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It’s hard to pinpoint where exactly the rumors began or why, with the 2018-19 NBA season barely underway, we’re already focusing on next summer, and yet here we are.
All you need to do is type the words “Kevin Durant” and “Knicks” into Google to see how loud the whispers have grown. Or, hell, just take a walk down Seventh Avenue.
“Can you make NY sports great again?” is the question plastered onto the six-or-so-story billboard overlooking Madison Square Garden. Below it is a cartoon rendering of Durant, donning a Knicks uniform, along with the hashtag #KDNY2019.
A billboard recruiting Kevin Durant to the Knicks just went up outside Madison Square Garden 👀 (📷 via Dennis Roitman) https://t.co/CM0EFNQPZZ https://t.co/ofEexWkqFv
Silly or not, the notion that Durant (an unrestricted free agent this summer) and the Knicks (a couple of tweaks away from having enough cap space to offer a max deal) will soon be linking up has evolved into a full-fledged, NBA thing. And it’s a storyline that’s about to launch from the periphery into the mainstream.
On Friday, Durant and the Warriors will pay their lone visit of the season to Madison Square Garden. There, he will be met by a hoard of reporters curious to hear his response to these rumors. There’s a good chance desperate Knicks fans (forgive the redundancy) greet him with a standing ovation. By now, they know the drill.
The question is if any of this is real. Hearing about a shiny free agent the Knicks plan on pursuing is nothing new. It’s the team’s blueprint, and we know how that’s turned out over the past two decades.
Yet there is something about these Durant rumors that feels different.
This is where it’s pointed out that the Knicks’ cupboard is no longer barren. “A great young core” is how Kyrie Irving described the Knicks roster last week when New York reporters asked whether he considered the team before announcing his intention to re-sign with the Celtics this summer.
There’s Kristaps Porzingis, who, if healthy, could evolve into a top-20 player. There’s Kevin Knox, a lottery pick who dazzled in summer league. There’s Frank Ntilikina, just 20 years old and already one of the league’s top perimeter defenders. There’s David Fizdale, a popular and engaging young head coach. And, in all likelihood, there’s another lottery pick on the way this June.
That’s not to say these are all sure things. Who knows about Porzingis’ future health, or whether Knox fulfills his potential, or whether Ntilikina ever develops a jumper, or whether Fizdale can be a successful head coach? But it’s fair to say that, come July, the Knicks won’t be coming to the table clutching only scraps.
Also, look closely, and you can spot ties to Durant throughout the franchise. Scott Perry, the team’s general manager, was the assistant general manager for the Seattle SuperSonics when they drafted Durant second overall in 2007.
Royal Ivey, a Knicks assistant coach, played two-plus years alongside Durant in Oklahoma City and, like Durant, played college basketball at Texas. Durant described him as his best friend in the league in 2012.
Rich Kleiman, Durant’s agent and business partner, is a longtime vocal Knicks fan who has relationships with MSG executives.
If you want to go really deep with it, let’s not forget Carl Lentz, the skinny jean-wearing lead pastor for the New York City branch of the Hillsong Church. Lentz baptized Durant a few years ago, and as outlined by this 2015 GQ story, and confirmed to me by sources (how’s that for intrepid NBA reporting?), Lentz has been a presence around the Knicks at times over the past decade.
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All of which sounds great on paper. But can any of these connections impact Durant’s decision, or are they the sort of things reporters like me throw out because they sound intriguing? I made a couple of calls to find out, and here’s what I was told:
The Ivey relationship? It’s real, but it didn’t stop Durant from leaving the Thunder. An example: In June 2016, Ivey, Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison met Durant in a West Hollywood restaurant and lobbied for him to re-sign in Oklahoma City. About a week later, Durant announced he was joining the Warriors.
Perry? “Yeah, he was there when we drafted Kevin,” a source with connections to that Sonics front office said, “and he’s a good GM, but—and this is not meant as a shot at him—I don’t think Durant is choosing the Knicks because of Scott Perry.”
As for Lentz or Kleiman or whatever other random names sneak into this story over the next few months, why should we believe any of these individuals have the power to sway Durant? Sure, maybe they could influence his decision-making a bit, but in the end, all of this will come down to him. And if there’s anything we’ve learned about him over the past few years, it’s that he’s not sure.
Maybe he does want to step out from the Warriors’ shadow, and maybe he is intrigued by the opportunity to become the Knicks’ savior and all the glory that would come with it.
Or maybe he enjoys chasing rings alongside future Hall of Famers. Or maybe he wants to join a team that can recruit another max player, like the Clippers or Nets. Or maybe there’s a mystery team out there. Or maybe Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler find new homes, and everything in the NBA gets turned upside down.
Right now, it’s just October. There are about five months left in the regular season and eight months until the NBA Finals and nine months until free agency. A lot can happen between now and July. All we can do in the meantime is watch and guess.