Russell Westbrook Can’t Be Ignored During KD’s Free Agency Drama


There’s no denying the Oklahoma City Thunder front office has its collective hands full with a superstar player on the verge of an expiring contract. They have to show him that he’s the center of the team’s attention and that they can continue to help him build his legacy. That playing in a relatively small market won’t hurt his numerous endorsement opportunities. And, of course, they’ll have to show him that he has the best chance of winning in Oklahoma City, all while paying him a great sum of money.

Yes, general manager Sam Presti and his staff certainly have their work cut out for them when it comes to re-signing Russell Westbrook.

Wait…did you think I was talking about someone else?

You are absolutely forgiven for thinking that I might be referring to Kevin Durant, whose own contract (if you hadn’t heard) ends at the end of the 2015-16 season. But Westbrook, considered one of the top 10 players in the NBA and who finished fourth in last season’s Most Valuable Player voting, has his own contract ending the following year, in 2017.

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That seems like an eternity way, especially with the start of this season already upon us and a promising campaign getting ready to roll out.

But time is relative and Westbrook will practically be a free agent before you know it. Consider for a moment…how long have we been hearing about Durant’s free agency? How long have there been rumors virtually tying KD to 29 other NBA teams as a potential suitor? One year? Two?

These are the unfortunate conditions that Presti has and will continue to live with. Durant’s deal is the season’s primary focus, despite all claims to the contrary. But then Westbrook – and top-25 NBA player Serge Ibaka – become free agents in 2017 and the focus must shift again. It’s practically guaranteed that the team will not be able to keep all three players, despite what might be a boom in the salary cap over the next few seasons.

what if, in the back of Westbrook’s mind, he might wonder what the team is willing to do to retain him

Should Durant re-sign with OKC, they’ll be committing a pretty penny toward his salary and that of Enes Kanter, who re-signed with the team this past summer. Then, with KD and Kanter already on the books, they’ll have to commit other large sums to Westbrook and/or Ibaka, not to mention Steven Adams and any other role players the team has on the roster. Of course, there’s always the possibility that they can trade Kanter’s huge contract but, unless he continues to blossom defensively, they won’t find any takers for that deal.

There’s a bitter irony to the situation. Part of the reason why Kanter was acquired last season was to continue building, showing Durant that the team was willing to make a move and not stand pat as they have so often before. Presti was forced to overpay for Kanter this summer, giving the Thunder the best, immediate chances of winning. Likewise, many suspect that hiring Billy Donovan to replace Scott Brooks was a sign that the team was willing to make a change, perhaps just for change’s sake (although, so far, Donovan seems likely to instill more creativity than Brooks ever did).

But these moves were all done with Durant in mind, a fact that probably isn’t lost on Westbrook. The latter will be the beneficiary as much as the former, but what if, in the back of Westbrook’s mind, he might wonder what the team is willing to do to retain him.

Players have been conditioned, over time, to recite the mantra that the game of basketball is just a business. They use that to justify the few ways available to them to make as much money as they can for themselves; they similarly use it as a defense mechanism when teams use them as pawns. When a team trades you away, it’s a business. When the franchise decides not to pay you, it’s a business.

But, even in business, everyone involved is just human and Westbrook, although often compared to a tireless robot on the court, might feel jilted at the Thunder’s lack of attention.

This isn’t about a rivalry between Durant and the man he’s called a brother and friend; that narrative was mostly squashed years ago. But as Westbrook’s star shines ever brighter (as it did last season when KD was injured), it’s easy to assume he might want to be the focus of the team’s recruiting efforts.

So, even as Presti keeps one eye on Durant, he’d be best served keeping the other on Westbrook and making sure that he’s satisfied with the team’s progress. Or, in the event of the unthinkable, the Oklahoma City Thunder could find themselves losing not just one superstar but two.

Next: Can Serge Ibaka Develop Into a Playmaker for OKC?