Russell Westbrook has been the perfect leader for the Oklahoma City Thunder. When the going got ridiculously tough last summer with his tag-team partner Kevin Durant bolting for Golden State, Westbrook re-signed in Oklahoma City.
The re-up told OKC fans, “I’m not giving up on you,” and Westbrook proceeded to have one of the most dominant individual seasons in the history of the NBA. It will likely get him MVP honors.
But Westbrook has got to be having a tough time right now watching his former teammates in Durant and James Harden thrive in the playoffs. Oklahoma City boss Sam Presti desperately needs to find a sidekick for Westbrook in NBA free agency this offseason, or else he risks Westbrook doing exactly what Durant did. Westbrook loves OKC, and the OKC fans love him for being so loyal. If Presti can’t deliver on giving Westbrook a real supporting cast, however, it will be time to blow this thing up.
Westbrook can already opt out of his contract at the end of next season. If Presti can’t convince him to sign a five-year extension this summer, then the Westbrook era in OKC is likely over. There is no way Presti could let Durant and then potentially Westbrook walk out the door for absolutely nothing.
Tim Bontemps brought this very point up in the Washington Post last week and it could quickly become the most fascinating sub-plot of the NBA offseason. How often is a reigning MVP of the league on the trade market? From the Post:
When Westbrook chose to commit to a contract extension last summer, he was lauded for his willingness to stick with the franchise in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure for Golden State. But here’s what Westbrook really did: get himself a several-million-dollar raise while agreeing to stay for essentially only this past season and the chance to see how things played out with the Thunder without Durant.
After likely winning the league’s MVP award, averaging a triple-double for a season and leading the Thunder to the playoffs, Westbrook has a choice to make: truly commit to Oklahoma City for the long-term by taking a five-year contract extension worth more than $200 million this summer or decline it and set up the opportunity to enter unrestricted free agency in 2018.
Make no mistake: If Westbrook declines, the chances of him playing another game in a Thunder jersey drop virtually to zero. Thunder General Manager Sam Presti isn’t going to allow Westbrook to potentially leave as a free agent in the same fashion Durant did this past summer. Losing one franchise-changing superstar for nothing was bad enough. But losing two? That would be truly unprecedented.
The expectation is that the Thunder will meet with Westbrook at the start of free agency and offer him that five-year extension. If he takes it, he’ll solidify himself as the face of the franchise, and the hub around which Presti will try to reconstruct a championship contender. But if Westbrook isn’t willing to commit, it would almost certainly set off a frenzied bidding war for Westbrook’s services — and, in doing so, give Presti the chance he didn’t have with Durant: to get something in return for a departing star.
The easy prediction for this offseason was for Blake Griffin to join up with Westbrook in OKC. Griffin is an Oklahoma native and would be a near perfect sidekick for Westbrook. The two issues with this though, are: 1. When has anyone in the history of life chosen Oklahoma over Los Angeles?; and 2. The Thunder would need to jump through several financial hoops to get a deal done.
So, let’s say Westbrook decides he simply can’t win in OKC during his prime and does not sign an extension. Obviously every NBA team would be calling Presti off the hook, but only two teams have legit assets to try and get a trade done.
1. Lakers: Magic Johnson seems willing and ready to trade young studs like Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell and/or Julius Randle in order to get the Lakers back to relevancy in immediate fashion. The Lakers could also dangle a top 3 pick depending on how the NBA Draft Lottery shakes out. Westbrook is from Long Beach, so returning to Southern California would likely be his first choice if things don’t work out in Oklahoma City.
2. Celtics: The Celtics are mentioned in every trade rumor under the sun right now because they have the most coveted trade chips of any other team in the NBA. Gotta think Presti would bite if Boston offered up Isaiah Thomas and this year’s No. 1 overall pick (again, assuming the Celtics land No. 1 in the draft lottery).