Maybe it was the money. Maybe it was loyalty. Maybe it was the star power moves. Maybe it was all of the above. Either way, the Thunder have done what so many thought wouldn't be possible last summer: they've signed Russell Westbrook to a max extension, the largest contract in NBA history. Yahoo Sports reported Friday that Westbrook signed a new deal worth $205 million over five years, with a player option in the fifth season per USA Today.
It is an absolute coup for GM Sam Presti and the Thunder organization, who lost the best player in franchise history a year ago when Kevin Durant bolted for the Bay, and less than 15 months later have added two All-Stars and re-signed their franchise cornerstone to a max extension. There wasn't a whole lot of negotiation to be done on the latter; the Thunder put out the biggest offer possible as soon as they could, and they waited. They did not apply pressure or panic facing the possibility of Westbrook departing in free agency, they just put the offer out there and said "take your time."
Westbrook did take his time, which signaled to some the possibility he would forego signing it and instead head to free agency, where for so long there have been discussions about him joining the Lakers eventually. Instead, Westbrook insisted at media day that he had simply focused on fatherhood this summer. That potential drama was all squashed on Friday; Westbrook will be with the Thunder for the foreseeable future.
Here's what this means for OKC, Westbrook, and Presti.
It was kind of a no-brainer. Remember that Westbrook had knee surgery three years ago. He plays with a hyper-athletic, explosive style and there's no way to know how that will age. Getting that full five-year lock for what is an absolutely insane amount of money is a no-brainer from a long-term security standpoint.
To put the money in perspective, Westbrook signed for $205 million, which is more than half of what the entire Warriors' franchise sold for in 2010 ($405 million).
More than that, Westbrook ensures a legacy, and one very much in stark relief to Durant. He'll play the vast majority -- if not the entirety -- of his career with the Thunder, and that does create a special place for a player, no matter how many championships he does or does not win. Westbrook also shows that he's a man of his word, after constantly asserting that OKC was where he wanted to be. There was always understandable skepticism to that statement. Westbrook is big into fashion and culture, went to UCLA, grew up in L.A.. It was just hard to imagine a superstar of his stature wanting to stay in Oklahoma City; if anything, it always seemed like Durant, the quiet, humble one would be the one who remained with the franchise.
The decision to commit was surely brought about by the money and the way the franchise has supported him, but it's also reflective of the job Presti's done. Every superstar wants their front office to do everything possible to surround them with talent so they can compete. Presti landed Paul George and Carmelo Anthony within three months of one another. OKC never risked anything with Westbrook. If he left, they were going to be able to say they had done everything they could. He wanted the money, the spotlight, and the team around him. Westbrook got all three things the summer after he won MVP.
Life's pretty good for Russell Westbrook III.
FOR THE THUNDER
A huge sign of relief comes next for OKC. The Thunder knew the risks. Westbrook was set to be a free agent. They added George, not only a free agent next summer but one whom league sources all over expect to head to the Lakers. Carmelo Anthony, too, has a player option for next summer and can leave. If they had gone into the season without the Westbrook extension, it opened the door for chaos and disruption, constant questions about how they could be torn to the ground next summer. Instead, no matter what, they have Westbrook.
Even if George and Anthony don't work out as complimentary pieces and this bold experiment crashes to the ground, they have Westbrook. You can always rebuild around Westbrook. They have him for his absolute prime, the next four seasons, before his reported player option kicks in.
There will never be another Kevin Durant. OKC will never have a player like KD, ever again, but there will also never be a player like Russell Westbrook. It's also not just the talent, performance, and highlights. Westbrook is the team's leader, he's always been that. He's the guy that team follows. He's ingrained himself to the community and within the franchise. No matter how taciturn he may be with the media, he's ingratiated himself with those around him in that Midwestern city, and made basketball a really big deal in a football state.
The Thunder have their icon. Now they just have to figure out how to get him that championship that they've come so close to so often.
Might as well hand over the Executive of the Year award to Okahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti now, because no front office official has won more than he has over the past three months.
Not only did he trade table scraps for Paul George, and whatever is left over from those scraps for Carmelo Anthony, but he was able to get Westbrook's long-term commitment, ensuring the Thunder's relevance and contention for years to come.
Presti has taken his fair share of arrows through the years. The Harden trade is the most re-examined trade, maybe in NBA history, no matter the circumstances surrounding it. Then failing to put the pieces around Westbrook and Durant to win a title, despite four Western Conference Finals appearances in six seasons. Then losing Durant, despite having done everything possible to retain him. The list goes on.
He never took to social media to defend himself or stump for his players. He hasn't done interviews to talk up the organization. He's just gone back to work every day and tried to improve the roster. The Thunder exceeded expectations last season, and probably overachieved relative to their roster's talent, if we're being straight, thanks to Westbrook's late-game exploits. But when they were downed by the Rockets in five games in the first round of the playoffs, the talk was about how lost the team looked. None of this considered that Presti never had a real chance to regroup after Durant left.
By the time Durant dropped his letter of intent on the Player's Tribune on July 4 last year, the good free agents were already committed. Few stars were on the market for trade. The Thunder had no options. This summer was the first time OKC had room to maneuver and re-stock. For a team that landed the sixth seed, just standing pat would have been acceptable. Presti did not take that approach. He was opportunistic, and things fell his way. A draft day deal for Anthony and George to go to the Cavs fell apart. The Rockets could never find the right pieces to pull off their trade for Anthony. The Celtics never came to the table with an overwhelming deal for George (like the one they paid for Kyrie Irving).
Even Presti's so-called mistakes, like the Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter contracts, proved valuable. This should not be overlooked. Those players on those contracts meant they could be used to take up the salary restrictions in trades. Both are young players and while the return for both teams was poor and everyone knows it, Presti was able to be in the conversations for Anthony and George because of those deals.
Sam Presti has been praised torn down, dismissed and deluged with praise, all in the past year. On Friday, the last component of a masterpiece team-augmentation projection was brought to completion. Say what you want about the Thunder and Presti, but there's no getting around this: they've done everything they can this summer to win.