Those who believed that the departure of Kevin Durant will only further motivate Russell Westbrook to succeed with the Oklahoma City Thunder seem to have been right, as the All-Star point guard is about to sign an extension with the only team he’s ever played for that should keep him with the Thunder until 2019.
Westbrook has one year remaining on his current deal, making $16.7 million. The extension, which totals at $87.5 million over three years, increases his 2016-2017 salary to $26.5 million, while he’ll be making the max, according to the current salary cap progression, in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019. However, Westbrook does have the option to opt out in 2018. This would allow him to take advantage of the 10-year max salary tier. He has been in the NBA for 8 seasons.
This puts the Thunder in a position to build around Westbrook for the next two seasons, hoping they do a good enough job to convince him to stay beyond his next contract expiring, or his opt out. But maybe this is Westbrook’s vote of confidence in the organization, in Sam Presti, in Billy Donovan. Maybe it shows how much he loves playing in the city, and for the fan base. Opting out in 2018 might be more about making more money, and not wanting to see if there’s anything better for him out there.
Westbrook deciding to extend his contract shoots down all the calls to trade him and start something new. It was obviously difficult to gauge what he would do following Durant’s decision to leave for the Golden State Warriors, but after the initial reactions and assumptions putting Westbrook on the trading block, more and more news surfaced about how angry Westbrook was at Durant for making this decision, and how much it would motivate him to be the leader of his own team, and to do in Oklahoma City.
And maybe it shouldn’t be surprising. While Westbrook didn’t wrestle for control of the Thunder on the court with Durant, it’s always been difficult for him living in a world when there’s someone above him in the hierarchy. Maybe the two of them combined better than before in the 2015-2016 season, until the meltdown in the conference final, but Westbrook has never been shy about taking advantage of opportunities to do it on his own. Averaging an NBA-best 28.1 points per game in 2014-2015, most of that season without Durant, gave us a glimpse of a fired up Westbrook, carrying the team on his back.
Last season Westbrook made the All-Star game for a fifth time, averaging 23.5 points and 10.4 assists per game. He shot 45.4% from the field (his best since 2011-2012), with a career high in true shooting numbers and his best eFG% as well. His scoring per minute fell, but that was because of Durant returning, and Westbrook slightly changing his game. His defense was more focused, as he earned himself his first ever All-NBA first team mention, deservedly.
Do the Thunder have a team good enough to win a championship? Probably not. But not entering a rebuild gives them a year to position themselves towards one more signing that puts them at the upper echelon of the Western conference, while having a superstar that plays his best basketball when there’s a chip on his shoulder. It means they can work next season without the dread of Westbrook leaving looming, and with Westbrook as possibly a favorite to win the MVP, knowing what he’s capable of when it’s his team to run.