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How Cavs' all-in push for LeBron shaped Thunder's plan for Durant

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- As the on-stage band broke out into a brassy version of the Harlem Globetrotters theme, Kevin Durant, wearing a well-tailored tuxedo, looked out over the crowd and couldn't swallow his smile.

It was a momentous mid-November evening in Tulsa: Durant was being inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame along with philanthropists, a former university president, a renowned sculptor and one of the architects of Oklahoma's school system. The 27-year-old was the youngest inductee by several decades.

"This is truly amazing," Durant said at the podium. "A kid from Maryland going into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. Dreams really do come true."

Officially, the Thunder weren't involved with Durant's selection for what is considered one of the highest honors in the Sooner State, though team owner Clay Bennett is on the board of directors. Someone had the bright idea to give Durant the honor a few months before he became an unrestricted free agent for the first time. And Durant appeared to be moved by the experience.

His mother, in a resplendent dress, looked on proudly. Russell Westbrook was Durant's presenter, giving the point guard a chance to be feted as well. Durant cracked up the crowd as he told of his first visit to the state in 2008, when he saw no one in the airport, no one on the streets and was shaken by staying in an allegedly haunted hotel.

"As time went on, I started to realize the core values of Oklahomans," Durant said. "Hard work, resiliency, humility. It made me a better man, and it made me a better basketball player. I can't do anything but thank everybody who I've come across who's supported me, through good and bad."

If an oddsmaker was sitting in the crowd, they might have peeled Durant leaving Oklahoma City next summer off the board. On this front -- on every front, frankly -- the evening was a smashing success.

It was a reminder of how much one player can mean to a community where the pro basketball team is a part of the fabric. It was also a reminder of why the stakes are so high when it comes to Durant's future, and why, even though it's considered impolite to talk about in certain circles, his free agency looms like a storm on the horizon.


In May 2010, in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, LeBron James received his second Most Valuable Player award in front of teammates and dignitaries. That day, about two months before he would become an unrestricted free agent for the first time, James was asked how he could leave all that surrounded him.

"I love this place to death," James said. "Every day I wake up, I understand that I'm not just carrying myself but I'm also carrying this city to bigger and better heights. No matter where life may head me, I'm never gone from here."

There were smiles and tears from his mother and teammates posing for pictures with the trophy. The odds of James bolting Cleveland based on the emotional afternoon seemed long then, too.

There are indeed similarities between James' situation in 2010 and Durant's in 2016 -- certain moments, statistics and circumstances that can be bent to make any storyline fit. But there are many more differences. History has shown that free agencies are like snowflakes. Predicting the outcome based on another is often foolhardy in the long run.

Nonetheless, James' departure to the Miami Heat has become a significant part of how the Thunder are bracing themselves for Durant. The Thunder remember James' speech. They remember every move the Cavaliers made or didn't make as the days leading up to July 1, 2010, ticked away. And it has clearly shaped their strategy for Durant's upcoming decision.


Durant and Westbrook are famous for arriving at the Thunder practice facility for pre-dawn workouts before practices. As they use different baskets for their separate work, the light in general manager Sam Presti's office adjacent to the court is often on.

Those who know Presti will tell you how deeply he throws himself into projects. Every NBA GM spends time buried in thought, assigning studies for what can sometimes seem like trivialities and practicing different game theories. But the Presti's level of engagement can cross into obsession. He can sometimes be found spending afternoons in coffee shops around Oklahoma City, sketching and writing in notebooks as he grinds through problem sets.

Presti protects his strategies closely, but you can bet that he's examined and evaluated every step the Cavs made from 2006 until 2010, the length of James' last contract with the Cavs in the first go-around. It's evident in the moves he's made thus far.

By the 2009-10 season, the Cavs were in all-out "keep LeBron" mode. They traded for Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison, ballooning their payroll to over $102 million with luxury taxes. They tried to add any talent they could get their hands on in order to piece together a championship team.

They also had a roster with an average age of 28, and a core that was even older. Seven of the 15 players on the roster ended up out of the NBA within two seasons of James' departure to Miami. When the time came for James to truly look at his options, he saw a Cleveland team with no cap space and just one first-round pick from the previous seven seasons on the roster.

This is where the Thunder have tried to position themselves differently. Or the Lakers with Dwight Howard. Or the then-New Orleans Hornets with Chris Paul. Or the Denver Nuggets with Carmelo Anthony.

As wonderful as that evening in Tulsa was, as much love as Oklahoma City has shown for Durant, the construction of the team's roster will likely matter far more. The Thunder's current roster will have an average age of 26 going into next season. Nine players are younger than Durant, and seven of them are first-rounders picked since he was selected No. 2 overall in 2007.

The Thunder, like the Cavs in '09-10, have also hit the gas on spending; they are currently scheduled to pay $22 million in luxury taxes this season. The lingering issue over trading instead of paying James Harden in 2011 is a complex one, but regardless of its outcome, it was a decision made with this time in mind.

The irony of the 2011 anti-Heat rules in the new collective bargaining agreement is that it first broke up the Thunder. Had the Thunder paid Harden, they likely would have been a luxury tax payer for each of the past four years. That would've made them a repeater tax team -- triggering drastically more punitive tax penalties -- right at the time they needed to re-sign Durant and, eventually, Westbrook. This, they feared, would've hamstrung them like it did the Cavs in 2010, when their past spending made improving the team challenging.

While one can argue whether the Thunder could be a repeater-tax team with a title right now or whether they should have traded Serge Ibaka or Westbrook instead of Harden, what isn't up for debate is that such a tax burden would have severely limited them today.

That's the sales pitch to Durant that has been years in the making: The team is young, it's spending money, it's in a position to keep spending money because of past discipline, it won't have to gut itself to make salary-cap space to sign him and it has gone out and hired a coach in Billy Donovan who Presti believes is one of the best minds in the game (in another of his multi-stage decisions).

It's a pitch the Cavs, for all their efforts, could not make to James.


Some who know Durant believe his shoe contract negotiations are a window to how he may approach free agency. In 2014, Durant seriously considered signing with Under Armour, a company from his home region in Maryland. It was a historic offer, the kind of deal that may have changed the face of the shoe wars. He got close to accepting it. Then he ended up staying with Nike (for a reported $300 million), the company he'd been with since 2007.

The Thunder, like Nike, can pay Durant more than anyone. If he structures his deal in a way that allows him to re-enter the market in 2017, when the salary cap hits a peak, he could end up with a deal in excess of $225 million, a figure that may not be available elsewhere.

There was some concern in the Thunder organization when, in 2013, Durant hired Jay-Z's start-up Roc Nation to represent him. Sometimes moving talent creates a big display of power for an agency, and Roc Nation's first big deal was the massive contract that sent longtime New York Yankee Robinson Cano to the Seattle Mariners that same year. Then they nearly moved Durant away from Nike. Both Cano and Durant, though, ended up with excellent deals.

There were memories of Creative Artists Agency and how they helped establish its power base by helping move James and Chris Bosh to Miami in 2010 and then using leverage to move Anthony to New York months later.

But the Thunder's dealings with Roc Nation have been positive and constructive across the board the past two years, multiple sources said, and those initial concerns have been eased.

Meanwhile, Durant has gone to great lengths to shut down speculation over his future. He's refused to discuss his status with the media or flirt with other cities in his travels, something James was known to do on occasion. He made a firm denial to ESPN's Stephen A. Smith when Smith linked Durant to the Los Angeles Lakers this fall. He admonished the Washington Wizards fans for their campaign to recruit him to D.C. because he said it was offensive to the home team.

When Durant has opened up, he's appeared more focused on recruiting Westbrook, who will be a free agent in 2017, to stay than his own future. He closed his speech at the Hall of Fame by saying he hoped he'd be back next year to induct Westbrook (which is to be expected if Durant re-signs). Numerous national media members have cycled through Oklahoma City this season with requests for Durant interviews, but the only extensive one he's given has been to the local Oklahoman and the subject was exclusively his relationship with Westbrook. Durant said in a recent postgame interview that Westbrook was the team's best player, a comment that raised eyebrows.

"There's times where me and Russell didn't talk," Durant told the Oklahoman. "There's times we come into the practice facility and I want to fight him and there's times where he wants to fight me. That's dealing with someone more than your family. You're going to have those days. But I know I'm gonna go to war for him in front of anybody."

These signs are reassuring for those in OKC. So is the fact that after some early uneven play and a left hamstring injury that kept Durant out for six games, the team has been hitting its stride, with five straight wins and eight in the past 10 games.

But studying the Cavs and others in this position has taught the Thunder not to cling to these details. Or to any negative rumors that may surface.

The Thunder will keep working their respective plans: Durant will keep working on his game, Donovan will keep working the sideline and Presti will keep working late into the night. All of them, in one way or another, are chasing an impossibility: predicting the future.

No one can articulate that more than James and the Cavs.