Kevin Durant watch: Sizing up Thunder star’s 2016 free agency prospects

There will be a free-agent bonanza a year from now, but only in the sense that the NBA’s new TV contract will send the price for players skyrocketing — not necessarily in that there will be an enormous wave of available talent.

The elite tier begins with Kevin Durant, and things get thin after him (or, perhaps, after Al Horford). Little surprise that Durant, arguably the league’s best player even as he recovers from foot surgery, has been on the minds of league executives for years now.

But ask around NBA front offices, and you’ll find that the consensus remains that, heading into the final season of his contract, Durant is likely to remain in Oklahoma City. He’s comfortable there, he can take in a bigger paycheck there, and he actually should be able to win there.

Over the course of the next year, there will be rumors about teams gearing up for a run at Durant, teams angling to make their best pitches to him. Much will change over that span. Already, there have been at least 10 teams mentioned as potential landing spots for Durant, but around the league, the belief is the bulk of those teams have little chance.

Sporting News’ Sean Deveney evaluates how the suitors stack up, 11 months ahead of the actual chase.

1 Oklahoma City Thunder

Most front office folks around the league still see Oklahoma City keeping Durant as the most likely scenario next summer, but then, it should be pointed out that a year in advance, most thought LaMarcus Aldridge would stay in Portland, LeBron James would stay in Miami, Dwight Howard would stay with the Lakers, and so on. When November comes — and when the playoffs come next spring — if the Thunder don’t make any real progress, OKC’s inherent lead in the Durant sweepstakes will dwindle.

But OKC still has a stocked roster, built around the Durant-Russell Westbrook combo, packed with guys who are younger than Durant and will keep getting better over the next two or three seasons. That’s especially true in the frontcourt, where Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and Mitch McGary (all 23 or under) give the team a lot of depth around veteran forward Serge Ibaka (himself only 25).

There is uncertainty about new coach Billy Donovan, of course, but if he proves to be likeable and opens up the Thunder offense, he could be an asset. There’s also the financial advantage the Thunder have — depending on where the salary cap winds up, they could offer Durant a contract in the range of five years, $170 million, while competitors can offer four years and around $130 million.

“I would say the ball is still in their court,” one Western Conference general manager told Sporting News. “If they come out and have the kind of year they think they are going to have, if they stay healthy and it all comes together, he is going to have a hard time leaving. The system is set up to make him want to stay, and I think everyone is starting from that point. You wait to see what changes over the year.”

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