Kevin Durant is in Las Vegas preparing for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, and all anyone wants to ask him about is 2016.
Durant is saying all the right things, as you might expect, lauding LeBron James' "classy" return to Cleveland, saying he loves Oklahoma City while doing his best to keep the door slightly open for a potential exit. But the questions will only multiply from here. Especially now that James’ homecoming has, in the eyes of some, laid the groundwork for Durant to make a similar move to his hometown of Washington, D.C. In an interview with Darren Rovell, Durant said the speculation has forced him to delete the Twitter app from his phone.
But now, two years away from when Durant will actually be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, plenty of assumptions are being made about the Thunder forward and his future.
Two things about that:
1) Unlike LeBron, who drew all sorts of ire for his Miami move, Durant's approval rating hasn’t wavered. He doesn't need a homecoming to change public perception or increase his branding potential.
2) Durant wants to define his career himself, not be the guy to do what LeBron did. The two are friendly rivals, playing with immense mutual respect, but Durant's pending decision will be his alone. He alluded to as much in his MVP speech:
"When they told me I was going to win this prestigious award, the first thing I did was go to YouTube, and I looked at what LeBron James said a few years ago and what Derrick Rose said,” Durant said. “And I just tried to change it up a little bit. I wanted to come here and hit everybody in the face with what I said so they could feel it. I wanted to leave my mark.”
Durant does love his hometown. In that same speech, he mentioned growing up in Prince George "P.G." County. He has "Maryland" tattooed in giant letters across the top of his back. He has the Washington Nationals logo tattooed above his belly button. He wears a snakeskin-billed Redskins hat after most games. He knows where he's from. He loves where he's from.
But that doesn't necessarily mean he wants to play basketball there. When Durant picked a college in 2007, he didn't stay close to home at Georgetown, or Maryland or Virginia, or even North Carolina. He chose Texas, some 1,500 miles away. He may not be a boisterous leader, but he’s also not one to follow.
“I’m going to do what’s best for me,” Durant told reporters in Vegas. “It’s hard to talk about that right now when I’ve got two years left in Oklahoma City. I’m just going to focus on that. I’m not going to make a decision based on what anybody else does.”
Durant's top priority has always been winning, and with the Thunder, he's done an incredible amount of it. In the past four seasons, he's won about 75 percent of his games, been to the Western Conference finals three times and made one trip to the NBA Finals. Basketball is what drives Durant most. He’s a junkie who can't keep himself off a court. While other Team USA stars have bowed out of the World Cup, Durant is, predictably, ready to go. His decision will likely come down to where he can win next, not where he has won, but the Thunder have two years to prove that their franchise offers the best opportunity to do just that.
You can’t dismiss the emotional connection Durant has built in Oklahoma City, either. D.C. may be home, but Durant has spent his first seven NBA seasons with the Thunder, growing up from a skinny kid who couldn't bench 185 pounds to the league's MVP. Durant often references the team's 3-29 start to the 2008-09 season, a touchstone for him and the franchise, and those kinds of moments are something only the Thunder have had with him.
Over the next two years, the variables leading to Durant's choice will pile up. The bulk of the factors that will influence his decision most haven't even happened yet. Things will change, and so will he. Durant recently told reporters that the reason he signed a five-year max deal with no opt-out in the final year was because he was young and didn't know any better. He's a different person now than he was then.
He'll be a different one in 2016. A man with different goals, different motivations, different desires.
But winning will still be most important to him. The basketball will be the only thing that he follows.