November 21, 2017

In the span of one Players’ Tribune essay, the Oklahoma City Thunder fell from title contender to a franchise on the precipice of a full-on catastrophe.

Kevin Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder and join the Golden State Warriors on a two-year deal sent shockwaves around the NBA, most notably in OKC. After having the Warriors on the brink of elimination with a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals, a historic shooting performance from Klay Thompson in Game 6 turned the tide and forever altered the outlook of both franchises moving forward.

Whereas Golden State now has “budding dynasty” written all over it, uncertainty reigns supreme in Oklahoma City. As the Thunder attempt to bounce back from Durant’s departure, they’ll have to immediately begin wrestling with a possible repeat scenario, as Russell Westbrook is set to become an unrestricted free agent following the 2016-17 season.

According to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst, the Thunder may attempt to negotiate an extension with Westbrook before he reaches free agency, thus negating any chance of him fleeing come next July. If the Thunder carve out enough cap space, they could renegotiate his current salary to roughly $26.5 million (the maximum amount he’s currently allowed to earn) and extend his contract by three years, giving him 4.5 percent annual raises each season. As ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe noted, though Westbrook would be forfeiting his chance to cash in on the likelihood of another drastic salary-cap spike next summer, “the huge raise this season makes it closer to a wash than expected over the next four years.”

According to Turner Sports’ David Aldridge, however, Westbrook has no intention of going that route:

That places the Thunder in a far more precarious situation. According to Windhorst, multiple league executives “believe the Thunder will consider fielding trade offers for Westbrook” if he refused to extend his contract, as the team may be fearful of losing both of its superstars for nothing in return. Unless Westbrook signs a contract with a new team next summer that’s at least three years in length, the Thunder wouldn’t be allowed to negotiate a sign-and-trade for him, which proved to be their undoing with Durant’s one-plus-one deal in Golden State.

According to ESPN.com’s Royce Young, the Thunder are privately optimistic about their chances of retaining Westbrook even if he doesn’t sign an extension and instead hits free agency next summer:

Those inside the Thunder organization were long concerned about outside forces swaying Durant to leave; they don’t feel that way about Westbrook. As one team source said: This will only make him want to stay more. Of course, it’s a long way until July 1, 2017. And a lot can change in a year, as the Thunder know all too well with Durant now.

One season gone south could drastically change that perception over the next 12 months, however. That’s why, as painful as it may be, the Thunder should at least remain open to the possibility of moving on from Westbrook before the February trade deadline.

As Adi Joseph of Sporting News noted, the package that the Thunder recently received in return for Serge Ibaka—likewise a free agent in 2017—should embolden them to weigh offers from interested suitors:

Keep in mind what the Thunder received for Serge Ibaka – Victor Oladipo, a lottery pick and Ersan Ilyasova. Ibaka’s a free agent next year, too. Now imagine the prize for someone as good as Westbrook, especially if he can give some assurance to whatever new team he lands on that he’s interested and invested in making it work for the future.

With Durant now gunning for multiple titles in Golden State, Westbrook may decide Oklahoma City’s championship upside is slim to none, sending him to join a fellow contender in the hopes of exacting revenge against KD for leaving one year too early. His interest in the Los Angeles Lakers has long been rumored, but considering how young their core is, he won’t be any closer to a title there than he would be in OKC over the next few seasons. What if Gregg Popovich could lure him to the San Antonio Spurs, though? Or what if the Los Angeles Clippers decide to swap out the aging Chris Paul with him next summer in free agency, pairing him with a newly re-signed Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan?

Unless the Thunder can get a rock-solid guarantee from Westbrook that he isn’t looking to leave next summer and only refuses to sign an extension for financial reasons, steadfastly refusing to deal him could prove calamitous. On the other hand, the Thunder could decide to take their chances next summer and keep Westbrook no matter how many Godfather offers get thrown their way, banking on changes to the NBA’s salary structure as a wild-card savior.

Whereas OKC didn’t have to sweat labor uncertainty this summer, the ongoing collective bargaining agreement negotiations could throw everything for a loop over the coming months. Either the league or the players’ union is certain to opt out of the current CBA by the December 15 deadline, which means when Westbrook becomes a free agent next summer, he may be operating on an entirely different plane than the system currently in place.

At this point, there’s no telling what changes may be coming in the new CBA, but Durant’s decision to join Golden State could have mammoth implications in those discussions. Small-market owners, perhaps fearful of a Durant-esque situation striking their teams in coming years, may push for giving incumbent teams even greater incentives to help them retain their own free agents. The current system, which only allows them to offer slightly higher annual raises (7.5 percent rather than 4.5 percent) and an extra year on a contract isn’t always enough to keep their players in place, particularly since superstars’ off-court earnings could match or exceed their NBA salaries.

The more likely outcome, especially in the wake of this year’s free-agency spending, may be an alteration to the current max-contract system. Since teams can only offer no more than 25 percent of their cap space to a player with six or fewer years in the league, 30 percent to seven- to nine-year veterans and 35 percent to those with 10-plus seasons under their belt, superteams are a natural byproduct of those restrictions. Raising the percentages—last summer, I suggested a 30/40/50 split rather than 25/30/35—would increase the odds of top-tier free agents remaining with their incumbent teams, as those squads would be the only ones capable of exceeding the salary cap to re-sign them. Increasing the percentage of the cap that superstars could earn would also reduce the available space for mid-tier players, which would perhaps help put their respective salaries back into the realm of reason.

Those potential CBA changes may only further incentivize other teams to offer OKC primo packages for Westbrook, as acquiring his Bird rights could be invaluable come next summer. Unless the Thunder catch wind of which way the owners are leaning—and how feasible it is for such proposals to gain approval from the players’ union—they’re going to be operating somewhat blindly if they keep Westbrook around all season.

Trading their lone remaining superstar so soon after losing the face of their franchise may be unpalatable, but it’s a decision the Thunder must at least consider over the coming weeks and months. The prospect of losing two top-five NBA players over consecutive seasons and getting nothing back in return is enough to cripple any franchise, much less a small-market team that isn’t typically a hotbed for high-profile free-agent signings.

Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek is just talkin’ about practice. He writes about the NBA at BBALLBREAKDOWN, FanRag Sports and The Step Back. He also helps curate NBAAsesets.com.

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