With Durant Gone, Thunder Must Focus on Future
*Photo via Getty Images
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you know that Kevin Durant shocked the Oklahoma City Thunder and the NBA by signing with the Golden State Warriors. Durant’s blindside left the Thunder with one option, ensure Russell Westbrook’s future with the team, or trade him before he follows Durant out the door.
After reports came out that Westbrook wasn’t interested in signing an extension with the Thunder until after the season, rumors began to circulate about possible trade destinations for the explosive floor general. Now, there are more reports, but they say that Westbrook doesn’t want to be traded and wants to play the upcoming season in Oklahoma City.
The issue with this though, is that everyone thought Durant was going to return to the only team he had ever played for after playing last season without renegotiating his contract. Oklahoma City can’t afford to lose Westbrook the same way and get nothing in return; with the reports that he wanted to stay in town, the Thunder took action. The team rescinded their qualifying offer to Dion Waiters ($6.8 million) after signing Spanish guard Alex Abrines (32nd overall selection in 2013). Waiters then agreed to a deal with the Miami Heat, freeing up his $12.7 cap hold on the Thunder’s salary books; giving the Thunder $14 million in cap space.
With Waiters off the books, the Thunder can now offer Westbrook a maximum level extension giving him $27.5 million for the upcoming season, and more money long term than if he waits to sign a new deal after the season. For the Thunder, it doesn’t get any more cut-and-dry, if Westbrook takes the deal, great; you’re still in contention for the playoffs and a shot at Durant and the Warriors. If Westbrook turns down the deal, then he has no desire to stay in Oklahoma City the rest of his career and they can go on and pursue trades for him.
*Photo via Calisportsnews
While the Thunder would obviously love to keep Westbrook, one player alone isn’t going to get this team back in the Finals. It is almost a lock that we will see Golden State and Cleveland in the Finals for the third straight season. After next season, Blake Griffin, who was born in Oklahoma City and played college basketball at Oklahoma, will be a free agent. The Thunder are widely expected to heavily pursue Griffin if he does indeed enter free agency (whether Westbrook is on the team or not) and the Thunder would present an intriguing option for him. Westbrook is a top five player in the NBA and the talent around him: Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Victor Oladipo form a nice core for a contending team. Adding a star like Griffin could catapult the Thunder back into the Finals discussion.
Even if Westbrook’s future is uncertain, the one sure thing is that this upcoming season will be the most important one yet for the Thunder since moving to Oklahoma from Seattle in 2008. If Westbrook is sent somewhere else, a once promising future of a team with Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka will only be remembered as “what could’ve been”, with all four of them somewhere else. Should Westbrook commit to the Thunder, then we will see how GM Sam Presti will go about reloading the team for another Finals run, either through the draft, trades (DeMarcus Cousins isn’t being shipped around, but he is unhappy in Sacramento), or next year’s free agency (Griffin, or in a crazy scenario, Durant). One way or another, the Thunder’s future will be decided in the coming months.