Suddenly, OKC Thunder's Future with Russell Westbrook Looks Awfully Bright

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 5, 2016

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands on the court during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 30, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

No matter how many triple-doubles Russell Westbrook racks up during the 2016-17 season, how often he darts through a defense for a momentum-swinging jam, how many game-winning shots he drains with his pull-up jumper or how high he leads his team in the Western Conference standings, he's already made his most valuable contribution:

"Oklahoma City Thunder star guard Russell Westbrook has agreed to a three-year, $85 million-plus maximum contract renegotiation." Adrian Wojnarowski reported for The Vertical. "... Westbrook will be under contract for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons and will hold a player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources said."

You can forget about the trade rumors and speculation, which often had the dynamic point guard joining Al Horford and Jae Crowder on the Boston Celtics. You can shove aside the idea Westbrook was going to have a monstrous contract year before signing with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. Enduring teammate Enes Kanter was quite aware of that oft-discussed possibility in purple and gold circles:

Enes Kanter @Enes_Kanter

Stop refreshing the page Lol it's true 😂😂 https://t.co/WxyZUHImWN

For at least a little while longer, Westbrook remains in OKC. The two guaranteed years before he can opt out and hit the open market gives the organization adequate time to figure out a direction.

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The Young Core

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 18: Russell Westbrook #0 and Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrate against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 18, 2016 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Thunder defeated the 76ers 111-97.
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Westbrook won't celebrate his 28th birthday until the 2016-17 season is already under way and still counts as part of the team's young core.

Shooting guard has been a perennial weakness in OKC. The Thunder have tried plenty of different options, from Anthony Morrow and Dion Waiters to Andre Roberson and Jeremy Lamb, but none have displayed much staying power. The choices have largely been one-way contributors or developing prospects, and the team's coaching staff has constantly tried to make situational decisions rather than let any one option grow alongside Westbrook.

But the offseason trade for Victor Oladipo changed that, and this extension should help validate the decision. Instead of playing together under the specter of Westbrook's potential departure in free agency or as a trade chip, the Thunder's new-look backcourt now has a chance to accept the inevitable growing pains and power through them.

Throughout his professional career, Westbrook hasn't played with a fellow guard capable of scoring 20 points in any given game while remaining valuable in other areas. Meanwhile, Oladipo spent two of his three seasons alongside Elfrid Payton, who has never been known for his scoring acumen.

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 15: Victor Oladipo #5 of the Orlando Magic shoots the ball against the Denver Nuggets  on March 15, 2016 at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using th
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

The two will take time to adjust to one another. There will be stretches filled with chemistry concerns as they feel each other out, learning how to complement strengths and mitigate weaknesses. But those periods will be far more palatable with the knowledge that Westbrook isn't going anywhere even if Oladipo admittedly could next offseason.

"We could do something really special," Oladipo said about OKC's backcourt, per the Oklahoman's Anthony Slater. "I really believe we can. I think it's gonna be crazy to watch, crazy to be a part of. We could overwhelm guys on both ends of the floor."

Head coach Billy Donovan also gets to see how his remaining MVP candidate plays alongside Steven Adams and Kanter in a frontcourt that no longer includes Serge Ibaka—shipped to the Orlando Magic for Oladipo.

This potential depth chart is already dangerous and has room to grow, especially as the Thunder have more time to work out the kinks before Westbrook has a chance to follow in Kevin Durant's footsteps and flee:

OKC Thunder's Potential Depth Chart
Russell WestbrookVictor OladipoAndre RobersonEnes KanterSteven Adams
Cameron PayneAnthony MorrowKyle SinglerErsan IlyasovaDomantas Sabonis
Semaj ChristonAlex AbrinesJosh HuestisNick CollisonMitch McGary

It's not perfect, and the Thunder will desperately need to shore up significant weaknesses in the coming years—perimeter shooting chief among them.

But as Ben Golliver wrote for Sports Illustrated while giving this extension a perfect grade: "Thanks to this extension, [general manager Sam] Presti doesn't need to make panic moves at the deadline; he will have next summer and two trade deadlines to reshape his roster around Westbrook's electric and aggressive playmaking."


The Ability to Recruit

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 22:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers walk to center court during a 109-97 Thunder win at Staples Center on January 22, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO
Harry How/Getty Images

The Thunder already boast an impressive collection of talent for a team that just lost one of the league's top-five players to the clutches of free agency. They'll get even better if Adams continues to perform as he did in the playoffs. Maybe rookie Domantas Sabonis, second-year guard Cameron Payne or some other youngster blossoms into yet another star.

But OKC's primary method of improvement won't be internal; with Westbrook locked in, it can dream big in free agency and attempt to lure another star to the Sooner State. As Bleacher Report's Michael Pina explained, it's now a buyer:

"In the wake of Durant's departure, Westbrook's new deal could be instrumental in recruiting another elite free agent to the Thunder's talented core next summer. Oklahoma native Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers will be a serious target for the Thunder," Wojnarowski reported.

Griffin is the most logical target, but the Thunder have plentiful options next summer. They could engage in heavy pursuits of Paul Millsap, Danilo Gallinari, Gordon Hayward and the many other quality players set to hit the open market a year from now. The inevitable quest for each potential acquisition will be aided by the All-Star point guard's presence.

Without Westbrook, the Thunder would have been at a severe disadvantage.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN -  JANUARY 27:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on against the Minnesota Timberwolves on January 27, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
David Sherman/Getty Images

Oklahoma City is one of the league's smaller markets—by Nielsen's Designated Market Area, it ranks No. 43 in the country and sits ahead of only Memphis (No. 50) and New Orleans (No. 51) among NBA cities. That immediately puts a damper on its free-agency pursuits, and the damper would only be maximized by the lack of established star power.

What prominent free agent would join the no-Westbrook, no-Durant Thunder and attempt to improve a team whose most notable players are Oladipo and Adams?

The NBA is driven by talent. San Antonio sits at No. 32 in those same rankings, sandwiched between Columbus, Ohio, and Kansas City, Missouri, but the Spurs' everlasting success via star retention has pushed that issue aside. Westbrook's guaranteed presence increases OKC's standing to the point that it similarly negates the small-market concerns—or at least comes close to doing so.

He is, after all, another one of the Association's five best players.

A mini-rebuild while remaining competitive is now possible. There's no need for the Thunder to engage in a full-scale reconstruction while tanking for better draft picks. They don't have to "trust the process" since they now retain one of the three best players in franchise history—according to NBA Math's total points added, Westbrook sits at No. 3 on the career leaderboard for the Thunder/Seattle SuperSonics—and continue to boast an MVP candidate.

Of course, there's no guarantee any of this works. 

Griffin and all other notable free agents could spurn Westbrook's advances and force the team into a period of stagnation. Westbrook could look at the possibility of opting out after 2017-18, which means we could be back in the trade-rumor business this time next year.

But those are concerns for the future, not the present.

Optimism can now reign supreme at Chesapeake Energy Arena because Westbrook's decision to extend his contract with the only NBA team he's ever known prolongs the Thunder's leaguewide relevancy and allows them to continue staring at the light at the end of the tunnel—a light that just grew quite a bit brighter.


Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA Math.


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