Make no mistake about it. Despite Russell Westbrook’s new Thunder contract being reported as a three-year, $85.7 million deal, this is a one-year extension, and it is merely buying time. One extra season for Westbrook to decide if he wants to stay in Oklahoma City long-term. One extra season for Sam Presti to construct a roster to convince him to stay. One extra season before OKC needs to consider trading Westbrook to avoid leaving for nothing. And just one extra season until Westbrook hits the most lucrative free agency of his life.
Westbrook, who is high up in that circle of players whom the CBA prevents from being paid anywhere near what they’re worth, now gets to tear up the one year remaining on his current contract. The Thunder, after clearing space by withdrawing their qualifying offer to Dion Waiters, will pay Westbrook the max $26.5 million in 2016-17 rather than the $17.8 million he was due.
He has also signed a two-year max extension on top of that, though the second year is a player option—and Westbrook will be opting out. Come the summer of 2018, Westbrook will have 10 years of service time, at which point the CBA will allow his maximum deal to be 35 percent of a team’s cap, rather than the 30 percent he’s currently limited to. Add into that next summer’s salary cap hike due to another influx of TV money, plus any gains won by the union in CBA talks, and Westbrook is going to cash in as the most coveted free agent of 2018.
This is a stopgap, but one that works for both sides. The Thunder reportedly spent the last month seeing what they would be able to get in a trade for their star PG. These same trade rumors will now restart next summer, as Westbrook will enter the final year on his deal. By then a lot should be clearer—Westbrook will know if the Thunder can still be title contenders, and the front office will have had a year to prove to him that they can. Or can’t. And Westbrook loses nothing: he has always been eyeing that 10-year service mark, so any long-term extension before then was never realistic. He still keeps that milestone in sight, and earned a $9 million raise plus a max one-year deal in the meantime.
A raise is well-earned: despite any knocks on his game, Westbrook is a monster entirely capable of taking over a game, even when playing against (or alongside) the NBA’s best players. Kevin Durant’s gone now, along with the Thunder’s fourth- and fifth-highest scorers in Serge Ibaka and Waiters, which means you’re going to see Westbrook’s counting stats soar even higher, and you’re going to see teams increasingly sell out to stop him. It’ll be fascinating to see if he can succeed as his team’s unquestioned No. 1; it’ll be vitalizing to watch him try.