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Hollinger: Kevin Durant wants out of Brooklyn, but he’s short on leverage

How exactly does one get out of a contract with four years left on it?

That’s the dilemma facing Kevin Durant as his demands for a trade have so far not come to fruition, while training camp hurtles toward us on the calendar. Durant is shuffling through the different cards in his hand to try to force his way out, but as we’ll see, the problem is that none of them are strong enough on their own to compel the Nets to act.

Two numbers, in particular, are working against him: He’ll be 34 by opening night and he has four years left on his contract.

The first of those numbers has made rival teams more cautious than the Nets hoped about unloading a Brinks truck-worth of talent and picks in return for Brooklyn’s star forward. Durant, a 12-time All-Star, is still in his prime, but probably not for much longer.

Meanwhile, the four years left on the deal give the Nets all the time in the world to find a resolution. Durant reportedly submitting a list of preferred destinations with only two teams on it (Miami and Phoenix) — clubs that now face near-impossible cap constraints on any plausible trade — further narrowed the scope of possibilities. But even if Durant was open-minded to someplace like, say, Boston or Toronto, the Nets hold the leverage here. Durant can demand a trade ’til he’s blue in the face, but only the Nets can trade him. He’s not a free agent until 2026, having signed an extension last fall under his own free will.

With whispers increasing in volume that the Nets might try to bring Durant back for training camp and see how it goes, Durant turned to the next page in the Getmeouttahere Playbook: brinkmanship. Throwing both his coach and GM under the bus — in many cases for moves that came with a wink and nod from Durant’s camp — certainly makes it less likely the Nets will find it tenable to reunite everyone in the fall.

Of course, this gambit offers no guarantees. The trade offers in front of the Nets today aren’t any different from the ones they rejected yesterday, and it’s not clear how or if Durant’s latest demand will compel action.

This could make things interesting as we get into fall. Seemingly the sharpest arrow left in Durant’s quiver is pure hardball: a holdout, one that would cost him a chunk of his $44 million 2022-23 salary for every day he sat out. It would, ironically, be a near carbon-copy of the situation a year ago in Philadelphia with Durant’s occasional teammate Ben Simmons.

Here’s the thing: The Nets are working on a different timeline than the Sixers were. Philadelphia was under pressure to maximize an MVP-caliber season from Joel Embiid, especially with the East looking wide open. Thus, as much as the Sixers talked about their willingness to play it out for an entire season or longer if need be, the fact is they had some real motivation to complete a Simmons deal before the trade deadline. (James Harden’s availability obviously greased that endgame, but the Sixers’ quandary was apparent long before that.)

That wouldn’t seem to be the case with the 2022-23 Nets. If anything, they would seem to have the opposite motivation. Yes, Brooklyn’s first choice would be to run it back with Durant, Simmons and Kyrie Irving (or a suitable replacement). But in the absence of Durant, wouldn’t the Nets’ second choice be to tank the season and try again in 2024? And wouldn’t a Durant holdout do nothing more than accelerate the Nets toward that endgame?

The presumptive reason for the Nets not to tank is that their next five drafts are owed to the Houston Rockets as a result of the 2021 trade for Harden. But Brooklyn can still get a high lottery pick in 2023. Yes, the Nets have an unprotected pick swap with Houston in the upcoming draft, but that still likely results in a great pick if the Nets are bad. The Rockets are building up their young talent, but they’re not exactly poised to run roughshod over the West just yet; Houston went 20-62 last season and traded its leading scorer for the 26th pick in the draft.

Thus, a one-season tank might actually be the best way for the Nets to maximize their return on a Durant trade demand. If Durant holds out and the Nets trade Irving to the Lakers for a Russell Westbrook-led package, this Nets team has all the necessary ingredients to bottom out for a year. Even if Simmons plays and performs at his Philadelphia level, the rest of the roster isn’t good enough to win without Durant and Irving. Additionally, if the Nets aren’t paying Durant due to a holdout, the related issue of being deep in the luxury tax for a bad team largely goes away. (The Nets would be one small trade away from getting out of the tax with their present roster.)

Meanwhile, the Nets are mostly inoculated from the downside of the pick swap by the likelihood of Houston also being bad. If both teams stink, the Nets’ worst-case scenario is still a high lottery pick.

This, in turn, takes us back to Durant and how the heck he extricates himself from a team that holds his rights for another four years. Merely demanding a trade hasn’t accomplished the desired result, and it’s not clear whether throwing the coach and GM under the bus will either. Brooklyn’s best-case scenario may be waiting until midseason, when this summer’s free agents are eligible to be dealt. It seems less likely they’d let a year of Durant’s contract wither on the vine at his age and wait until next offseason … but it can’t totally be ruled out either given the tanking incentive.

If Durant is still a Net as training camp begins, the question of next steps takes on more urgency. Ideally, he could force the Nets’ hand by holding out, but the reality of Brooklyn’s current situation is that a holdout might not be so bad.

This takes us to the final card left for Durant to play, one that he may be reluctant to put on the table for a variety of reasons but could end up being the most effective: Show up, get his numbers while going half-speed on defense, skip every third game with “general soreness” and do just enough to keep this team competent even as he makes everyone miserable in the process. (Helpfully, his good friend Irving has a lot of experience in this area.)

In a roundabout way, that would be the ultimate irony. Few players seem to care more about their public perception than Durant, yet the only way to achieve his desired outcome might be to show up and act like a big jerk. Even then, it’s still not guaranteed to work.

And with that, we loop around to an even bigger-picture issue, one that may help soothe some minds in front offices as the league and the NBA Players’ Association negotiate their next collective bargaining agreement. Wriggling out of a long-term contract is still really, really hard, even if you’re one of the five best players in the league. All the frayed nerves from the recent Paul George and Simmons situations may calm a bit as teams see this play out.

Ultimately, there are a lot of things Kevin Durant can try doing to get himself out of Brooklyn, but none of the cards he can play seem guaranteed to secure a quick exit. There just isn’t enough leverage with four years still left on his deal.

He can demand a trade and trash management, and maybe he can hold out or miss games with dubious injuries or play matador defense.

The one thing he can’t do, however, is get on the phone and trade himself.


Related reading

Harper: A timeline of the Kevin Durant saga
Schiffer: Ultimatum raises more questions for Nets

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(Photo of Kevin Durant: Brad Penner / USA Today)

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