Russell Westbrook’s first time addressing OKC fans and media after signing his extended contract—a three year, $85 million deal with a player option—was the happiest I have ever seen him away from a basketball court. Even Sam Presti, notoriously stone-faced, cold, and surgeon-like, strongly resembled a proud dad at a soccer game. It’s been a month since Durant announced his decision, and every person in attendance, from front office executives to media members, was beaming.
And ‘Why Not?’, as Russ would say. After the not-entirely-deserved egg on Presti’s face following the Durant debacle, convincing Russell that his best interest would be to stick around for at least one year extra (if not two, depending on if he exercises his option) is nothing short of a PR miracle for Presti and the Thunder front office. If—or perhaps it’s a matter of when—Presti decides to move on from his General Manager post in OKC, renegotiating and extending Westbrook’s contract will definitely go on his résumé, somewhere between his stellar draft record and the Harden trade.
However, all the credit, and deservedly so, will go to five-time all-star Russell Westbrook for his commitment to the Thunder. There aren’t many in the league today, former players like Barkley and Jordan will tell you, who have the testicular fortitude to commit, to stick with it even if the going is rough. Westbrook’s commitment to Oklahoma City should speak volumes about his personality, values, and moral core.
Speaking of personalities: an absolutely massive shift in perception has occurred in the last few years. Remember in the early years of Oklahoma City’s ascendance how KD was the introspective and shy man-child who cared about basketball and not much else? Remember when Westbrook was the flamboyant one who caused friction, who shot the ball way too much for his (perceived) lack of skill, discipline, and–this usually went unspoken but heavily implied–competence? How Westbrook rubbed his teammates the wrong way and was destined for a major market like Los Angeles? How Durant was loyal to the end, would do anything for OKC–no matter what happened–including the ultimate act of basketball dedication: retiring in Thunder blue. Things change in the NBA, and they change fast.
I’d not like to make it sound as if this was some kind of hand-wringing decision for Russell. Very much the opposite: it’s a homerun no matter how you slice it. More money for Russ next season? Check. More money down the road—perhaps the richest NBA contract ever? Check. Becoming even more of an Oklahoma hero? Check. Attendant platitudes like loyal, real, humble? Check, check, and check. More than anything, it was a PR victory for Westbrook and Thunder management. And he still has an easy out if the situation isn’t to his liking. With this extension, his trade value skyrockets, and he could easily force his way out to a destination of his choosing.
Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reports that Russ had one question for management following KD’s shocking departure: “What’s next?” Westbrook and agent Thad Foucher had a simple, refreshing message to OKC’s front office: there are no agendas, there will be no “sneaking around,” no subterfuge, no manipulation. At today’s press conference, Presti said (perhaps obliquely directed at Durant) that he’s never once left a conversation with Russ wondering where he stood. Westbrook, as a matter of principle, has proven that he will be upfront and forthcoming, no matter what.
If only we could say as much for everybody else.