After losing Kevin Durant to free agency, the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t let the same thing happen with Russell Westbrook.
So they’re not – at least not for now.
The Thunder have reached a three-year, $85.7 million extension with Westbrook, though the five-time All-Star can become a free agent after the 2017-18 season.
But that’s two years from now. All Oklahoma City cares about now is keeping its franchise player.
“It’s a huge coup for the Thunder,” Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “Obviously it would have taken them back to square one if they had to trade Westbrook. They were pretty confident that one way or another they’d get a read on him. I think one of the most challenging things right now for GMs in the NBA is when these guys are going to take it to free agency the way they do and sort of figuring out, trying to decipher, are they going to re-sign or not? I had one GM telling me he’s been through one of those situations. If he doesn’t get a commitment – if a guy doesn’t look him in the eye and say, ‘I’m going to re-sign’ – you just got to deal him.
“The thing about Durant is I think that he said so many of the right things that they felt optimistic about it,” Jenkins continued. “But because of the way Durant is – sort of impulsive – they knew if he went through those meetings, if he really sat down with people, there was always a chance that he could be swayed. And I think they felt as if Russell Westbrook (is) just not that way. He’s just wired a little differently. Even if he was going to tell them what they didn’t want to hear, that he would be able to say it, that he’d look them in the eye and say, ‘Ship me out of here’ or ‘I’m going to re-sign,’ that he would go into it with a plan and not (be) as wishy-washy – and clearly that’s what happened.”
Conventional wisdom says that Westbrook, who is from California, starred at UCLA and is interested in business ventures outside of basketball, would want to return to the West Coast – or simply go to a bigger market – as soon as possible.
Maybe, maybe not.
“I think Westbrook is an unusual person in that he likes certain elements of NBA stardom, and he is averse to others,” Jenkins said. “I think in Oklahoma city, I think he’s probably come to realize that they’re able to protect him. I think it’s a good home for him.”
Still, Westbrook isn’t the easiest guy to play with. He gets plenty of assists, but he’s also a bit of a ball-hog, often dribbling the Thunder into turnovers and bad shots. On the flipside, with averages of 23.5 points, 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds per game, he offers plenty of appeal.
“I know a guy like (Enes) Kanter has loved playing with him,” Jenkins said. “I think the benefits of playing with him maybe (aren’t) as much offensively, but I think that they – especially Kevin Durant, too – feast on his edge a little bit. He gives them all this feeling of you’re riding with the baddest dude there is. I think that they’re all lifted by that in somewhat more amorphous ways. But yeah, I don’t know if it’s a fun experience.”
That’s not an issue in, say, Golden State, where the Warriors play a joyous brand of basketball.
“That’s not the Westbrook way, clearly,” Jenkins said. “It is more probably like Kobe and maybe that’s more uncomfortable. So I think it will be harder to find a perfect fit next to Russell Westbrook than it would be one of these Golden State guys.”
Jenkins also discussed his recent SI piece about LeBron James’ pursuit of Michael Jordan. Now that James has won a title for Cleveland, he is firmly in the GOAT discussion – if he wasn’t already.
“It’s pretty amazing when you think about how many lives changed, how many things changed in Cleveland, how the league is basically changed based on one block, one stop, one bucket, (if) Curry makes that bucket (and) Irving doesn’t,” Jenkins said. “It’s amazing how much the landscape shifts based off one play here or there.”
It’s also amazing the backlash that some people get when comparing James to Jordan, as if it’s preposterously sacrilegious. No, James doesn’t have six rings, and yes, he has a losing record in the Finals. But he just beat a 73-win team after falling behind 3-1 in the Finals. What if he does it again next June against Steph Curry and Kevin Durant? Then it definitely wouldn’t be absurd to say James is better than Jordan, no?
“He wasn’t saying he’s better (than Jordan); he was just saying he’s motivated to chase him,” Jenkins said. “That’s probably true for that whole generation. I get that it’s an outside shot, and it depends what your basis for comparison is. If it’s strictly ring count and you got to get to six, then yeah, he’ll probably fall short of that. But I think he wants to be in the conversation. I think that’s the idea.”