Westbrook got paid, now real work starts — keep super team together

Associated Press

Call it loyalty. Call it a response to a front office making the right moves to build a contender. Call it just smart business — who walks away from $205 million? Call it whatever you want, the result is the same:

Russell Westbrook will remain a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder through his prime — and will be paid $205 million for doing so. This is why the designated veteran exception — call it the Kevin Durant rule — was put into the new CBA, to help middle and small market teams retain their superstars. It worked in OKC (as opposed to Sacramento, where they moved DeMarcus Cousins rather than have to pay him that much).

The Thunder and their fans are celebrating. As they should.

However, now the hard work starts — for Westbrook and Thunder management.

Oklahoma City has been a title contender before, reaching the NBA Finals and looking like a team destined to win titles. Plural. That never happened and, for a variety of much-discussed reasons, it all fell apart. James Harden is now leading another contender in Houston, and Kevin Durant joined the juggernaut in Golden State.

It could happen again. Paul George is a free agent next summer and his interest in becoming a Laker next summer is about as much a secret as George Clooney’s political leanings. Carmelo Anthony is more complicated — he may choose to opt into the final year of his contract, considering the tight market — but there is a legitimate chance he is not with Oklahoma City next season.

Westbrook signing the deal will put pressure on George — his entire season, his every action from now through May (or whenever the Thunder season ends) will be viewed through the “is he going to stay” prism. Thunder fans will be watching. Lakers fans will be watching. The NBA will be watching.

Westbrook is key to keeping this team together, more specifically keeping George (who makes this team a contender, Anthony is not at that level anymore). It’s not just recruiting off the court and buddying up to George, it’s about on the court — Westbrook has proven he can be a dominant scorer and MVP, but can he make the sacrifices needed to make George and Anthony better and to lead a team? Westbrook needs to be the guy who lifts those around him up and makes the whole better. He needs to promote that culture. It’s the next step for him.

Thunder management and ownership play a role here as well — Sam Presti had an Executive of the Year summer (that award is usually won in the offseason), but he has to be ready to make other moves as needed (particularly in the future if George leaves anyway). Nobody sane is worried about that, Presti will be ready.

Ownership has to be willing to pay the financial price to win — this season the Thunder will be on the hook for an estimated $24 million in luxury taxes (depending on what the final roster looks like). If after this season ownership says “we got our man” and puts the Thunder back on the tight budget of a small-market team with little or no tax spending, this team will fall apart fast. And Westbrook will be livid. He has agreed to give them his prime years, but it comes with an understanding that ownership is all-in, too.

Next summer, maybe everything Westbrook and Presti do is not enough, maybe the siren song of Los Angeles proves too strong and lures George away.

At least the Thunder will still have Westbrook, and he will be back out there recruiting — the Thunder got their man. With him, they remain relevant and dangerous. Together Westbrook and Presti can chase the next star.

However, that is not the goal. Instead, the deal is signed, and now the hard work begins not to let this opportunity pass them by.