Russell Westbrook has just one thing to say to all the speculation about how much he wants to skip town now that Kevin Durant has left the Oklahoma City Thunder:
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Yep, Russ will be staying put and laughing all the way to the bank, after word came down Wednesday night via Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical that the All-NBA point guard has agreed to a three-year, $85 million-plus renegotiation and extension of his current contract — a deal that makes all kinds of sense from just about every angle.
From Westbrook’s perspective, he gets paid more now, gets set up to get paid more later, and gets to hit the snooze button on all those questions about what he’s going to do in free agency.
The reworked pact nets Westbrook a pay raise of nearly $8.8 million for next season, locks in guaranteed new-CBA max money for the 2017-18 season, and gives him a player option for the 2018-19 campaign. Opting out would allow Westbrook to enter unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018 as a veteran with 10 years of NBA service time. At that point, he’d be eligible for the richest possible maximum salary, one that would pay him 35 percent of a team’s salary cap; according to projections by Bobby Marks of The Vertical, a full max deal at that tier would net Westbrook either $151.3 million (if he signed a four-year contract with a team that didn’t hold his Bird rights) or $203.8 million (if he signed a five-year contract with the team that did).
Plus, whether he cares about it or not, Westbrook now becomes a superhero by sheer virtue of deciding to stay in small-market OKC one month to the day after Durant elected to bounce to the big bad Bay Area so he could roll with the villains. As SB Nation’s Tom Ziller notes, all the stuff that has elicited arched eyebrows and hot-takedowns from casual hoops fans and generalist columnists over the years — the primal screaming on the court, the prickly relationship with the media, the crazy clothes, the ostentatious pregame dancing — will now get shoved to the side by the more powerful and more immediate story of Westbrook standing his ground to rebuild and compete rather than racing off to join a ready-made champion. That reading’s not entirely fair to Durant, of course, and it doesn’t paint a complete picture of the circumstances of Westbrook’s re-up, but that’s the way it’ll look, and that’s awfully nice for Russ; it’s rare that you get to make the play that gets you the top possible dollar and the biggest Q Score bump.
From Oklahoma City’s perspective, the franchise now knows for sure that it will avoid watching one of its homegrown superstars walk in free agency with no compensation for the second straight summer. General manager Sam Presti and head coach Billy Donovan know that they can enter the 2016-17 season on steady footing with their lone remaining linchpin, and that they can build everything around the pick-and-roll prowess and attacking mastery of their All-NBA point guard. Moreover, with the salary cap projected to rise to $102 million in 2017-18, just under $57 million in guaranteed money sitting on OKC’s books — a number that admittedly doesn’t factor in cap holds for free agents, or possible (though reportedly unlikely) early extensions for 2013 draft picks Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson — and plenty of tradable assets on old-cap deals, the Thunder will have some flexibility to pursue complementary talent in free agency next summer and, with Westbrook confirmed in the fold, to make a compelling case for contention.
This year’s Thunder no longer profile as title contenders, but OKC’s front office and fans can now feel confident in their ability to remain postseason-competitive in the Western Conference — and, if the basketball gods are real and do truly love us, their chances of locking horns with KD and the Warriors next postseason in what would be one of the most amped-up playoff series in history. And, while this is understandably not where the principals’ heads are at right now, should things nosedive faster and more precipitously than expected in Oklahoma this season, Presti will likely be able to ask for and receive much, much more in trade for a Westbrook who will remain under a suitor’s control for at least one more guaranteed season than he could for a player sure to hit the free agent market at season’s end — the conunudrum he figured to face had Westbrook decided not to indicate an interest in renegotiating his existing deal and sticking around for a while. By sidestepping his most pressing issue, Presti significantly improves his bargaining position if things don’t play out the way he hopes.
Really, though, later for all that financial justification and long-term-investment planning chat. Let’s focus on what’s most immediately pressing and important here: Russell Westbrook is going to incinerate the freaking NBA this season.
The Thunder as a whole won’t be as formidable as they were when KD and Russ rode together, but solo Westbrook — unfettered, unleashed, unquestionably the top dog — will be a sight to behold on its own. Nobody wanted to see Durant hit the shelf in 2014, but his Jones fracture opened the door for the answer to a fascinating and tantalizing question: what could Westbrook do if he was responsible for running, well, everything? The answer: average a shade under 33 points, nine assists and eight rebounds per 36 minutes of non-Durant floor time, post a league-best 11 triple-doubles in 67 games, win his first scoring title and earn a fourth-place finish in Most Valuable Player voting. So, y’know, not bad.
With Durant healthy again to start the 2015-16 campaign, most of us expected Russ to take a step back, for his numbers to recede a bit to make room for the returning former MVP. And though his scoring did dip some, from 28.1 points per game down to 23.5, Westbrook averaged a career-best 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds per game while once again leading the NBA with 18 triple-doubles, tying Magic Johnson for the most triple-doubles in a single season in the past 50 years. And, once again, he was incredibly potent when Durant sat, averaging 29.5 points, 11.1 assists and 9.1 rebounds per-36 with KD off the floor, with Oklahoma City outscoring its opposition by five points per 100 possessions in Russ-but-no-Durant minutes, according to NBAwowy.com.
In the 8 games Russell Westbrook played without Kevin Durant last season, he created, assisted, or scored 60.5 points per 40-minutes.
— Synergy Sports Tech (@SynergySST) August 4, 2016
Westbrook has ranked in the top five in both points created for teammates via direct assist and percentage of teammates’ baskets on which he notched the direct assist in each of the last two years. When Durant was sidelined in 2014-15, Westbrook kept Oklahoma City’s big men fed, generating scoring opportunities for Adams, Enes Kanter, Serge Ibaka and Mitch McGary either by giving them the ball in position to produce or getting the ball on the glass, where the Thunder’s relentless offensive rebounders could pounce for putbacks. During that ’14-’15 season, OKC scored an average of 109.1 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor, a top-three offensive efficiency mark, and dropped to 97.7 points-per-100 when he sat, which would’ve been the league’s fourth-worst. He can be an offense unto himself. He can carry the load, and be Must-See TV while he does it.
Now, the flip side of that equation is that the ’14-’15 Thunder went 45-37 and missed the playoffs, due in large part to their struggles defending. An OKC squad that had perennially ranked in or near the top 10 in the league in points allowed per possession under Scott Brooks dropped down below the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency that season, thanks to injuries, heavy second-half reliance on noted pick-and-roll sieve Kanter, and Westbrook’s at-times destabilizing tendency to gamble for momentum-shifting steals. While the offseason losses of Durant and Ibaka hurt, this year’s Thunder, with the hard-nosed Oladipo on-board alongside postseason breakout players Adams and Roberson, could be better positioned to hold up defensively; OKC’s chances of making postseason noise figure to depend heavily on whether or not Donovan can coax a top-10-caliber defensive effort out of his shuffled-up roster.
Even if he can, and even if Westbrook is every ounce as incendiary an offensive force as we expect him to be, the Thunder might be drawing dead in a conference likely to be dominated by a Warriors squad that, with Durant in tow, is already breaking front offices’ computer models. That’s besides the point, though. Winning isn’t all that matters. It never was, and it never will be, not when raging against the dying of the light can be so beautiful, so visceral, and so compelling.
Even when we think we know what’s coming, we can still be surprised — see: Games 5 through 7 of both the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals — and even when the result comes out the way we expected, the journey there can consist of all kinds of moments that thrill, that electrify, that make us feel alive. Few players in NBA history have provided those moments with as much sneer and style as Russell Westbrook, and now, the Thunder’s fate rests on him providing as many as humanly possible. That’s bad news for Oklahoma City’s opponents, and really, really good news for the rest of us.
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