The Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves in a tough spot with Russell Westbrook now that Kevin Durant has bolted for the Golden State Warriors. Westbrook is a franchise-changing talent that the Thunder would love to keep around, but he's set to be a free agent in the summer of 2017. They face a very real prospect of losing him for nothing like they lost Durant.
Shortly after Durant's decision, ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported that Oklahoma City will consider trying to renegotiate and extend Westbrook's contract in order to lock him in for the long haul. If the Thunder were able to open up the requisite cap space, they could add over $8 million to Westbrook's salary this season and then extend him for three more seasons at the maximum salary and attempt to build around him.
Unsurprisingly, NBA.com's David Aldridge reported Monday evening that there's little chance Westbrook actually agrees to something like this. However, it's not necessarily because of the money. As CBA expert Nate Duncan noted, there isn't as much financial incentive for Westbrook to wait as you'd expect.
Renegotiate and extends for Russ. Could have really made sense for 1 more year, adds $8 mm thru 2018, FA at 29. pic.twitter.com/2zWP2mn7YB— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) July 5, 2016
The issue is that Westbrook may not want to commit long term to Oklahoma City now that Durant's gone. The electric point guard will have his options with the cap set to explode again to around $110 million, and there will surely be plenty of rumblings with regards to the Los Angeles Lakers (his hometown team), New York Knicks and others as possible destinations.
Since the threat of Westbrook leaving is very real, Thunder general manager Sam Presti has to explore trading him. It made little sense to look at Durant trades this past year because the team was a title contender, but this version of the Thunder without Durant simply isn't one. That's why Presti must be proactive and look to get something back for his star point guard unless he actually commits to staying. Losing Durant for nothing was devastating. Imagine losing Durant and Westbrook for nothing.
Presti has moved on from impending free agents before to avoid this problem. He dealt Serge Ibaka on draft night a year before his free agency and also moved Reggie Jackson just before his in a deal for Enes Kanter. Most famously, he traded James Harden to the Rockets when they couldn't agree on a long-term contract. You can bet he's thinking about doing the same with Westbrook.
Westbrook is obviously very valuable given he's one of the best players in the league, but getting the right value back in a trade could be difficult given that he's on an expiring contract. Possible trade partners may not be willing to make a "Godfather" offer because of the threat of Westbrook leaving next summer, although they could try to secure some type of "'wink-wink" commitment from him or even negotiate an extension themselves if they have cap space left over.
The Lakers are a team that has the assets to make an attractive offer, but they probably would not want to deal players like D'Angelo Russell and/or Brandon Ingram when they could potentially sign Westbrook outright next summer.
One fascinating case is the Boston Celtics, who just agreed to a deal with Al Horford, but missed out on Durant. The Celtics still have a treasure trove of assets at their disposal, and while much of the talk with them has centered around Jimmy Butler, perhaps they could go after Westbrook instead. Again, Danny Ainge would likely want to secure some sort of reassurance from Westbrook that he'd stay before selling the farm for him, but it's an intriguing destination nonetheless.
There will also be the usual cadre of less successful teams that will trade for Westbrook even without a long-term commitment. The Suns have plenty of assets to offer, as do the Nuggets. Other teams could jump into the fray, too.
This means that Presti is going to have a difficult decision on his hands. He could try to ride it out, enjoy Angry Westbrook looking for revenge and see if Westbrook wants to stay long term. Maybe the Thunder could make a run at the hometown kid and soon-to-be free agent Blake Griffin this summer, but that's a long shot at this point. If that fails, he may be forced to trade Westbrook and bottom out the franchise because that's better than losing him for nothing.
Life is coming at Presti and the Thunder awfully fast.
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