DA's Morning Tip

Oklahoma City, Thunder appear good enough for loyal Russell Westbrook

David Aldridge

Honk if you had Russell Westbrook and Clay Bennett for the 0-30 parlay that made the NBA smile.

The talk for much of last week was again about the gulf between the NBA’s haves and have nots, along two tracks. The first was the decision of the Board of Governors, with the Commissioner advocating behind the scenes, to tweak the Lottery process by giving the three teams at the top of the Lottery in 2019 equal odds — 14 percent — of getting the first pick. The hope is that by doing so, teams will be less inclined to go into full tank mode at the ends of seasons, since their chances of securing the top pick won’t be any better than getting the third pick.

The other was a lengthy discussion during the BOG meeting about the current revenue sharing program, in which a handful of teams — last season, reportedly, Golden State, New York, Chicago and the Lakers — provided almost all of the money that was distributed to the league’s smallest revenue-producing teams. Yet despite their contributions, small revenue teams still lamented the gulf between the Big Four’s local TV deals and other revenue streams, compared with their own. The ability of the Warriors not to blink at a $135 million payroll to keep their prohibitive favorite of a team together curdled a lot of owners’ bourbons. The point of the 2011 lockout, he said for the thousandth time, was to try and make it almost impossible for a super team to be able to remain together, freeing stars to alight in lots of different markets.

Yet the last few years saw nothing but impact player congealing — in Los Angeles in 2011, just two weeks after the end of the lockout, when the Clippers added Chris Paul to play with Blake Griffin and an emerging DeAndre Jordan; in Cleveland in 2014 (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love) and, famously, in the Bay in 2016, when Kevin Durant joined a team with a two-time MVP in Stephen Curry, a two-time (at that time) All-Star in Klay Thompson and the rest of a team that had just set the league’s all-time single season mark at 73-9.

But then came Westbrook, last Friday, finally signing the $205 million extension that the Thunder had had on the table for weeks. The impact reverberated well beyond the 405.

Westbrook didn’t, as everyone seemed to accept as a fait accompli the last year and a half, play out his contract after collecting an extra $28 million in extension money from OKC last season, and bolt to the Lakers, Tom Joad with a 401(K) and options, in the summer of 2018. The scuttlebutt was that Westbrook would go back to his hometown and be united with LeBron James and/or Carmelo Anthony and/or Idris Elba and/or Shonda Rimes.

But he stayed in Oklahoma City, signing the extension, which will kick in starting in 2018-19 and keep him there until at least 2023, when he’ll be 34.

His decision to stay with the team that took him fourth overall in 2009 — much higher than many had him going — and that said immediately that he would play point guard, a position many thought he couldn’t handle, meant the Thunder and the NBA won’t have to face what would have been a nightmare scenario for each: the mass exodus of Westbrook, Paul George and newly acquired Carmelo Anthony, the latter two still free agents in 2018, for greener pastures.

Now, instead of the Thunder facing a talent drain, in a market that has never been much of a free agent destination (though the Thunder did get Patrick Patterson from Toronto this summer), OKC can dream of not only having Westbrook all of his prime, but re-signing either George or Anthony — maybe both? — next summer.

And that’s because Bennett, the Thunder’s owner, has signed off on paying massive luxury taxes next year, and probably beyond. There would be no reason to acquire either George or Anthony if you were not committed to re-signing them, which would send OKC’s already-over-the-tax-threshold team salary of $133.9 million this year to Saturn in the near future. Anthony has a player option at $27.9 million for 2018-19, and while he might be expected to decline it and try for yet another huge payday, he’ll be 34 next summer, and the free agent pool next year will be deep. He could well opt in.

We all know that Bennett’s reluctance to go into the tax a few years ago was a major factor in the Thunder’s decision to trade James Harden to the Rockets. Now, faced with another opportunity to keep another OKC nucleus together, Bennett has put his wallet where his city’s hopes are. It is not a guarantee that George or Anthony will stay, but it is a commitment from ownership that it will do everything it can to make that happen. And that’s all a market like OKC can do.

It will be up to George and Anthony, of course, to decide what they do. But now, according to a source familiar with him, George will listen in good faith to what the Thunder have to say.

Once Adrian Wojnarowski, now at ESPN, broke the story of George informing the Pacers of his intentions to go to the Lakers in 2018, the only narrative given any credence was that George was a one-year rental for the Thunder and would soon be on his way. Oklahoma City was not on the list of six teams that George was willing to be traded to before Indiana sent him to the Thunder in July. Now, according to the source, George will give Oklahoma City an audience next summer.

The source says George has been impressed by the culture of the Thunder and how meticulous general manager Sam Presti and the organization are in building the roster and the franchise. George was impressed that the front office “had the (guts),” in the source’s words, to put everything on the line in getting him, and followed it up by getting Anthony without giving up any of the team’s core group. (The Thunder showed who it thought was more important to the team by re-signing defensive hound/offensive liability Andre Roberson for $30 million over three years, while including the offensively potent but defensively sieve-like Enes Kanter in the Anthony trade.)

Now, both George and Anthony know that the reigning league Kia MVP will be in OKC.

Westbrook’s new deal also represents another triumph for the Designated Veteran Player Exception, yet another mechanism designed to help smaller markets keep their superstars.

A part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the DVPE, as you recall, gives the incumbent team the ability to offer players it has drafted that have between seven and nine years’ experience an extension for up to five years starting at the maximum 35 percent of the salary cap in year one of the extension. Westbrook easily reached the criteria for the DVPE: a player qualifies if he’s won league MVP, made two all-NBA teams or won two Defensive Player of the Year awards in the previous three years, or was MVP, Defensive Player of the Year or on an all-NBA team the previous season.

Using the DVPE, the Warriors gave Stephen Curry a five-year, $201 million deal in the first seconds of free agency in July. The Rockets used it to extend James Harden for four years and $170 million. Adding the $58.7 million remaining on his existing contract, Harden will get a total of $228.7 million from Houston through 2023. The Wizards did the same four-year max extension with John Wall; with the $37.1 million left on his current contract, he’ll get a total of $207.1 million from Washington through ’23. Both George and Gordon Hayward would have been eligible for similar deals in Indiana and Utah, respectively, had each stayed (Hayward would have had to opt in to the final year of his deal with the Jazz) and met any of the one-year criteria for the DVPE next season.

Those are massive commitments on the part of ownership, and not agreed to easily. Sacramento opted to trade DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans last February rather than signing off on investing nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in him. But OKC had no such reservations with Westbrook.

It is, to be sure, a relationship built on mutual loyalty and shared pain. Neither the team nor Westbrook will ever cop to just how much they were wounded by Durant’s departure. Regardless of the back and forth of their relationship over the years, Westbrook and Durant were the foundation on which the Thunder built their franchise upon moving from Seattle in 2008.

With two of the league’s top 10 players, OKC reached four Western Conference finals in a seven-year stretch between 2009 and 2016 — and it likely would have been more had Houston’s Patrick Beverley not taken Westbrook out in the first game of the conference semis in 2013, wrecking a 60-win Thunder team.

Westbrook does not show his hand to outsiders, so even the Thunder had to wait and see what he wanted to do about the max offer, which had been on the table all summer. (He has not practiced with the team yet; he had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his right knee before the start of training camp.)

Waiting was a familiar place for the Thunder. It took Westbrook more than a month before he signed his $85 million extension a year ago. But OKC understood its man. There was a decade of shared history between them. He knew the offer was on the table; the Thunder knew that he knew.

So, the Thunder waited — for Westbrook’s wife Nina to give birth to the couple’s first child, Noah, in May; for Westbrook to return from Fashion Week in Paris in June and for Westbrook to complete a massive 10-year extension with Jordan Brand that will reportedly make him the company’s top endorsed athlete in early September.

But the Thunder — correctly, it turned out — banked on Westbrook’s shared affection both for the franchise and the city.

The franchise not only drafted him and gave him the ball, it gave him all the space he needed last season, as he assaulted Oscar Robertson’s seemingly unassailable triple-double average for a season, done 45 years ago, and fought James Harden for league MVP. Westbrook not only had free reign on the court — in this OKC and coach Billy Donovan had little choice, as Westbrook was the only person remotely capable of creating shots for himself and others — but the Thunder protected his space, too. There was no media crush as he approached Robertson’s mark, no national sitdown interviews; even the New York Times had to piece together a nonetheless well done cover story on him in February.

And OKC’s front office held up its end, improbably delivering George and then Anthony. So if Westbrook wants to keep them around, he had to show them his level of confidence in them by committing long term. Every loss this season would otherwise be a referendum on the future — what does it mean? Is Russ leaving? We already know the other two are gone. Now, a loss to Denver will just be a loss to Denver.

This all serves as catnip for the league, seeing its third-smallest TV market now set up to continue to thrive into a second decade — a point of considerable pride in Oklahoma City. They had to trade Harden, and they kept winning. They had to fire Scott Brooks, and they kept winning. They lost Durant — cruelly, to the team that had destroyed their championship dream just a couple of weeks before — and they kept winning.

Now, there’s a good chance that the Thunder will not just keep winning, but will be able to compete into the 2020s for a championship. OKC was ready to go deep into the tax, anyway — but to re-sign Durant last year. Now, that money will just be shifted to George, if he wants it. Bennett has come to see the value of retaining superstars, even at these prices. And keeping Anthony, basically, will equal what OKC would have had to spend to re-sign McDermott next summer and keep Kanter for the last year of his deal.

And Bennett won’t have to do this forever: Westbrook won’t be this expensive the next time around, nor will Anthony. By ’23, a rebuild will likely be in order, anyway.

Westbrook has always gone his own way, kept his own counsel. And the kid from Los Angeles, the last Lottery pick of the Seattle SuperSonics, is going to outlast just about everyone else who came to Oklahoma with him in 2008. Nobody would have believed that story then; it’s hard to believe now.

His motto is “Why Not?,” which was the end of the serpent’s question to Eve in George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah, and maybe Westbrook is a Shaw fan. More likely, though, he refuses to take no for an answer, or exhausts himself in the effort. So he sets himself to charge at his old friend Durant and his new, seemingly impregnable teammates, once again, from Chesapeake Arena, where all the ushers know him and the fans, finally, can exhale. They’re not going to lose them all after all.

“There’s some eight 10-year-old kid in Oklahoma City,” one member of the Thunder said last week. “And now you can tell him, ‘Hey, the place you live? Oklahoma City? Well, it’s good enough for Russell Westbrook.’”

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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