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Why Russell Westbrook must decide his long-term future with the Thunder a year early

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The Thunder have a decision to make with their star point guard, but he has to make his own decision first, and he must do so before he becomes a free agent next summer.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

As soon as Kevin Durant decided to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, much of the attention in Oklahoma City turned to the future of Russell Westbrook. We've seen much speculation and many trade rumors in the weeks since Durant's momentous decision, but the star point guard has been publicly silent as he ponders his future.

Westbrook isn't a free agent until next summer, but as ESPN's Royce Young notes, "effectively, [Westbrook is] making his 2017 decision now." He can either commit to the Thunder long-term right now, or he can decline, which would likely cause the Thunder to trade him and get some value in return instead of risk losing him for nothing like they lost Durant.

Westbrook continues to weigh his options following Durant's move, which left him "angry and hurt" in part because Durant didn't tell him personally, according to Young. But Westbrook has been in contact with the organization since that decision. Their hope is he'll give them clarity so they can make an informed decision on how to move forward in a post-Durant world. This is why he's deciding his Thunder future a year in advance.

How will this play out? There are a few different routes this can take.

Westbrook signs a long-term extension with the Thunder

Though extensions to players already under contract are rare under this new CBA, there is a mechanism by which the Thunder can use cap space to renegotiate Westbrook's existing contract and then tack on up to three more years beyond that. Initial reports suggested Westbrook had little to no interest in pursuing this route, but he's never come out and said this. So for now, it remains on the table.

With Dion Waiters out of the picture, the Thunder have the cap space to renegotiate Westbrook's contract, which is currently set to pay him $17.77 million, up to the current maximum contract for a player with his years of service, which is $26.54 million. They could then extend Westbrook's contract for up to three more seasons with normal annual raises.

Usually, players decline this route because it is more lucrative for them to hit free agency, where they can re-sign for five years with their current team or four years elsewhere. But thanks to that bump of nearly $9 million this year, Westbrook could potentially make more money through each of the next four seasons than if he played out this season on his current deal and then signed a new long-term contract next summer.

(Note: The last two columns are based on the old 2017 cap projection that was around $107 million, so the numbers are actually lower now with the current cap projection of $102 million):

There is another option: Westbrook could bump his salary up this year and sign on for only one additional year after that instead of three. That would make financial sense for Westbrook because he'd give the Thunder another year to build around him (there are already rumblings of a Blake Griffin pursuit) and then also have the opportunity to hit free agency in 2018 as a player with 10 years of service. That would make him eligible for a new maximum contract of roughly 35 percent of the cap, rather than the 30 percent for which he is currently eligible.

Perhaps that's why Young reports there's now a "growing belief" Westbrook will give more consideration to this extension option. It'd certainly be the ideal scenario for Oklahoma City.

The Thunder trade Westbrook

The Thunder would prefer to keep Westbrook and have so far rebuffed all trade offers. Early reporting suggests he doesn't want to be traded and would prefer to play the 2016-17 season in Oklahoma City.

But if Westbrook isn't willing to make a commitment to the Thunder past next season, their view on a trade may change. Thunder general manager Sam Presti has shown a willingness to trade key players in situations like this in the past, dealing James Harden, Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka before or while in the last year of their contracts. (The notable exception to this strategy, of course, is Durant himself).

The Boston Celtics have been rumored as a possible trade suitor for Westbrook, and they have quality assets at their disposal to make an attractive offer. Other teams will certainly jump into the mix to create a bidding war.

Of course, it's nearly impossible to get ideal value back in return for a superstar like Westbrook. Even though a team like the Celtics can make a strong offer, their best assets are future draft picks that may or may not pan out. Oklahoma City isn't getting a ready-made player close to the caliber of Westbrook in a deal, so a trade likely means the beginning of a rebuilding project.

The Thunder will find it even more difficult to receive value in return for Westbrook if he won't commit to a long-term partnership with a potential new team. If the Thunder go the trade route, ideally he'd be willing to make a wink-wink commitment with a new team so Oklahoma City could get as equal a return as possible.

Nothing happens ... for now

It appears unlikely the Thunder are willing to take the chance of playing out next season without a firm long-term commitment from Westbrook, whether in the form of an extension or an unspoken promise that he'll re-sign next summer. Perhaps that "promise" wouldn't even be enough; Oklahoma City felt it was given every indication Durant would be back and he ended up leaving.

But while the Thunder don't want to be burned like that again, maybe Westbrook gives a strong enough commitment that they feel confident in re-signing him in 2017. It'd be a risky proposition, but it'd at least be somewhat understandable. It'd be difficult for fans to watch Durant and Westbrook leave in the same season.

***

The Thunder are in a tough spot. Losing Durant was a killer blow to the franchise, and now they're at the mercy of Westbrook. Oklahoma City has other quality young pieces on the roster to ease some of the pain, but the path back to title contention is much longer if Westbrook is gone as well.

The Thunder are hoping it doesn't come to that.

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Westbrook probably is feeling lonely without Durant