential top targets in free agency, likely won’t be available to play until the 2020-21 season.
The Knicks would be still willing to sign him to a four-year deal this summer. Or, if Durant decides to finish out the remaining year of his deal with the Warriors, the Knicks could pursue him in free agency a year from now.
The Knicks say there is no timeline on their rebuild, and that’s a good thing when it comes to Durant. Now, they just need to convince him to play for them.
Golden State Warriors
At first glance, Durant’s injury wouldn’t seem to have much of an impact on the Warriors beyond these NBA Finals. Most have expected Durant to leave in free agency all season. However, Durant could opt in to the final year of his current contract at $31.5 million. Or, if the organization's emotional response to his injury struck a chord, he could choose to re-sign. Either course would make it difficult for the Warriors to make additional big moves.
Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant and guard Stephen Curry look on. (Photo: Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports)
Klay Thompson is a free agent this summer and will command a huge contract. Draymond Green will too when he reaches free agency after next season. And as we’ve seen in these Finals, the Warriors’ depth is an issue. Having so much money devoted to a few players would significantly hinder Golden State’s ability to fill out the roster with quality role players.
The Nets had set themselves up to be a major player in free agency this summer, and they still should be, but Durant’s injury may force them to alter their strategy a bit. The Nets have the salary cap space to sign two max free agents and are widely believed to be a front-runner for Kyrie Irving. The question now is what to do with the second max slot.
Will the Nets go after Durant, knowing that he will likely miss next season? It might make more sense to target someone like Jimmy Butler who can step in immediately and help Brooklyn’s young, up-and-coming core take the next step and challenge the top of the Eastern Conference.
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