Thunder face new challenge in building around Russell Westbrook after extension
Where does OKC go from here?
When Kevin Durant left town, the word out of Oklahoma City was that this would only "embolden" Russell Westbrook to stay, and that the team planned to actively work toward signing him to an extension. This was met from a lot of eye-rolling from some media members (including writers like, oh, say, me). The general reaction was:
Basically, it was assumed that Westbrook was sure to follow Durant, especially considering his impending free agency in 2017. Trade scenarios were a constant in NBA discussion places, and several teams reportedly set their sights on acquiring him. Sure, there was the possibility that Westbrook would sign the extension, but why would he? The common thought was that there was no financial incentive for him to do so, and that he would almost assuredly want to test the market.
Flash forward to Aug. 4: Westbrook stood outside Chesapeake Energy Arena in front of thousands of fans as the Thunder officially announced a new contract extension that will keep Westbrook with the team through at least 2018.
This decision, ultimately, was Westbrook's, and he'll reap the credit for sticking with the team that has given him four Western Conference finals appearances, a Finals appearance, and helped him to rise to the top tier of the NBA. His decision will be compared with Durant's and viewed as "noble" and "more loyal," despite the fact that as Zach Lowe discussed on a recent podcast with Marc Stein for ESPN that Westbrook actually stood to make more money with this extension, due to some strange salary cap phenomenon involving how the cap will rise and fall over the next few years.
There is so much to dissect about Westbrook, including what this means for his career and how he is perceived by fans and media.
But much of that is obvious.
Maybe the more interesting discussion is about the man behind the curtain, Thunder GM Sam Presti.
A MAN OF MANY NAMES (MANY OF THEM BAD)
Presti has been, at various points over the past seven years viewed by some as an up-and-coming wunderkind. A fool who traded James Harden. A privileged GM who only succeeded because he was blessed with Westbrook and Durant. The architect of a Western Conference juggernaut. The man who failed to put together a good enough team around Westbrook and Durant. The man who wouldn't fire Scott Brooks. The man who hired Billy Donovan. And most importantly, the man who pivoted and built the team that had the Warriors down 3-1, on the road, and trailing in the fourth quarter before Klay Thompson's supernova incinerated the Durant era in less than 12 minutes.
It is fair to say the book on Presti has had many additions and revisions. Every season he has faced a different pressure, due to the Thunder's inability to win a title. That's the simplest version of it all. The Thunder haven't won a title, so people have extrapolated what they wanted from it with regard to Presti. One decision after another has been a mistake. Not having enough veterans in 2012. Having too many veterans in 2014. Having too little experience in 2015. And then, the failure to finish off the team with the greatest regular-season mark in history who also happened to be defending champions and also went absolutely supernova, even by their measures.
And there's real validity in the criticism of Presti. Much of it lacks an understanding of what the team felt, but it's nonetheless real. Kevin Durant loved having Kendrick Perkins on the team. But Jeff Green, for all his problems, gave OKC a dynamic that they would miss in the subsequent seasons while Perkins was barely playable. Harden was an MVP-level talent that they traded, even if the context of what the Thunder offered and how Harden handled the situation remains murky. The Enes Kanter deal. Trading a first-round pick for Dion Waiters. The Serge Ibaka trade. All of these moves are things which have been criticized for fair reasons.
What gets lost, though, is the bigger picture.
Presti was blessed with Durant and Westbrook, to be sure. But you can't look at the Kings with DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans with Anthony Davis, the Hornets with Chris Paul, the Timberwolves with Kevin Garnett, or any other team that has had a superstar and then fail to acknowledge that A) Presti was smart enough to put himself in a position to draft both Durant and Westbrook, B) to put a staff and team around them to effectively develop them.
This last point is a sore one in some circles. There's this idea that superstars are always going to be superstars, no matter what. But Westbrook might have flamed out as a hothead in a different situation, and Durant might not have become the absolute beast that he is. Presti, if nothing else, did not build a team that limited those two in any way on an individual level, despite the consternation about the "hero ball" OKC most often employed (which was a product of coaching and even more so those players' own decision making, but let's move on).
And in the team's darkest hour, with Durant having barely said goodbye on his way to go "be a part" of something special in Golden State, Presti helped deliver Westbrook for at least another season. And now without the pressure to trade him, Presti can look forward to how to put OKC back into contention.
THE NEXT MOVE
OK, so Westbrook is back, at least until 2018. This gives Presti a window to try and get OKC back and possibly take revenge on Durant (and what a story that would be).
Before we look at his options, a quick aside. Westbrook is only signed through 2018. Which means that if this thing goes sour going into next summer, Westbrook can still let the Thunder know "Hey, we tried, it isn't working, I'm going to leave," and then we're right back here. It also makes Westbrook easier to trade at the trade deadline with another year on his contract. So this is not "All's well that ends well" for Westbrook in OKC. But for right now, Westbrook's decision at least signals his intent to push forward with the Thunder.
The Thunder are in a worse position without Durant, no question, and they won't be able to replace him. He's a once-in-a-generation type of talent. However, they now move forward no longer torn between a team built around Durant's skill and versatility and Westbrook's unparalleled athleticism and aggression. It's Westbrook's team, and even if they look to add another superstar, it will be a player they know can mesh with Westbrook.
Free agency provides the easiest route to getting back in the mix, doing what Golden State did to them and taking a star player away to improve their own.
The cap mechanics on all this are tricky. After Westbrook's extension they have about $57 million of a projected $102 million cap tied up with guaranteed contracts, and Victor Oladipo and Adams are headed to restricted free agency. They have room ... but not a lot if they want to keep those two.
Free Agent Candidates
1. Blake Griffin (No. 4 on our Top 20 for next season behind ... Westbrook): The Clippers star is often mentioned as a viable candidate. Griffin grew up in Oklahoma, and went to OU for two seasons. It's "home" for him. Griffin, way more than Westbrook, has ingratiated himself into pop culture, and is actively involved in film, production, comedy, the entire entertainment scene. It's hard to see him leaving the Clippers and L.A. for Oklahoma given where he has gone, but it's important to remember that A) he can still do all those things in the offseason (like LeBron James does) and B) the Clippers talked about trading him. To whatever extend that was is up for debate, but they took calls on him. That can change a guy's feelings about a team.
Griffin is undoubtedly the best talent available, but then, can he work as the secondary weapon to Westbrook? Griffin is a superstar in his own right. Will he have the same trouble Durant did with Westbrook's ball dominance?
2. Gordon Hayward (No. 5): A sneaky option, Hayward is set for a very big payday next summer and would be a perfect No. 2 weapon to Westbrook. Versatile, smart and able to play any role prescribed, Hayward would make a tremendous sidekick to Westbrook without needing the ball or the attention. He's easy going with the media and a quality defender, which OKC is going to need.
3. Chris Paul (No. 7): I know, it's lunacy. Paul's not going to want to go OKC and he's ball dominant. The fit between these two is crazy. And yet, if Paul's ready to leave the Clippers to pursue a title, and there isn't room on the Warriors or Cavaliers ... are the Thunder the next best option? (Apologies to Boston, which already has an All-Star in his prime with Isaiah Thomas.) He and Westbrook would not know how to share the ball, but Paul's precision and defense could be useful next to Westbrook's relentless attack, Paul is becoming more of a spot-up shooter as he ages, and his cool demeanor could help offset Westbrook's fire. This is not a good idea ... but man is it an interesting one.
4. Paul Millsap and J.J. Redick: This gets tricky. The Thunder would have to get Adams to hold off and wait to re-sign, and then find a trade partner for Kanter (and probably a lot of other guys), while letting Oladipo walk in restricted free agency. However, Millsap is a veteran who does everything you need a forward to do and Redick is a top-flight defender. If you can scrape and claw your way to the cap space necessary, this puts a contender around Westbrook for the next 2-3 years with a top-flight shooter and a versatile forward next to Adams. That's a core you can believe in. It's not a super-team, but it's a really, really great one.
Trade is the other way Presti can go. That market is even tighter.
1. DeMarcus Cousins: The Thunder can send Adams, who is a terrific center prospect on his way up, Oladipo (a great wing option) and other good young talent to the Kings, along with some distant-future picks (their 2018 pick goes to Utah). Cousins and Westbrook is the very definition of volatile, but Cousins' problem has always been that he wants to win and needs to be in a stable environment. The best thing that OKC does as an organization, a credit to Presti, is to make players feel supported. They feel the love. This would be a devastating combo and one that would make the Thunder the angriest championship contender in NBA history.
2. Jimmy Butler: If the Bulls go down the drain, Butler is going to be back on the market, and the Thunder can offer young players and picks for the Bulls, who will want established talent to try and go forward. It won't be better than whatever Boston offers, but if Boston goes another direction, this might be a situation that fits.
3. Kevin Love: Love is snuggled in with the Cavs after locking up Steph Curry to help the Cavaliers win their first NBA championship, but the idea that Love doesn't quite fit there is always a heartbeat or losing streak away. If the champs eventually decide that despite his contributions they can do better, the Thunder offer the champs established talent. They have shooters, defenders and bigs, all of which the Cavaliers could use. This looks crazy now but wait for a hangover-swoon to catch the Cavs before ruling it out completely.
THE STORMY PRESENT AND THE THUNDEROUS FUTURE
Westbrook is set to be a man on fire this season as he begins what many expect will be a revenge tour, unhinged from the limitations of playing next to, and having to defer to, Durant. He's committed to OKC and looks to build a future there. Presti has still built a talented team around Westbrook, and the best part is that all of their players, thanks to the past two years of maneuvering, are still entering their prime. Adams, Oladipo, Kanter, Roberson all have potential to advance their games, and Domantas Sabonis is a promising young rookie next to sophomore Cameron Payne.
Still, it's not going to be easy. There will be hard times. The Thunder failed to make the playoffs in 2015 without Durant due to injury. They are not instant contenders. They are not even playoff locks. The future is uncertain when it comes to OKC. But time and time again, Presti has shown an ingenuity and resiliency to adapt to changing weather.
Presti was fortunate that unlike Otis Smith in Orlando when Dwight Howard left, or Danny Ferry in Cleveland when LeBron left, that he not only had Westbrook in the remainder when Durant left, but that Westbrook wanted to stay. Yet much of life in the NBA as a general manager is doing the best you can with the cards you're dealt, good and bad, and hoping the plan works out the way you want.
The Thunder were seemingly dealt a hand they couldn't lose with when they got Kevin Durant and then Westbrook. Durant leaving, given the situation, seemed like the cruelest beat in a long series of them throughout the Thunder's contention. Now Presti faces an even tougher hand to draw on, but at least for the time being, he knows he still has an ace in the hole.
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