Oklahoma City came within a game of being in the NBA Finals, where they certainly would have been at least very competitive.
Within a year, they could be another rebuilding team in a small market.
It’s all in the hands of Russell Westbrook.
Kevin Durant has decided to play for the Golden State Warriors. There is an understandable sense of shock and betrayal by Thunder fans — they look back at the final minutes of Game 6 in the Western Conference Finals and realize that has forever changed the franchise. KD praised Oklahoma City on his way out the door, but for Thunder fans it feels like Durant went back on his words and who he said he was.
That doesn’t change the fact that in the coming weeks and months, Oklahoma City’s front office faces a very difficult decision:
Do they need to trade Westbrook? If so, then it’s time to begin a total rebuild.
The trade Westbrook question comes down to this: Does he want to stay? Westbrook is a free agent next summer. The Thunder need to sit down with Westbrook and his agent/team soon and get a sense of his plans. They can offer him a contract renegotiation and extension, something Brian Windhorst at ESPN says they will propose. They can give him three more years and add $8 million more to the deal, according to the report. However, even if he wants to stay, he will not take the extension because under the CBA he makes way more money becoming a free agent then re-signing with his team.
There is a sense from some in the league that Westbrook was always drawn to the bright lights of a bigger market, and with Durant gone he would bolt, too.
That’s not the feeling inside the Thunder front office. They have felt Durant was the one feeling the pull of outside forces to leave. Now the Thunder is Westbrook’s team, OKC believes he wants that and they can sell him on staying because and being the lone star with all the top billing.
However, if Westbrook says he’s going to take meetings with other teams next summer and hasn’t made up his mind, then the Thunder need to look at the trade market for Westbrook to get something for him now and jump start a rebuild. The Thunder would not get equal value back in a trade, but if they feel he might leave next summer they need to get some return rather than the nothing they get if he leaves as a free agent.
Westbrook would have some leverage in this trade — because he is a free agent next summer, if he tells a market “I will not re-sign with you” said team would be foolish to give up assets to get him.
If he does want a change, there are a couple of star-hungry teams that may entice Westbrook. Boston just landed Al Horford, and they are loaded with young assets and draft picks that could interest the Thunder. Put Westbrook and Horford with Isaiah Thomas and good role players, and it’s a team that could threaten Cleveland in the East.
Westbrook’s hometown Lakers is another option. The sides could exchange point guards — D'Angelo Russell — and the Lakers have other interesting young pieces that Thunder may value. Even with Westbrook and young players like Brandon Ingram, the Lakers would be a few years away (certainly they are no immediate threat to Golden State, and they would be worse than OKC with Westbrook). The pitch in L.A. is Westbrook would take over for Kobe Bryant as the face of the franchise, and this could be a very good team in a few years with other smart moves by management (Westbrook would need to decide if he trusts the current Laker management to make those moves).
There are numerous other teams that would be interested as well, from Miami through New York. Westbrook and the Thunder would have options.
Oklahoma City just hopes not to go down that road.
OKC faces other tough questions, too. The big one: Should they match offers from other teams to keep Dion Waiters (or just re-sign the restricted free agent)?
It sucks in the wake of the emotional, heartbreaking loss of Durant for Thunder fans to contemplate moving their other star, but Thunder management has no choice. Durant made his decision, and it has forced other, tough ones on the Thunder. Decisions with no perfect answer.
But in the end the call on Westbrook is clear cut: If he’s going to leave next summer, they need to get something for him while they can.