After Kevin Durant left for the west coast this summer, the Oklahoma City Thunder threw all of their attention toward getting Russell Westbrook to stay. Whether it was on a long-term deal or just extend for at least one year to delay a possible trade situation, the Thunder needed to convince Westbrook to extend his deal and commit to OKC after the summer of 2017 when he was supposed to become a free agent. And he did exactly that. He renegotiated a three-year, $85 million deal with a player option for 2018-19.
During that renegotiation time, Westbrook and Thunder coach Billy Donovan were talking a lot and they were talking about the future. But it had nothing to do with Donovan pleading for Westbrook to stay on the Thunder. It was all about the team on the court and how they needed to play. It centered around Russ and newly acquired backcourt mate Victor Oladipo. Donovan didn't discuss the contract stuff with him. He just kept it about basketball as their bond and understanding of each other continued to strengthen.
"Future, future, future," was how Donovan described Westbrook during their conversations in Vegas. Both understand how important Oladipo is to that future as the centerpiece of the deal that sent Serge Ibaka to Orlando. It's why Westbrook texted Oladipo shortly after the trade to ask if he was ready. It's why Donovan was in California last week continuing to get acquainted with what should be the most athletic backcourt in the NBA.
With pieces like Westbrook and Oladipo to scheme around, contract talks and recruiting weren't Donovan's talking points when they spent time together this summer.
"We never really talked about any of that stuff," Donovan said. "My conversations with Russell were always about the team, next season, what we have to do, how we need to play."
Donovan likes to discuss Westbrook's intelligence and understanding of the game before he gets into the physical attributes that make the point guard look like advanced alien technology on the court. The point guard is always an extension of the coach on the court, and having that understanding of what the team needs to do and where each player needs to be. The stronger the bond and understanding between Westbrook and Donovan becomes, the better things should be on the court for the Thunder.
Eventually, the cult hero role for Westbrook with OKC will begin to subside and it will all be about basketball. When it gets to that point, the Thunder will need Oladipo to make a leap this year and they'll need Westbrook to help him get there. If they can become one of the top backcourts in the NBA, the Thunder can find a way to remain highly competitive in the West. It won't be what they were with Durant in tow, but it'll be a dangerous situation a lot of teams won't want to face in the playoffs.
That all comes from everybody being on the same page and right now it sounds like they definitely are.