The prospect of a superstar hitting free agency—as could have been the case with Russell Westbrook next summer—has a way of consuming everything around it. Every win or loss refracts through that lens. Any difference of opinion comes loaded with an implicit threat. The trials of a season assume a different weight when their result could decide a franchise’s larger fate, as is the case when the matter at stake is the employment of one of the best basketball players in the world.
On Friday, Westbrook reframed the Thunder’s entire season with the stroke of a pen. The reigning MVP has officially committed to Oklahoma City on a five-year, $205 million extension, the richest contract awarded in league history. It is also the first real example of the designated player exception working toward its intended effect. At the time that exception came to pass, only five players met the strict criteria that would allow their incumbent teams to offer them a “supermax” deal. In one eligible case, the Kings chose to trade away DeMarcus Cousins rather than commit the $200+ million it would have likely required to retain him.
Westbrook’s extension went differently. The offer from the Thunder had reportedly been in Westbrook’s hands for months. There is a time for an organization to fight for every dollar in savings it can get and another for spending whatever is clearly necessary. This was the latter. Paying out huge money to a self-evident superstar is its own sort of prudence. Oklahoma City, for its part, never appeared especially concerned by Westbrook taking his time throughout this process. Over their nine years together, the Thunder had taken their measure of the man. Even if he had decided to forego an extension for the sake of free agency, OKC projected confidence in their ability to re-sign him.
The Thunder made matters easier by acquiring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony for a handful of role players. Those deals were no-brainers for the franchise on a transactional basis with the added value of sending the right signals to Westbrook. A front office can fill press conferences with talk of opportunism. Sam Presti and his staff tapped into it to pull two stars—both of whom complement Westbrook—out of a hat.
There can be no guarantee of where either George or Anthony will play next season. Oklahoma City, however, can feel safer in that fact after locking in Westbrook. Superstar security might mean more to the Thunder than any other franchise. They know first-hand the cost of seeing an MVP talent walk away, and in a post-Durant era, both Westbrook and the Thunder have staked their identity to it. This is a defiant group. On the court, the Thunder cut their way to 47 wins last season by playing focused basketball with an ever-sharpening edge. Often it was Westbrook doing the honing, wielding the chip on his shoulder like a whetstone. Teammates rallied around him, faults and all. OKC is banking on the fact that once George and Anthony see Westbrook up close, they will, too.
Even if George and Anthony choose to move on, the Thunder will fall back on what is now a proven formula: Westbrook against the world, for as long as it takes.