After Bringing Back Russell Westbrook, the Thunder Have Hope

When they re-upped All-Star and Extremely Intense Person Russell Westbrook, the Thunder didn't just avoid the worst offseason ever. They gave themselves a chance.

by Michael Pina
Aug 5 2016, 3:57pm

Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook's decision to re-sign and extend with the Oklahoma City Thunder for $85 million over the next three seasons immediately sent some significant ripples throughout the NBA. Now that the initial aftershocks of bombast and forced narrativizing and Enes Kanter's shockingly bad memecraft have cleared, we can get a clearer look at what this all means.

Let's get the obvious out of the way first: superstars are everything in the NBA, and the Thunder succeeded in keeping theirs in the fold. Every organization's priority each season is to land a superstar or, if they're lucky, make the star they already have as happy and comfortable as possible. In that sense, if maybe only in that sense, Westbrook's deal is business as usual. The Thunder hang on to relevance because they hung on to their best remaining player, and Westbrook retains the opportunity to thrive as a first option on a playoff team. For now, both parties walk away from the table content. For now. But that is the obvious part. The bigger question is what this deal means for the rest of the league.

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As one of the five or six best players in the world, Oklahoma City's best player gets the raise he deserves. Westbrook will be paid max money this season—approximately a $8.7 million increase from what he was previously set to earn—and next ($28.5 million) before a player option allows him to dip back into unrestricted free agency as a ten-year veteran, which—assuming the CBA is not substantially altered before then—means his next max contract will be worth 35 percent of the salary cap, whatever that looks like in 2019.

Maxing out Westbrook on a five-year deal right before he turns 30 may not be the wisest decision in the world, but that's a different topic for a different article. Right now, the deal in place is a best-case scenario for the Thunder, and a momentous signal to general manager Sam Presti, head coach Billy Donovan, and the rest of Oklahoma City that Westbrook is committed—and enough of a believer in the roster that Presti recently overhauled—to forego free agency next July.

That might be all it is, but it's still a relief. If Westbrook said thanks but no thanks to an extension, Oklahoma City's only path back to contention would have been a long and arduous one back up through the draft. Trading Serge Ibaka, losing Kevin Durant, and then dealing Westbrook without enough leverage to get back assets that reflect his true value could have been the worst summer any NBA franchise ever had.

When you see the contract. Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, this extension is Vincent Vega plunging a shot of adrenaline into Mia Wallace's heart. Westbrook is the NBA's most dazzlingly volcanic player, and perpetually on the verge of defying all we believe the human body to be capable of accomplishing. His first step might as well be a sucker punch, but even more important is the sheer force that accompanies his presence, which gives the Thunder a fighting chance. The franchise may as well have moved back to Seattle if they'd lost him for nothing. Instead, they're in an advantageous position to retool on the fly. The position draws parallel to what the Houston Rockets are trying with James Harden or what the Dallas Mavericks pulled off with Dirk Nowitzki.

Which is to say that, while it's not an ideal situation, Oklahoma City still has a spellbinding star in his prime, surrounded by a strong supporting cast of intriguing young talent. They won't contend for the championship this season but if everything—absolutely everything—goes right, they can still win a playoff series or two in what appears to be a quietly unpredictable Western Conference. And if they win 50 games and make noise in the playoffs, they might just become an attractive free-agent destination next summer. They may have a tough time affording a max contract for him, given Westbrook's extension, Kanter's monstrous deal, plus cap holds for Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, and Andre Roberson (all are entering restricted free agency), but there are manageable solutions should the need arise.

Now, not only do the other teams angling for a shot at Russ miss out on the rare chance to sign a player this good two years before his 30th birthday; they must also stand by and helplessly watch as the Thunder go from desperate sellers to hopeful buyers. OKC might not be the most attractive destination for talented free agents like Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward, Danilo Gallinari, and Paul Millsap, but now at least they have a case to make. Even if the Thunder swing and miss on the most desirable talent next year's market has to offer, their core may be talented enough to entice someone like J.J. Redick and make a decent-sized leap towards the elite. If 23-year-old rookie Alex Abrines shoots as well in the NBA as he did last season for Barcelona, Redick might not even be necessary.

You don't have to be lonely. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There was always a future for this core. Adams just turned 23 and is already one of the five best centers in the league; Oladipo and Kanter just turned 24, and Roberson turns 25 in December. The difference now is that there's also a promising present. All four players complement Westbrook, though it's unclear who will handle the ball and score when he and Oladipo are both on the bench. Westbrook, Adams, and Roberson only played 35 minutes last season without Durant or Ibaka on the floor, and their offense was worse than the Philadelphia 76ers in that vanishingly small sample size. So there's reason for some pessimism, but that was always the case. But even if Oklahoma's bench crumbles, or they find it impossible to replace Ibaka and Durant's defensive athleticism, or if Westbrook sprains his ankle, this extension will give the Thunder enough leverage to make the type of trade they couldn't do this summer.

No intelligent team would mortgage their entire future for a player who could bolt in six months. But having Westbrook under contract for the next season, plus his Bird rights, could be enough to pry D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram from the Los Angeles Lakers, Andrew Wiggins and Kris Dunn from the Minnesota Timberwolves, or Isaiah Thomas and high-value first-round picks in 2017 and 2018 from the Boston Celtics (via the Brooklyn Nets) should the team decide to cut bait.

Still, a trade only makes sense if the Thunder are so bad that Presti doesn't think any star free agents will be willing to sign in Oklahoma City and team up with Westbrook. Even in that worst-case scenario, though, the team is covered, Westbrook gets paid, and everyone gets something like what they want. It's not reuniting Durant and Westbrook for another run at the Warriors and a title, but it's probably the best conceivable outcome for all parties involved once the Durant/Westbrook god-dream died. Which means, imperfect as it is, this deal is the best news Oklahoma City has had in a very long time.

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