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Kevin Durant’s Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Warriors

Kevin Durant is almost in a classical Prisoner's Dilemma (google it) with Russell Westbrook, a very tricky situation where in order to re-sign with OKC, he has to trust that RWB will not betray him. The Warriors beckon to him as a way out.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Kevin Durant Magic Unicorn Fairytale

In case you haven’t heard, Kevin Durant is a free agent this year.

Now up until very recently, I had assumed that KD would stay with OKC, because that’s where his history, legacy and comfort zone are. He also can get more money from OKC. The Thunder were right there with the Warriors (albeit with a limited Curry) in the playoffs, so why leave a good thing?

But all you GSOMers just keep sucking me in and getting my hopes up. There’s one factor that has swayed me to thinking there is a very real chance KD comes to GSW. But before that, let’s just get the facts straight.

Woj reports:

  • KD meets with teams starting July 1, probably in NYC. So don’t read the tea leaves before July 1 (can we agree to call it K-D-Day?).
  • KD wants to decide before a trip on July 9
  • LIkely teams meeting are GSW, OKC, SAS, BOS, LAC, MIA.

Marc Stein reports:

Sources told ESPN that the list of teams that get to pitch Durant directly will grow before NBA free agency officially commences July 1 at 12:01 a.m. ET, but the list of confirmed suitors for now features the Thunder and their two main rivals in the Western Conference.

The Warriors and Spurs, sources say, are both already planning to load a plane full of key organizational figures -- including Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for Golden State, and Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan for San Antonio.

Why Would the W’s Want KD?

As for the basketball fit:


  • he is a scoring stud
  • he is a great shooter, which is something that the W’s (believe it or not) lack past Splash Bros
  • he is a decent passer and showed a lot of excellent defense in the WCF
  • he would give a second shot-creator on team. W’s basically can’t win with Curry out and very hard to win with subpar Curry.
  • high character
  • high IQ


  • questions about his accepting a smaller scoring load
  • questions about his accepting a #2 or #1A role
  • questions about his reducing the amount of ISO (note his public statement defending ISOs in OKC)
  • what would the Dubs have to give up to make space for KD ?

The great thing about the CONS is that by definition, if KD comes to the W’s he will have made peace with the Questions. So the only questions are if he’ll come and how much the W’s have to give up.

Bobby Marks on very basic Warriors cap and contract information

Roughly speaking, it looks like the W’s can keep Steph, Klay, Draymond, Andre and Shaun and also sign KD. Basically, they would have to lose either Bogut or Andre, and I assume for KD purposes, GSW would keep Andre.

That is a lot of bench to be dumping, including notably Barnes and Ezeli. But that bench strength looked pretty fragile in the playoffs, and all the important team culture pillars would remain, as well as all the players that KD is reportedly close with. Most importantly, it was likely that the W’s were going to lose a number of these free agents anyway, and the GSW centers were exposed as a liability in the playoffs.

So GSW would have to fill out a roster of something like

  1. Curry / Livingston
  2. Klay / McCaw
  3. Kevin Freakin Durant / Andre / Looney
  4. Draymond / Robert Carter / cheap vet big
  5. cheap vet competent center / Damian Jones

versus something like

  1. Curry / Livingston
  2. Klay / McCaw
  3. Barnes / Iguodala
  4. Draymond / Looney / Carter
  5. Bogut / Ezeli / Jones

The KD Unicorn lineup looks like a killer small lineup, but top-heavy and quite weak at traditional Center, whereas the KD-less normal Dubs look more balanced, but still with starting weak links like Barnes, and every experienced center on offense.

If KD Leaves OKC, Why Would KD Want to Join GSW ?

I would be shocked if KD ended up with anyone besides OKC or GSW next year. Reported likely teams meeting are GSW, OKC, SAS, BOS, LAC, MIA. Woj added:

But more than any other rival suitor, the Warriors have Durant's attention, league sources said.

Durant’s public and private criteria for the free-agent selection process have pertained to a singular focus: the chance to win titles immediately.

I think it’s pretty clear that of those teams, GSW and SAS are the only teams that would be a clear upgrade over OKC. And SAS is going through a weird transition where LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard are being asked to play a lot of slow isolation ball. This is already the situation he has in OKC, and SAS also has the mighty undead Big Three on the verge of retirement as usual.

So for sheer titles, GSW is the place. Curry is a near mortal lock to re-sign forever, Klay and Draymond are locked up for three more years.

And given that GSW just blew the Finals, KD won’t be seen as just riding coat-tails for a title.

Also, Durant is reportedly close to Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, as well as Stephen Curry, especially with their connection as serious Christians. GSW has a reputation as a fun place, it has lots of unselfish players he already likes, and Ron Adams, a former coach that he likes.

Why Would KD Want to Leave OKC?

1. OKC has a history of being cheap w players and trading them unceremoniously. Compare James Harden and Reggie Jackson trades. Also, good trade or not and whether Ibaka was an uncertainly aged malcontent or not, Serge Ibaka getting sent out is part of the pattern.

2. KD can get more money with OKC, but whatever team he chooses, he is going to sign a contract for one-year plus player option year, and he will almost surely re-sign there for the max under the new salary cap, and he will be making more money than you can spend in a lifetime.

3. KD is in a very tricky situation where he has to trust that RWB will not betray him, as explained next.

The One-sided Prisoner’s Dilemma

Kevin Durant is almost in a classical Prisoner's Dilemma (google it) with Russell Westbrook. RWB himself will be a free agent next year. If they both stay, that team will be a contender for as long as the two of them are playing. If one leaves and one stays, the other is screwed because history tells us that OKC can’t be a contender without both of them healthy. If both leave, both will do fine with their new situation. So the individual calculation is to leave, UNLESS you are rock solid sure the other won't betray.

That’s the classical Prisoner’s Dilemma. But KD is in a much worse situation. Basically, he has to decide first BEFORE RWB. There’s no middle ground of KD delaying the decision by signing a 1 yr contract with OKC to synchronize free agency with RWB, because this year is pretty much the only year the salary cap lets the W's take in KD.

If KD does not sign w GSW, the W’s will have to match Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli restricted free agency offers, or let them leave for nothing. (Now you may be a bit bitter about the playoffs, where it’s fair to say that they were both very disappointing despite the opportunity and need for them to step up in a bigger role. But given the salary cap, if the two walk, there isn’t any easy way for GSW to replace them. So the best chance is to arrange some kind of sign-and-trade.) And any talented player that GSW brings on board will probably not be willing to come with a one year contract. So this is the big year for GSW to add a free agent.

So, if KD does NOT leave OKC, if he re-signs with OKC then next year, he has to trust that RWB will re-sign too. If RWB wants a bigger media market, a bigger brand, a chance to be the undisputed main man, then he could well leave KD holding the bag at OKC having missed his chance to go to GSW. Unless he can be trusted to be a brother and have a selfless attitude.

If KD signs elsewhere, he controls his own destiny.

Final Thoughts

So, what will happen? Who knows? But I expect the decision will simply come down to how much KD trusts RWB. GSW looks all-in on getting Durant, so If KD trusts RWB to selflessly build a contender with him, then he stays. If he doesn’t, then he’ll go to GSW.

I know I'm completely projecting my own prejudices, but RWB does not seem to be that selfless just-win guy that KD can entrust his career to. Westbrook:

  • shoots more than KD throughout games and in crunch time, even though KD is a much better shooter
  • pads his own stats to get MVPs of All-Star exhibitions
  • acts immaturely towards the press and rarely if ever takes responsibility for his bad game decisions, and rarely gives respect to opponents
  • calls attention to himself via a controversial public fashion sense and look

So KD may really need to book a banana boat vacation with RWB after the free agency pitches on K-D-Day (7/1) and have the biggest heart to heart in recent NBA history...

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