The beginning of July was an exciting time to be a Thunder fan. The organization landed Paul George on June 30, locked in Patrick Patterson on July 4, secured Raymond Felton on July 7, and the fan base was drunk on possibilities by July 8. When you throw in George’s airport welcome and the “Paul George Welcome Party”, it truly began to feel like the Thunder was back. Energetic fans and hyperbolic analysts were everywhere. It was pure bliss.
In the immediate aftermath of everything that went down, it became commonplace to assume Russell Westbrook’s contract extension would be the next chip to fall in short order. Fresh off an MVP campaign that saw him put up otherworldly statistics, the addition of a superstar running mate looked like the answer to his prayers. Getting his name on that supermax deal figured to be the climax of a month-long celebration. The proverbial cherry on top of Sam Presti’s revamped Thunder sundae.
The problem? It’s August and there’s still no contract extension in sight.
While the reasoning behind the delay isn’t exactly known, it’s still widely believed Westbrook will indeed re-up with the Thunder before it’s all said and done. But because impatience breeds uncertainty, a question I’ve been seeing a lot more of is “What happens if Russ doesn’t sign the extension before the season starts?”
Let’s talk it out.
First Things First
Despite the absence of an extension, it’s worth mentioning the entire situation remains unchanged. We know no more now than we did a month ago, and Westbrook is notoriously private in his dealings. He signed his previous extension on August 4 of last summer, so it’s not as if these are uncharted waters. The timeline is quite unremarkable thus far.
For a quick refreshment, this is basically everything known about Westbrook’s situation. Via ESPN’s Royce Young:
- “Despite Paul George’s comments about figuring out free agency in tandem with Westbrook, optimism remains high Westbrook will ink extension.”
- “Nothing has changed for Westbrook in making a decision. As with everything, he’ll make it independently, and on his own terms.”
Long story short: People smarter than myself are reporting reasons for optimism. In a picture void of clear details, this is reason enough not to panic just yet. I believe he’ll sign the extension, for what it’s worth. But if he doesn’t…
I Wouldn’t Expect a Trade
While Paul George makes the basketball side of things much easier for everyone, landing the four-time All-Star doesn’t come without caveats. It’s well-documented he might be nothing more than a one-year rental, but the drawbacks could potentially go much deeper than that.
Before landing George, there were two commonly held opinions on what to do with Westbrook:
(1) Did he sign the extension? Great! Let’s settle in for the long haul.
(2) Did he decide not to sign the extension? Alright, that’s a bummer. Let’s shop him around and begin retooling for the future.
But in adding George, Sam Presti pushed all of his chips to the center of the 2017-18 table. I can’t say for certain what the plan will be, but I don’t believe you make the move to acquire a player of George’s caliber if it’s even remotely possible you trade him, Westbrook, or both, during the season. Even if Russ enters the season with the extension unsigned, it feels more probable that Presti doubles down and hopes for the best on the back end.
It feels as if the safety net of “Trade Russ if you have to” is gone. The Thunder would likely take its two superstars and go for broke, making next summer infinitely important.
Next Summer’s Options
The contract extension awaiting signature is a lucrative one — a total of roughly $235 million over the course of six years. Accepting would make Westbrook the owner of the richest deal in NBA history, and cement his place on the Thunder for the extent of his prime. He’d be open to hit free agency again when he’s 33-years-old, which makes his current decision extremely important both personally and professionally.
Say he foregoes signing this summer, and goes on to play all of next season in Oklahoma City. From there he can:
- Pick up his $30.5 million player option for 2018-19 and play out the entirety of his previous extension (Not going to happen)
- Sign the same exact “supermax” extension that’s available to him now (5-years/Approximately $207 million)
- Enter free agency, where he either:
- Works out a shorter deal with the Thunder — likely including a player option
- Leaves Oklahoma City and the Thunder altogether by signing elsewhere
While it’s not uncommon to feel a bit panicky about this subject, options remain even if this turns into a true waiting game. It didn’t always feel as though taking a gamble and waiting until next summer was the way to go — but as I already mentioned — trading for Paul George has likely pushed the Thunder into a “Win Now” mode that won’t allow for blowing the entire thing up.
So What’s Going to Happen?
Ah, yes. The all-important question… I have no idea what’s going to happen.
For all the “sources” and signs we like to talk about, the unhelpful truth is that it ultimately boils down to what Russell Westbrook wants to do. He’s entering the tenth season of his career and has spent them all in Oklahoma City. Winning, title hopes and his window as an elite NBA player are certainly being taken into consideration. His wife, where he wants to raise his son, and where he spends the next six years of his life are assuredly part of the conversation as well. It’s not an easy decision, regardless of how cut and dry it appears from a fan’s perspective.+
All-in-all I expect Westbrook to sign his extension before the season begins — and believe so because he’s in a great basketball situation for anyone playing outside Oakland. Very few teams have the firepower the Thunder possesses, and even fewer have a trustworthy general manager that’s shown a recent ability to remain competitive. Even if Paul George leaves next summer, there aren’t many organizations that offer what Sam Presti and Oklahoma City can from a culture standpoint. Having the richest contract in NBA history is also a large check in the “Plus” column.
But since the original question was what would happen if Westbrook hit the regular season without inking the extension, here’s my take:
If no deal is reached before the 2017-18 campaign begins, Westbrook will play out the season and open up his options when it’s done. Despite the underlying fear that he may walk for nothing in return, the Thunder won’t look to trade him — and will ride the Westbrook/George duo as far as it will go. Presti and the organization will then do everything within their power to convince both men to stay, whether on long term deals or shorter agreements that simply buy a bit more time. Risky business.
The idea of losing Westbrook for nothing (not to mention Westbrook AND George) is hard to stomach, but it’s a reality that’s on the table until he signs his name on the dotted line. The roster is too talented to tear it all down prematurely, which leaves one route forward — risking it all and letting it ride. The results could be disastrous, but sometimes gambles pay off handsomely. I don’t know that Presti has any other choice.
Or hey — Westbrook could just sign the extension now and spare fans the anguish of another “So what are we exactly?” type season. Whatever works for him.