By Chris Molicki
For quite some time, the sports world was enamored with where Kevin Durant would go. What we didn’t immediately take into account was how that would affect his partner in crime, Russell Westbrook. Now, Westbrook has a decision that could prove to be even more intriguing.
After all this time has passed, it still amazes me that a team that close to the Finals, a team with two of the best five players in the league, wound up self-destructing. And now it presents us with a foreign NBA landscape, one with many new questions, the most complicated being this: where does Russell Westbrook go from here?
On the surface, this question has three possible answers: Westbrook will either stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder, be traded to a new team, or leave OKC in free agency at the conclusion of the season. But it’s not as simple as it may sound. Each option could encounter many hurdles, stalemates, and potential twists. Westbrook himself may be the biggest wild card in the NBA. Just like when he’s running down the court at 200 MPH, no one has a clue what Westbrook is thinking or what he’ll do next. That’s the beauty of his game and his situation.
Let’s start with the least complex option: Westbrook staying with the Thunder. While this seems unlikely at the moment, it certainly can’t be counted out for a few important reasons. The first reason is the financial benefits. If Westbrook is looking for the most money, he could rip up his current deal and sign a two-year extension with OKC (even though he’s already said he won’t until the season ends), which would make him a free agent the summer of 2018. At that point, he would have ten years of NBA service, which would allow the Thunder to give him a max deal worth 35% of the cap. That deal would start at about $35 million in year one and total more than $200 million for the life of the deal. Those are absurd numbers that are hard to not at least consider if you’re Westbrook.
The second reason Westbrook may stay goes back to what I said before. Westbrook is unpredictable, and he could determine that he likes Oklahoma City, wants to stay there, and wants to devote his career to winning MVPs, getting triple-doubles, and taking down Durant on his own. This scenario might seem fictional or hyperbole, but a Westbrook warpath isn’t out of the question.
The third reason Russ could stay put would be if the Thunder make some moves to regain contender status. OKC isn’t a bad team right now. They’ve got Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, and some key young pieces. If Sam Presti can pull off a blockbuster, maybe a Blake Griffin return to Oklahoma, then the competitiveness of the squad might lead Westbrook to stay, even though that didn’t sway Durant.
Shifting gears, if Westbrook is totally out on OKC, the most logical option would be a trade. The Thunder absolutely cannot have nothing to show for a Westbrook departure after what happened with Durant, and Presti will likely be tirelessly working the phones. The two most storied NBA franchises, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, sit atop the list of interested teams. Boston has serious assets like Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, young players like Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, and the best set of draft picks in the league. Danny Ainge could certainly put together a package enticing enough for Russ. The Lakers have picks as well, but their prized assets lie within their young talent. Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle would all be on the table in an attempt to get Westbrook to come home to Los Angeles.
There’s other teams with assets as well. Phoenix has a treasure chest of picks, along with two top-ten draft selections in Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. The Bucks have Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker, and others they could offer to acquire the solution to their point guard problem. Minnesota could opt to accelerate their rebuild by moving Andrew Wiggins, among others, if they really get hungry. And Denver, a team that’s seemed to have endless young assets for the longest time, could also be in the mix.
But for a team interested in trading for Westbrook, they must ask themselves two important questions: Will Westbrook resign with my franchise, and could I just get him in free agency if I wait it out? Like I said, it’s hard to know exactly what Westbrook wants and what he’ll do, so the uncertainty could scare off some teams. Boston, for example, has a ton of assets and is close to contending. They might not want to break up the band and hope they could lock up Westbrook in free agency. The same goes for the teams with nothing to offer but young assets. If you’re trading away young, talented players for Westbrook, is your team really that much closer to a title when the supporting cast is barren?
If I had to guess, I think a team like Boston would be gutsy enough to pull the trigger. As long as they get Russ to agree on resigning with them, they’d be willing to send over the goods to pair Westbrook with Horford and whatever’s left of their core. However, things don’t always work out the logical way in the NBA, and the volatility of this situation could lead to teams like Boston, Los Angeles, and others waiting for Presti and Thunder management to blink in an attempt to get a more enticing offer. If Presti doesn’t fold, it could lead to an intensely dramatic series of events, culminating in Westbrook becoming a free agent.
While this is the most unlikely scenario of the three, it can’t be discounted because the NBA loses its mind on a daily basis. Westbrook’s free agency could span to a massive number of teams because of the cap rising and because we just don’t know where the hell Westbrook wants to go. Teams that Russ could consider include the Celtics, Lakers, Suns, Nuggets, Bucks, Timberwolves, Knicks, Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets, Spurs, Pelicans, Jazz, and Heat (just to name a few). We’d be living in a universe where about half the NBA teams have at least a small chance at getting Westbrook. I know we’ve seen some wild free agency moments with Durant and LeBron James, but this could top them both.
And that’s why Westbrook’s situation is so damn fascinating. On the surface, he has three options. But in each of those options leads to more possibilities. The choices that Westbrook makes, as well as those of the teams courting him, will lead to domino after domino falling until we eventually get our answer.
Russell Westbrook’s decision on his future might perfectly encapsulate his play on the court: unpredictable, insane, and one hell of a ride.