For years, Russell Westbrook was primed to become the most coveted NBA free agent in 2017. And when Kevin Durant spurned the Oklahoma City Thunder in favor of the Golden State Warriors earlier this offseason, the masses were certain Westbrook wouldn’t last the upcoming campaign in Oklahoma City and would be traded over the winter.
However, at least for now, it appears as if Russell could be staying in town for the foreseeable future. On Wednesday, Russell agreed to a three-year extension worth over $85 million, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo.
Westbrook, 27, doesn’t receive the same accolades as Stephen Curry, but Russell is arguably a better all-around point guard. Westbrook’s been the Thunder’s cornerstone along with Durant since their inception in 2008, and is now the sole face of the franchise.
Westbrook dominated NBA hardwoods during the 2015-16 season. Russell averaged an astonishing 23.5 points, 10.4 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per game. Russell and Durant nearly led the Thunder to an upset of Golden State in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, but blew a 3-1 series lead which seems to have played a part in Durant’s defection to the Warriors.
Although the Thunder undoubtedly made a solid move in acquiring Victor Oladipo from the Orlando Magic, Russell still doesn’t appear to have enough help in Oklahoma City to make a deep postseason run next spring.
The Thunder will easily be a playoff team, but expecting Westbrook and Co. to contend with the likes of the aforementioned Warriors, juggernaut San Antonio Spurs and stacked Los Angeles Clippers would be absolutely outrageous and painfully shortsighted.
Thus, the Thunder have an overwhelmingly difficult decision to make going forward. Prior to signing Russell to the lucrative extension, Oklahoma City was never going to receive fair value for Westbrook in any deal involving him midseason with free agency impending just a few months later.
Now, however, Westbrook is under contract for the next three years, so a team like the Los Angeles Lakers, that has the young talent in D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, and Julius Randle to part with in exchange for Russell’s services, will be far more willing to do so knowing they have Westbrook under control.
While Westbrook is a Los Angeles native and has expressed great interest in playing for his hometown team, the Thunder will have an abundance of potential trade suitors for Russell.
The Boston Celtics have gone after every available superstar (and even some who weren’t) over the past year, and will most assuredly be interested in entertaining discussions for Westbrook. Boston could offer a package starting with Isaiah Thomas (who could take Westbrook’s place at point guard) and small forward Jae Crowder that would be tremendously difficult for the Thunder to decline.
I’d hate to be in the shoes of Thunder General Manager Sam Presti this winter. It’s entirely possible that Westbrook could lead this team as constructed to a No. 4 seed in a tough Western Conference. This would mean Presti’s arena would still be packed every game with Russell leading the way, he’d have an exciting product and thus would have done an admirable job in an incredibly difficult situation following Durant’s departure.
But the goal in the NBA — as in every other professional sport — is to build a roster that’s capable of competing for a championship. Barring something entirely unforeseen, it isn’t likely to happen over the next few years as drawing in another max player to join Russell in small-market Oklahoma City will be borderline impossible.
It’ll be interesting to see what the Thunder elect to do with Westbrook at the trade deadline if they are miraculously playing like a No. 3 seed or better. But Russell is in his prime, under contract for multiple seasons, and will never have more value on the trade market than he will in the upcoming campaign. Although it will obviously be the toughest and least popular decision to make, the Thunder would be foolish not to trade Westbrook this winter.
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