Why Russell Westbrook chose a post-KD Oklahoma City

When Russell Westbrook traveled to Oklahoma City to meet with general manager Sam Presti in the aftermath of the franchise’s lost weekend in the Hamptons, Westbrook held no interest for a post-mortem on Kevin Durant. For a front office still mired in angst and anger, Westbrook delivered a sobering splash of ice water: What’s next?

No nostalgia, no reflection and no regret: In Westbrook’s world, Durant had been deleted like his old teammate’s text message saying goodbye on the way to Golden State.

So, what’s next?

Westbrook had come to Oklahoma City for his yearly youth basketball camp, where, yes, his mother often works the snack bar. His agent, Thad Foucher of Wasserman Media Group, joined him with Presti and assistant GM Troy Weaver. Westbrook’s and Foucher’s message to management was simple: Whatever we do now, it’ll be in the light. No agendas, no sneaking around. If I want to stay, I’ll tell you. If I want to leave, I’ll tell you that, too.

Westbrook’s free agency loomed in the summer of 2017. The Thunder couldn’t afford to lose two All-NBA players for nothing in consecutive years. If Westbrook had left an impression that the loss of Durant left him unenthusiastic about the franchise’s future – never mind unwilling – sources say the next step would’ve come swiftly: Westbrook would have been moved into the marketplace, traded for a package of young players and draft picks.

Russell Westbrook is ready for the next step with the Thunder. (AP)
Russell Westbrook is ready for the next step with the Thunder. (AP)

And yet as the rest of the NBA expected Westbrook to begin executing his exit strategy – perhaps to the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Knicks – his own mind kept returning to Oklahoma City. Westbrook felt invested in the franchise, reveled in the role of a young core’s leader and became intrigued with the challenge of persuading a co-star to join him in free agency.

“The idea of running out to find a super team, that isn’t who he is,” one source close to Westbrook told The Vertical. “He thought, ‘These are my guys here,’ and he wanted to go to battle with them.”

From there, it was a process of understanding the economics of a three-year contract renegotiation – an $8.8 million raise to $26.5 million for 2016-17 and a player option that’ll return him to free agency in 2018 – a move that clears the way for a five-year, $200 million-plus deal to stay with Oklahoma City – if that’s what he ultimately chooses.

As much as Durant had people of influence coming and going in his life – a revolving door of agents and spiritual gurus, personal trainers and various hangers-on – Westbrook’s inner circle never changed. His parents, his wife and his agent. With Durant, there was perpetual calculation of who had his ear and who had nudged his way into prominence. This was important information for those recruiting him to stay, and those recruiting him to leave.

With Westbrook, it was simpler. Go to Russell and talk it out. He is fiercely loyal and fiercely cautious: Earning his trust takes years and years; losing it takes but a moment.

Teams were wondering on Westbrook: If we traded for him, would he commit to an extension with us? Everyone was warned: Proceed at your own risk. In the end, it didn’t matter: Presti and Weaver believed they could keep Westbrook – a reality that became more apparent in every day that passed after Durant’s departure.

Trading for Westbrook was an immense risk, because there’s no penetrating his world. Rival players couldn’t recruit him as Draymond Green and the Warriors did with Durant, because Westbrook has never shown an inclination to become buddies with his competitors. He wants to destroy them. Durant’s best relationships were outside the team, but Westbrook counts Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Nick Collison among his closest friends in the league. He invited Victor Oladipo to train with him in Los Angeles, the Thunder’s new backcourt bonding over the sweat inside a Santa Monica gymnasium.

People always had it right with Durant: He was a community treasure, a gentleman who forever took time for those big and small within his orbit. Only, it happened that Westbrook’s fierce on-court disposition – and his sometimes brusque demeanor with the media – caused the outside to mistake his core.

If his fashion forays took him to runways in Paris and New York, he was still mostly comfortable tooling around Oklahoma City, delivering free Jordan Brand gear to lower-level team employees, bringing donuts to blue-collar workers and answering his front door to come out and play with the neighborhood kids.

For everyone waiting on Westbrook to unload on Durant, they could be disappointed. Yes, he has his thoughts and opinions on Durant’s move, but it is unlikely that he’ll be moved to share them in dramatic detail. What’s more, there’s a significant chance it could be years before Westbrook and Durant ever engage in a meaningful conversation again. Westbrook doesn’t do nostalgia, nor disregard slights – real or perceived.

Durant is deleted. Done and gone and no longer part of his world. “What’s next?” he asked – and the Thunder connected with Westbrook on a plan to construct their next act. Once, it was James Harden and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Now, it’s a superstar solo act – with an eye upon Los Angeles Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin in 2017 free agency. Griffin is an Oklahoma kid gone Hollywood, a star who has his own tensions with Chris Paul on the Clippers.

For now, this is Westbrook’s chance to become a recruiter, a gatherer, and bringing back Griffin could make these Thunder a legitimate threat to Golden State in the Western Conference. Between now and then, Westbrook walks back into the Thunder’s downtown arena on Thursday, takes his seat on the podium and the image will be unmistakable: His franchise, his city. Nothing’s forever, but Russell Westbrook has surrounded himself with everything and everyone he wants now. Here he comes, again. Here goes the franchise star of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

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