It’s becoming more apparent every game. You can ride with Russell Westbrook anywhere.
He was last seen all over the court in the 48th minute he played of the Thunder’s marathon win in New Jersey. It was the shiniest of the stat sheet-filling performances he’s had this season. But Westbrook’s emergence in the upper stratosphere of NBA stardom through the first part of this season has shown more than just flashes of staying power. He’s played superbly without Kevin Durant, as he did last night, but also with him on plenty of occasions. Teams are carving out more time for him when they scout the Thunder. And it’s not working.
But it’s not just what Westbrook does on the court. It’s how he does it. He’s just a little bit mean. And it means a lot to his team.
Westbrook’s captivating, explosive athleticism gives his game an edge all by itself. A ritual following nearly any game for many of us is searching on YouTube until somebody uploads his latest vicious dunk. The Nets game was no exception. Neither was the game before that. Or the one before that. And to ignite the magical 8-0 run in Game 3 of the Lakers series last season. And so on. He’s the best in-game dunker this side of Blake Griffin, and the only reason why he’s not No. 1 doubles as a good argument for why he maybe should be: he’s half a foot shorter.
And it’s more than that. It’s his attitude when he makes a big play. Sure, just about everyone screams like a banshee when they dunk. (I would if I could.) But Westbrook … means it. You can tell. By all accounts, off the court he’s an affable and friendly guy. But on the court he’s a menace. If you steal the ball, he will take it back, dunk on you, and then yell at you and your teammates as he gets back on defense. And no one really yells back.
So game by game, dunk by dunk and primal scream after primal scream, Russell Westbrook is making himself more irreplaceable. There was really no doubting his future place on the Oklahoma City roster going forward. Everyone knows he’s the Thunder point guard of the present and future. The only question was how much money the front office would have to offer to get him to sign an extension over the offseason.
Now, we know the answer. Sam Presti will probably have to offer almost everything he can. And not only could that pose a problem or five, but how big the problems could be will depend a lot on what happens in CBA negotiations from here on out.
Could the Thunder afford two max players and a quality supporting cast based on current rules? There’s no doubt the Spurs are doing what Oklahoma City strives to do. San Antonio has kept a rotating corps of quality players around its three-man nucleus of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker. But of those three guys, only Duncan is among the top 30 highest-paid players in the NBA right now. The way Westbrook is playing, the Thunder may have two players in that category in a few seasons in Westbrook and Durant. The debate now seems to be whether Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka or James Harden is capable of being the third arm of a Thunder triumvirate. But which one, if any of them, would be able to stick around if Westbrook and Durant are soon earning about $30 million combined?
Or would Westbrook even be able to reach those heights, even if he’s paid max money? Who knows what’s going to happen with the next CBA. I don’t and neither does anyone else who isn’t a part of the negotiations. But it could mean smaller contracts. Because Westbrook isn’t eligible for extension until the summer, he’s pretty much at the mercy of rules that don’t yet exist.
If the CBA doesn’t change very much, then that could be a bad thing for Oklahoma City and trying to keep the band together. Something would have to change. I’ve never balanced Clay Bennett’s checkbook, but I think it’s fair to say the Thunder, as a franchise, doesn’t have pockets near as deep as the Lakers, Celtics, Mavericks and Knicks of the world. The Thunder would have to be so successful in sponsorship deals, merchandising and the rest that it could afford a big luxury tax bill. There would have to be yet more money from yet more suites generated at the still-the-Ford Center. There would just have to be more money.
But there are a few things that have been floated as possible changes to the CBA that could change the landscape significantly. Maybe salaries will take a huge hit, and Westbrook is suddenly affordable. Maybe teams will be allowed to do more to retain their own players without paying financial penalties. Maybe there will be increased revenue sharing. Maybe there will be more money generated from digital media rights.
In the end, the financial negotiations (that continue to threaten the existence of a 2011-12 season at all, by the way) that will rule offseason NBA news could be more important to Oklahoma City from a player personnel standpoint than any other team. With a talent like Westbrook eligible for an extension with Durant already on the books, Green a restricted free agent and Ibaka and Harden close behind, the Thunder’s window for winning with rookie contracts is coming to a close.
I don’t have a doubt Presti will find a way to do something creative. He hasn’t disappointed in the past, as Nick Collison’s recent contract extension showed beyond a doubt. But the more creative Westbrook gets on the court, the more creative Presti will have to be when figuring out Oklahoma City’s future.