Russell Westbrook leaving Oklahoma City for another team? No one within the Thunder organization wants to even entertain such a thought. After Durant's shocking departure, "Surely not," they say. "There's no way he will leave.""He's going to take the reins of the franchise on a revenge mission after his running mate bolted for the bay!" The elephant in the room is prevalent however; will he stay?
The former UCLA product is entering the final season of a five-year $78.6 million deal, earning $17.8 million in the fifth year (per Sportrac data). His free agency has become paramount since Durant's defection, and it has been reported that Sam Presti and the Thunder have been engaged in talks with Westbrook and his camp ever since Durant's news was announced in the Players' Tribune.
Propositions of an early extension normally are not beneficial, as contracts can only be extended by three years maximum under the current collective bargaining agreement. However, the significant cap spikes caused by the record television deal secured by the NBA has changed all of that.
James Harden and the Houston Rockets agreed to a four-year, $118 million renegotiation on his current contract last week. In essence, the Rockets secured an extra year of Harden through 2018-19 with a player option on the final year, which will allow Harden to enter free agency then.
The former Thunder guard had $34.6 million remaining over the final two years of his existing contract, but now will earn close to $21 million more over that time. However, not all contract situations are the same, and Westbrook's is not the same as Harden's.
Westbrook's early extension would net him approximately $8.8 million on top of the $17.8 million owed him in his final year. He would lose around $500,000 during the next two years, but in terms of overall earnings that is small. That stated, he would likely have a player option for 2018-19, so the final year is essentially irrelevant.
So it has become a choice between an almost $8.5 million overall gain to bypass the lure of free agency in 2017, and the two years he could get by waiting a year --or another extra year if he left the Thunder in the summer. Speculation though has surfaced this week that perhaps he will not stay in Oklahoma City long term.
per @WTLC sources, Russell Westbrook has shot down any idea of an extension with the Thunder. indicates he wants to test Free Agency.— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) July 22, 2016
Furthermore, it had earlier been stated that perhaps Sam Presti has explored the market for Westbrook in the event he does not extend, tying into the earlier Adrian Wojnarowski report that the Thunder were not keen at all to move their last remaining superstar.
per sources, Presti discussed Westbrook deals with several different teams (inc. SAS, MIL, LAL, BOS), but no middle ground was found.— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) July 21, 2016
The stark reality facing the Thunder franchise and it's fans is that they may now be starting the season in full rebuild mode. If the talk starting to emanate reflects the fact that Westbrook is not long for Oklahoma, what might it be that Westbrook is thinking of what transpired this summer?
There is the possibility that whilst he and Durant were like brothers off the court, they now become (at bare minimum) rivals on it. The thing to remember with Westbrook is that his outrageous, take no prisoners attitude applies to his teammates as well. Can you imagine how he will perceive his former running mate's defection regardless of his own future?
Essentially, Durant joins an Arya Stark-like hit list that Westbrook will no doubt have created in his own mind. Each and every night Westbrook is one of the few players in the NBA who treats it like the last game of his career. It's not a short list either. In no particular order, it might look like this:
- Patrick Beverley
- Reggie Jackson
- J.J. Barea, Charlie Villanueva & anybody from the Dallas Mavericks
- Eric Bledsoe & the city of Phoenix
- LeBron James
- Stephen Curry
- Rocky the Nuggets Mascot
- Chris Paul
- Goran Dragic
- Rajon Rondo
- Kevin Durant
Honestly the entire NBA could make that list. That's how Westbrook perceives every single one of his opponents, and Kevin Durant is now one of them barring an incredible change of teams that would result in them being together again.
That is now a pipe dream, as Westbrook spends his offseason pondering over options. Speculation reigns supreme on what exactly those options are. What does he value? Is it a craving for the bright lights, tying in with his desire to make moves in the fashion industry? Is it solely to move to an immediate contender? A new start elsewhere? Or does he simply want to go back to Los Angeles?
Thinking of a situation where arguably the league's best or second-best point guard no longer plies his trade in Oklahoma City is a tough pill to swallow for ardent OKC followers, but it might come into play sooner rather than later. Here's a few of the destinations where Russell Westbrook's future may lie and the likelihood he ends up there:
Los Angeles Lakers - 45 Percent
The home factor. Westbrook is Los Angeles born and bred with significant ties to home. A return has been rumored for years, alongside fellow UCLA alumni Kevin Love. But he is well and truly settled now with a Championship Ring in Cleveland and isn't going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
Los Angeles would allow Westbrook to pursue outside business (meaning fashion) interests a lot easier than he could ever imagine. As a free agent this destination is a lot more desirable than trade, and if he were to arrive earlier than next summer via trade it could gut their young growing roster.
Any trade would have to include at least one significant asset such like D'Angelo Russell, as Brandon Ingram is probably off the table. There are enough assets both current and future to make a deal happen. Finding a middle ground though, seems to be another story.
Mean In Green
Boston Celtics - 35 Percent
The Celtics in recent times have emerged amongst speculation at least the prime candidate for Westbrook's services for teams that don't reside in Los Angeles. Their plethora of assets and salary cap space have made them incredibly desirable for upcoming free agents. It's not New York or Los Angeles but Boston is certainly a bigger market than Oklahoma.
There is still doubts as they don't possess a superstar, though Westbrook could be that man. Al Horford was the first piece to arrive, acquired as unrestricted free agent in this summer's free agency bonanza. Atlanta's All-Star big signed a deal worth $113 million over four years, and the Celtics were in dire need of a big who could make an impact at both ends.
They already have Isaiah Thomas, though he could be somewhat of a centrepiece in a Celtics package that would also include young players and future assets, such as one of the picks Boston owns from Brooklyn. Though Danny Ainge would be loathe to ever offer a trade he might "lose" Westbrook is the man to push the boat out for.
The Dark Horses
San Antonio Spurs - 11 Percent
Could Westbrook be the heir to the Tony Parker throne? Could Gregg Popovich tame the beast that is Westbrook into something even more powerful? Anything is possible when you are the Spurs. RC Buford pulled off LaMarcus Aldridge last summer, and made an attempt on Kevin Durant this summer. They have Kawhi Leonard, and will be very happy about that.
Leonard now becomes the centrepiece to their future, and the Spurs might desire Westbrook to become their ally instead of their foe. They've found ways to create cap space in the past, but they don't have the assets outside of Leonard who is off the table. An unlikely but not impossible destination.
Miami Heat - 5 Percent
Could they be a serious dark horse in this race? If Goran Dragic can be shed from the books, the Heat can start building a case for themselves to enter the Westbrook sweepstakes. Unfortunately though, they just lost Dwayne Wade, Tyler Johnson and Gerald Green and appear to be heading towards a new era.
Never count out Pat Riley to make a giant move like this though, but trade wise they just don't have the assets to offer something substantial. It's free agency or bust in South Beach.
Los Angeles Clippers - 4 Percent
Not as unlikely as you think. Chris Paul just turned 31, and has had his share of injuries over the years. His game will age well, but his body will not. How much longer can they persist with their current core roster before deciding what they have doesn't work?
However, he might not be the centrepiece to a trade. Blake Griffin is also expiring, and cannot exist under long-term contracted DeAndre Jordan. Could Griffin be due an unlikely homecoming? Homeward bound in a different way than the Lakers perhaps...
New York Knicks - 1 Percent
Sorry Knicks fans, but New York just aren't quite what they say their roster is. Despite claims of being a "super team" from Derrick Rose, they will struggle to make the Playoffs under their current personnel. They don't have the assets to trade unless they're willing to part with Kristaps Porzingis, whilst Carmelo Anthony isn't likely to don a Thunder jersey.
Outside of offering Madison Square Garden and a spectacular city this might remain a dream for Phil Jackson and co.
Like the pursuit of Kevin Durant this summer, there are only a certain list of teams who could hope to acquire a superstar level talent like Russell Westbrook. Thunder fans will cling to hope that he remains, whilst opposing franchises continue to chum the waters in the hope they can catch him. Questions will reign, but only one matters: will he stay?