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Russell Westbrook has the ball, now give him the Thunder brand

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The Oklahoma City have long-allowed Russell Westbrook to craft their style of play in his image. It might be time to let him craft something else.

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Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

According to Basketball-Reference.com, four players finished in the top 5 last season in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares, and Wins Over Replacement Player (WARP) – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and LeBron James. Regardless of what happened over the weekend, the Thunder will almost certainly enter the 2016-17 season with one of these players still on their roster. That’s still pretty good.

Take a moment to let that sink in: even with Durant’s departure, 27 of 30 NBA teams are still searching for a franchise player as dynamic as Russell Westbrook. No team can adequately prepare for the loss of a player like Kevin Durant, yet here are the Thunder - still a competitive playoff team for which 45-50 wins would not be a miracle season. Their 2017 Championship odds may have fallen off the map, but the gamblers still like the Thunder more than you might think.

Of course, all of this is contingent on actually keeping Westbrook. It’s not going to be easy. There are reports that he has no plans to sign an extension before the season, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the status of the CBA and his impending free agency in what promises to be the league’s most chaotic summer yet. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Thunder have no chance to keep him long-term. Common sense dictates that OKC has approximately 8 months to sell Russ on the future of the franchise. If the 2017 trade deadline comes and Westbrook’s departure is clearly imminent, a deal to Boston, Miami, or one of the Los Angeles teams would probably be the best long-term move for Sam Presti.  But if they can keep Russ, that is clearly the team's best option.

The roster itself still works well for Westbrook’s strengths. As he showed in 2014-15, he can thrive without Durant as long as he has reliable bigs to run the pick and roll with and reasonable outside shooting around him. The Enes Kanter and Steven Adams duo should be better than ever in 2016-17, and even Anthony Morrow getting more time at small forward would help keep defenses relatively honest. There is little reason to believe that Russ won’t have a monster 2016-17, even if it results in only 40-45 wins. The 2016-17 Thunder are the only team capable of quenching Westbrook’s undying thirst for impossible usage.

But Russell Westbrook is more than a basketball player. Russell Westbrook, official filler of the Bowie Void, is an unprecedented NBA personality. In order to keep him, the Thunder will have to make an unprecedented offer. They’ve already given Russ the ball. Now they need to give him the brand.

Westbrook’s status as an international fashion entrepreneur has led to the basic assumption that he will leave Oklahoma City as soon as possible with a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, New York, or Miami. They people of Oklahoma City won’t take exception to the idea that there are things those cities can give an international fashion icon that theirs simply can’t. But OKC can appeal to Westbrook’s fashion sense with something the Knicks or Lakers never could: a brand with a blank slate. History would suggest that the Knicks or Lakers or Celtics might lean towards conservative designs staying true to their respective illustrious pasts. The Thunder? Russ could give them jeans and helmets.

It might sound crazy. It might actually be very, very stupid. But by giving Russell Westbrook and his design team the reigns to re-brand the Oklahoma City Thunder, Presti could help Oklahoma City actually surpass New York and Los Angeles as a home base to allow him to push his off-court interests further than ever before. If Westbrook is given leadership or even substantial input in a full OKC re-brand, he will instantly add nearly 100 high-profile showcases for his work each year. Not only would he continue to arrive to games in style – he would also get to wear Westbrook for 82+ games a year, including those on national television. The Westbrook Brand would suddenly be within reach to mere jersey buyers, even if they can’t pull of something like this. It’s a chance to bring his work to the mainstream, while also continuing more challenging work as usual.

The logistics would not be as difficult as they might seem. There is precedent, as the Cavs re-branded immediately following The Decision. More importantly, Nike (producer of the Westbrook-endorsed Jordan Brand) will begin producing uniforms for all NBA teams in 2017-18, and would surely jump at the chance for such a symbiotic arrangement.

It’s unlikely that any CBA going forward will ever allow a franchise to give an active player an official front-office title. The Raptors couldn’t even give one to a musician without some fallout with the league.That said, it is tough to envision Adam Silver cracking down on such an arrangement with Westbrook. Silver is well aware that Kevin Durant just torched all of the warmth and fuzziness the league built up with the general public when LeBron got one for The Land. Axing a deal that would help one of the NBA’s most popular global stars remain in a small-market might do serious damage to the perception of the league, especially when it inevitably led to Westbrook’s departure to New York or Los Angeles.

Why shouldn’t Presti at least consider this? The Thunder organization has long allowed Russell Westbrook to craft the team’s style of play in his image. Why not give him more?