We haven’t heard very much from Russell Westbrook since longtime teammate Kevin Durant decided earlier this month to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder in favor of joining the Golden State Warriors, making a move to the Bay that he believes is the best thing for his evolution as a player as a man, and also likely submarining OKC’s chances of remaining in contention in the immediate future. While seemingly the entire rest of the basketball world has weighed in, the All-NBA point guard has stayed quiet, offering little beyond innocuous Instagram photos of cupcakes, basketball camps, movie posters and date nights and “light-hearted Snapchat videos.”
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There’s a reason for that. Not only is Westbrook hunkering down to try to figure out what’s next for him, with free agency one year away and some major decisions to make, “but also to lick his own wounds,” according to Royce Young of ESPN.com:
Reports have come out suggesting Westbrook’s style of play influenced Durant to leave, though Durant publicly denied that in Las Vegas recently. The two have not spoken since Durant’s decision. Those close to Westbrook say he’s both angry and hurt not only by Durant’s decision to leave but also because Durant didn’t even call to tell him personally. Westbrook wasn’t prepared to be in this position — three weeks ago, like everyone else, he thought Durant was coming back. And he had to learn the hard way he wasn’t. […]
It’s an easy assumption to say Westbrook would relish taking over the alpha role of the team, but contrary to popular belief, that’s not something he has ever wanted. He liked being Durant’s running mate. It’s why he put himself out there trying to sway Durant [during a pre-free agency dinner] in Los Angeles. Westbrook had no issue deferring to Durant in crunch time. Westbrook cares only about winning, sometimes a little too much. But he’s now facing the reality of carrying the burden of the franchise, of being the public face, of answering every media question, of recruiting free agents, of being the cultivator of culture, of leading a young roster in transition. It’s a lot to consider.
It would be hard to blame Westbrook for feeling upset and blindsided by finding out that Durant would be moving on, and especially by finding it out just like the rest of us. The two played together for eight years, spending the bulk of their 20s elevating the Thunder to the ranks of the NBA elite, and propelling one another to international superstardom.
They’d had their share of on-court friction, but whenever outside voices framed those blow-ups as evidence that their games and styles couldn’t mesh, they insisted that the incidents represented the unfactored remainder of the explosiveness, creativity and fire that made them so great individually, and Oklahoma City so great as a collective — that they showed just how much passion both felt, and how tight their bond really was.
Durant’s the one who called Russ his “favorite teammate” at the 2014 ESPY Awards, who told Russ he loved him in accepting his Most Valuable Player award. Durant’s the one whom Westbrook presented for induction in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame back in November, thanking KD for helping him “become a better person and player.”
“I love him for that,” Westbrook said.
When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban insinuated that Westbrook wasn’t really a superstar in this league during the 2016 playoffs, Durant immediately came to his defense, calling Cuban an idiot for the statement.
“Me and Kevin’s relationship is great. He’s like my brother,” Westbrook said. “We talk about different stuff, not just basketball-related. He’s always gonna have my back and I’ll always have his.”
“There’s times we cuss each other out, but that’s a part of being brothers,” Durant told Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman back in November. “Because I know if I need something, he’ll be there and if I need to talk to someone outside of basketball, he’ll be there. It’s a real brotherhood type relationship. We’re like family.”
And yet, despite that kind of bond, Young reports that Westbrook had to find out what was happening second-hand. (Though, for what it’s worth, Durant did say during his introductory press conference as a Warrior that he did talk to Westbrook, however briefly, terming the conversation “tough.”) No wonder Durant said he expects their “relationship probably won’t ever be the same again.”
But what’s past is prologue. What’s most interesting now is Westbrook’s future — and whether he sees it unfolding somewhere other than Oklahoma City.
After rescinding their qualifying offer to guard Dion Waiters, making him an unrestricted free agent, and seeing Waiters agree to a two-year contract with the Miami Heat that lifted his cap hold off OKC’s books, the Thunder are now far enough under the salary cap to afford general manager Sam Presti an opportunity to work out a renegotiate-and-extend contract, like the one James Harden just signed with the Houston Rockets, to give Westbrook a significant pay bump to stay in Oklahoma City for several more years, and perhaps lure another top-flight free agent to play with him next summer.
Westbrook has remained mum, but he and the Thunder have been in communication often since Durant’s departure. Plenty want to hear from Westbrook, but he isn’t going to play out his free agency in the public eye. There won’t be any “I’ll make that decision when the time comes” mediaspeak. It’s not hard to gauge him when it comes to public comments; he’s as transparent as they come. And with Durant now gone, Westbrook understands the gravity of his own choice — he leaves, and the organization burns to the ground in a summer. So he wants to give them clarity to either move on with or without him. […]
It’s obvious to say, but the Thunder categorically don’t want to trade Westbrook. They aren’t interested in a teardown. Their priority is to convince him to stay long-term and reconfigure around him. That’s why they’ve held firm thus far outside of signing Alex Abrines; they’re paralyzed until Westbrook gives them an answer. They already have received plenty of calls about Westbrook, and thus far have told teams he’s unavailable. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, he doesn’t want to be traded. He wants to play next season with the Thunder. It’s the year after that which is in question. There’s a growing belief Westbrook will think heavily about an extension but will first weigh every angle before doing it.
From the outside, we don’t know exactly what that decision-making process will entail … but it seems a safe bet that it won’t include a call to KD to go over the pros and cons.
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