Talk to people around the league and they are beyond convinced Russell Westbrook is not long for Oklahoma City. Many thought he was more likely than Kevin Durant to leave as a free agent, and that was before Durant bolted for Golden State. Beyond that, teams are convinced the Thunder can’t take the risk of losing Westbrook for nothing, too.
But around Oklahoma City, there is still optimism — maybe guarded optimism, but optimism — that Westbrook stays, something most recently reported by Anthony Slater at The Oklahoman.
Westbrook has given the Thunder no indication that he currently wants out. To the contrary, one source described him as ticked off about the Kevin Durant departure, determined for this new challenge and eager for the season to start: “He’s ready.”
Does anyone doubt the fierce competitor that is Westbrook plans to take advantage of the situation, play like a beast, put up crazy numbers (he’s a smart bet to lead the league in scoring) and take OKC as far as he can while he’s there? Of course he will.
That’s not the question, the dilemma facing Oklahoma City: Not saying you’re leaving is not the same as saying you are staying.
The Thunder would love for Westbrook to sign a contract extension, but he’s not going to do that — even if he wants to stay with OKC playing this season, becoming a free agent, then re-signing nets him two more guaranteed years and more than $75 million more guaranteed dollars.
The problem for the Thunder is this: Even if he wants to stay right now (and that’s up for debate), his mind could change. Or maybe he heads into free agency next summer like Durant did this one: He probably stays, but he just wants to listen to what other teams have to say. The Thunder can’t take that risk; they can’t lose two Hall of Fame level players for nothing.
Of course, trading Westbrook is not that simple, either. Westbrook can still be a free agent next summer. A source speaking to Celtics’ Blog laid it out perfectly:
“No team is going to pay a hefty price without getting a commitment from Westbrook,” the source said. “Someone may pay a cheaper price without a commitment, but OKC probably doesn’t do a deal like that.”
Westbrook probably wants to leave his options open for next summer. Which puts the Thunder in a bind. But hypothetically let’s say Westbrook’s agent finds a team that wants him and where he wants to be, and they privately assure said team Westbrook will re-sign: Then the question is the price it takes to get Westbrook. Think Carmelo Anthony leaving Denver — he got where he wanted to go, but the team was gutted, notes Slater at the Oklahoman.
But that’s where the Carmelo case serves as a cautionary tale for Westbrook. He’s hyper competitive and obsessed with winning. Forcing a trade could inhibit the future of his future team.
Let’s take the Lakers for example. He’s from Los Angeles and many have speculated about his desire to live and play there. The Lakers have a batch of young pieces that would intrigue any trade partner — such as DeAngelo Russell and Brandon Ingram. But wouldn’t Westbrook prefer to join a Laker team with them, not one that just gave them up? He could opt to wait until next offseason.
For Westbrook, if he is going to leave, it would be better to do so via free agency. Which comes back to the bind the Thunder find themselves in — move him now for less than he’s worth, or roll the dice that he stays. There are no easy answers.
But the sense around the league is the Thunder are most likely to move him before the season starts, if they are going to do it at all.