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Grades: Thunder extend Russell Westbrook in franchise-saving move

With Russell Westbrook locked up, the Thunder can focus on life after Durant and build a contender around their star point guard.

Losing Kevin Durant knocked the Thunder out of title contention for the foreseeable future. Losing Durant and Russell Westbrook back to back, however, would have sent the franchise spiraling to the lowest moment of the Oklahoma City era.

For that reason, among others, the Thunder’s three-year, $86 million contract renegotiation and extension with Westbrook goes down as one of the biggest moves of the 2016 off–season. Locking up the five-time All-Star point guard through at least 2018 is nothing short of a franchise-saving move for the Thunder.

With Westbrook, Oklahoma City sidles up next to the likes of Houston and Portland in the West’s third tier, consisting of committed organizations who will likely will spend the next few years maneuvering to find the right mix of supporting pieces to surround their proven franchise player. Without Westbrook, whether via an early trade this summer (the best-case scenario) or via an exit as an unrestricted free agent next summer (the nightmare scenario), Oklahoma City would have found itself going through a multi-year reimagining process a la Denver and Phoenix, teams that have struggled in recent years to cultivate a cohesive identity.

Under the terms of the extension, Westbrook will make $26.5 million in 2016-17 salary (up from the $17.8 million he was slated to make) while also receiving $28.5 million in 2017-18 and a $30.6 million player option in 2018-19, per Yahoo Sports.

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Those terms are favorable to Westbrook for three major reasons: he makes an additional $8.7 million this season, he locks up two new guaranteed years of max money as a hedge against a catastrophic injury, and he gives himself the ability to become an unrestricted free agent after his tenth season, when he will be eligible to sign a new contract that starts at 35% of the salary cap.

As a ballpark point of comparison given current salary cap projections, Westbrook’s biggest possible pay day as a nine-year veteran next summer would come by re-signing with the Thunder on a five-year deal worth up to $165 million. By waiting until July 2018 to cash in on his next long-term deal, Westbrook would be eligible to sign a five-year deal worth up to $204 million for a 10-year veteran. (Of course, those numbers assume that the next Collective Bargaining Agreement maintains the league’s current max salary structure and raises.)

There are secondary wins for Westbrook too. He will enter next season as Oklahoma City’s savior and as its No. 1 option. The fan base will rightfully hail his loyalty and commitment, coach Billy Donovan will construct his strategies around him, and there will be no more nagging “Whose team is it?” questions. Plus, Westbrook will be facing zero expectations following Durant’s season; he will be free to play his exciting, slightly unhinged basketball without real pressure for the first time in years. Life with Durant would have been better, but clearly things could be a lot worse.


Even though the Thunder will be forking over stacks upon stacks of cash to Westbrook, this extension is arguably even more of a no-brainer from the team side than the player side. Absent an extension, Oklahoma City’s immediate options were not pretty: Presti either had to auction off Westbrook to the highest bidder in search of prospects and draft assets or he had to play chicken with a franchise player for a second straight summer, hoping that his pitch to Westbrook would be more successful than his failed pitch to Durant.

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Both of those were bad options. On the trade front, Presti would have dealing with rival GMs who knew he was a highly motivated seller and who had no assurances that Westbrook would re-sign with his new team once dealt. Independently, either of those conditions would meaningfully reduce a star’s trade value. Together, they would have almost certainly forced Presti to settle in a painful manner.

As for the wait-and-pray approach, Presti would potentially have found himself battling with the Lakers, Heat, Spurs and other well-prepared suitors, just as he did battle with those teams and the Warriors this summer. Could Pat Riley have lured Westbrook and Blake Griffin to South Beach in a package deal? Could Gregg Popovich have sold Westbrook on a dynamic pairing with Kawhi Leonard? Could the Lakers have sold the fashion-loving Westbrook on a return to his hometown? We’ll never know, now, but Presti would have had his hands full. Remember, he lost Durant even though he had Westbrook on the roster as part of his pitch. Next summer, Oklahoma City would have had to sell Westbrook on a cast that lacks anything resembling a second star.  

Extending Westbrook not only keeps Oklahoma City afloat in 2016-17, it gives Presti some time to construct a supporting cast that plays to his point guard’s strengths. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done on that front, even with helpful young pieces like Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo in place. Westbrook, much like James Harden in Houston, is dynamic enough to function as a one-man offense, but he’s not equipped to play elite defense while carrying a heavy burden. Over the next 18 months, Presti will need to find ways to patch up the perimeter shooting, length and rim protection he lost when Durant departed and when he opted to trade Serge Ibaka earlier this summer. Thanks to this extension, Presti doesn’t need to make panic moves at the deadline; he will have next summer and two trade deadlines to reshape his roster around Westbrook’s electric and aggressive playmaking.

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There is another benefit to this extension from the Thunder’s perspective, although it’s a big more cynical in nature. By extending the 27-year-old Westbrook through at least 2017-18, Oklahoma City now has two more seasons to evaluate his health before taking the plunge on the full four-year or five-year commitment. Although Westbrook has been one of the league’s most durable superstars throughout much of his career, he suffered a series of surgeries that cost him nearly half of the 2013-14 season and 15 games in 2014-15. There’s always the possibility that Westbrook’s hyperactive style of play and heavy workload combine to present new health challenges, even though he is firmly in his prime. In a worst-case scenario, having an extra year on the lease could save Oklahoma City from a Derrick Rose- or Brandon Roy-type of situation. 

While Houston reached a similar renegotiation and extension with Harden last month, Oklahoma City’s contract with Westbrook should be viewed as a “bigger deal” because the relief is more immediate and timely. Harden, already entrenched as Houston’s franchise player, was locked up through 2017-18 under his previous deal. The Rockets entered this summer already knowing Harden was the guy and armed with the benefit of two years to figure out what would follow the brief Dwight Howard era.

The Thunder enjoyed no such benefits, as they were left scrambling by Durant’s departure, stuck without the ability to target anything approaching an adequate replacement in free agency, and burdened by the ticking clock on Westbrook’s free agency. What’s more, Oklahoma City was staring at the uncertainty that would have come with shifting Westbrook into an alpha role for the first time in his career, save for a brief stint in 2014-15 when Durant was sidelined. Thanks to this extension, the Thunder have their guy and Westbrook is left feeling fully empowered as the top dog, free of potential trade talk or free agency questions until at least next summer and able to ease into his new responsibilities. Best of all, the agreement gives the Thunder time to begin working on assembling a contention-caliber roster around him.

Grade: A+