After displaying the depth of its young talent last season, the NBA will get a boost from the return of the sport's second-best player, Kevin Durant. With Durant coming back from a shortened 2014-15 campaign, the league will benefit from the Oklahoma City Thunder reestablishing themselves as championship contenders, as well as the high drama leading up to KD hitting the open market next summer.
Even with Durant held to just 27 games due to injury, this past season had its share of excitement.
LeBron James and Stephen Curry battled it out in the most watched NBA Finals series since Michael Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1998. James Harden and Anthony Davis became bona fide superstars, while players on the rise, such as DeMarcus Cousins, Kawhi Leonard and John Wall, continued to establish themselves.
Still, the game just didn't feel the same without Durant and his innate ability to fill up a stat sheet at a moment's notice. Russell Westbrook did everything he could to carry the Thunder in KD's absence, but he fell just short of making the playoffs, leaving the NBA without two of its six best players in the postseason.
Durant has been doing everything in his power to get himself and his team back off the canvas, from hanging out with new coach Billy Donovan at the summer league to holding voluntary offseason workouts. The 26-year-old continues to progress in his rehab from a bone-graft procedure in March, and he expects to return to the court in August, per Daily Thunder's Royce Young.
We’re close to Phase 3 now. There’s three phases in the rehab. It’s going well. I’m shooting, jumping when I’m shooting, not quite running and cutting yet, but I’m almost there. It’s going well. I’m excited. ... There's no pain and looking forward to getting back.
The NBA has a lot riding on Durant's return to full strength. He's the headliner of next year's free-agent class and one of the league's most marketable stars. His ability to elevate the Thunder back into the elite ranks would add another contender to a top-heavy league and increase the competitiveness of the sport.
In addition to the excitement of having the game's best pure scorer back on the floor, the NBA will also benefit from Durant being an unrestricted free agent next summer. The speculation surrounding the 2014 MVP's future will be the most talked-about story throughout the season, inevitably turning every Thunder game into a "Kevin Durant Watch."
Other than Durant, there aren't many big names who could possibly change zip codes on the open market during 2016's much-anticipated free-agency period. James can once again opt out of his deal, but he won't break Cleveland's heart a second time by fleeing elsewhere.
Beyond LBJ, the Atlanta Hawks' Al Horford, the Charlotte Hornets' Al Jefferson and the Bulls' Joakim Noah are all slated to be unrestricted free agents, while Dwight Howard has an early termination option with the Houston Rockets. However, all four will be 30 or older by next July, and each have had their share of health issues.
The Detroit Pistons' Andre Drummond and the Washington Wizards' Bradley Beal will be in line for huge paydays, but their their respective teams control their fates as restricted free agents. After that group, the market drops down a step to guys like DeMar DeRozan (early termination option), Chandler Parsons (player option) and Eric Gordon.
With the exception of James, none of those players have the marketability or superstar appeal of Durant. For eight years, KD has been one of the league's most consistent offensive forces, earning four scoring titles and averaging more than 25 points per game seven times. He also holds the fourth-best player efficiency rating (PER) of active players with at least 15,000 career minutes under their belt.
As deep as the NBA's talent pool is, there aren't many players with that kind of reputation, and Durant's return will be a huge boost for the sport. Also, the league would probably be ecstatic if it can once again get 82 games from him.
Meanwhile, the reunion of Durant and Westbrook along with a talented supporting cast makes Oklahoma City a legitimate threat to the NBA crown in 2016. The Thunder's path to the postseason was also made easier by most of its division rivals taking a turn for the worse.
The Portland Trail Blazers lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez in free agency as well as Nicolas Batum via trade. The Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves are still rebuilding, while the emerging Utah Jazz aren't considered contenders yet.
However, the top half of the Western Conference enhanced its strength this offseason.
The defending champion Golden State Warriors re-signed Draymond Green and traded for Gerald Wallace. The Rockets took a gamble on Ty Lawson. The Los Angeles Clippers added depth with Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith before bringing back DeAndre Jordan. Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs retained Leonard and Danny Green and fortified their frontcourt with Aldridge and David West.
Still, assuming everyone stays healthy, the Thunder should easily take the Northwest Division and battle those contenders as well as the Memphis Grizzlies in what should be a dogfight for Western supremacy. That kind of competitiveness stands in stark contrast to the East, where LeBron's Cavs rule the roost.
Even if Durant and Co. can survive the West, the road to the franchise's first title still likely goes through Cleveland. After a thrilling Cavs-Warriors series, how great would it be if the league followed up with an epic James-Durant rematch this upcoming season?
The league's two best players going head-to-head on a national stage with a championship at stake and both men hitting the open market that summer. It's the kind of suspenseful sports drama Hollywood studios would pay Oliver Stone to produce, and it's a possibility that should have the NBA salivating.
Durant's quest for his first NBA title adds even more intrigue to the most pivotal season of his career. As if coming off three foot surgeries while dealing with constant questions about his future wasn't daunting enough, he remains the best player in basketball without a championship ring.
Regardless of how the season ends, the NBA needs Durant in basketball shorts and high-tops instead of a suit and a walking boot. He's one of the few players in the league who can turn a basketball game into an event.
It's been awhile since the world has seen Durant on a basketball court, but his return couldn't come at a better time.
As both the crown jewel of an otherwise thin 2016 free-agent class and the catalyst behind the Oklahoma City Thunder's championship hopes, Durant's return will play a crucial role this season.
Last season, the NBA survived without him. This year, the league will thrive with him.