By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY – When Russell Westbrook arrived at the Chesapeake Energy Arena Thursday afternoon, it looked like the old Thunder alley had opened back up. Hundreds of fans lined up outside and greeted him like he was a conquering hero coming back to the Roman Coliseum.
In many respects, that’s what Westbrook represented as he climbed onto the podium and to address the media concerning the new contract extension he had signed earlier in the day. After a month of
of hearing that they couldn’t compete with the bigger markets for top tier talent, Westbrook seemingly sent a message with his actions.
“I love where I live. People ask me all the time, Why do you love Oklahoma City? I say, The people,” Westbrook said. “You guys are the nicest people I’ve ever been around. I’m not just saying that because I’m here. Just to be able to be around and walk around. Everywhere I walk around, nobody has never said anything to me negatively. Everything is always positive. Always great encouragement. That’s what I like to be around. I like to be where I’m loved, where I’m wanted. Obviously this is a place for that.”
When Westbrook was asked why now was the right time to make this deal, his answer was simple and also seemed to throw daggers at a former teammate who now resides in California.
“The city, the people around here, myself,” Westbrook said. “There’s no need to wait if you know where you want to be. There’s no need to waste time. I’m a straightforward type of guy. I shoot you straight. No need to go back and forth and try to figure out any other options, create this hoopla, rumors and all this stuff. This is where I want to be, and that’s what I made the decision based on.”
Westbrook’s extension is reportedly a 3-year deal worth $85.7 million. He holds a player option on the final season.
Since he was going to be a free agent after the end of the 2016-17 season, the extension adds one more guaranteed year under contract for the Thunder. After that, he can leave or stay with the franchise that drafted him.
“It was a lot of things that came into play. It really comes down to being around the guys and the people in the organization,” Westbrook said. “I love my teammates. They go to battle every single night. The group of guys we have, I’m looking forward to playing with them, continue great things for Oklahoma City. Obviously the organization has done nothing but great things for me and my family. I can do nothing but respect that and go out every night and compete at a high level.”
Some may look at the extension as just a temporary plug in a leaking ship. With no promise Westbrook will be in Oklahoma beyond 2018, the Thunder will have to go through this same tumultuous offseason in two years.
Even though the new deal isn’t long term, it was a win-win for both the player and the team.
For Westbrook, he gets a raise from the $17 million he was scheduled to make this year to $26.5 million. After two years, he can opt out of his contract, and sign a new one with the Thunder that could see him earning a five year contract worth more than $200 million.
The extension also gives Westbrook more freedom, not that he didn’t have any before. But without having to share shots with Kevin Durant, he could be in store for a historical offensive season.
Despite Durant leaving the franchise to play for the team that beat the Thunder in the playoffs, Westbrook contends their relationships is not over.
“We’ve been together eight years. You don’t throw that away,” Westbrook said. “Obviously he’s now with a new team. But we definitely will talk eventually. But obviously now we haven’t.”
For the Thunder, the extension stabilizes what has been an unsettling offseason. Losing Durant turned the franchise on its head and put them into emergency lock down mode. Keeping Westbrook became the top priority.
Being able to guarantee that their remaining star attraction will be around for at least two more seasons settles everything down and gives General Manager Sam Presti and his crew a chance to put together a game plan and direction going forward.
“I think his commitment and confidence is telling about him as a person. At the same time we’ve known him for eight years,” Presti said. “As excited as I am, I’m also grateful because you have an opportunity for a legacy player to put his stamp on continuing with the organization. I think his spirit, his competitiveness, aside from being a great player… I’ve seen him play for eight years and I’ve never seen him take a night off. If you can have that, that’s an incredible thing.”
For the fans, it gives them somebody to root for instead of someone to just root against. The same player that half the fan based wanted to trade five years ago is now going to champion their cause of being a city where big time players will want to come to and play.
No matter how long its for or what his reasons were, Westbrook did choose to stay in Oklahoma. For now, that may be enough for a fan base that has been rejected once already.
“Obviously with Kevin going, it opened up a few things for me in different ways,” Westbrook said. “Me being able to see the team we have, the guys we have, the fans, the support, I felt like this is the best place for me and the best team. I love being here. This is the place I wanted to be.”
Michael Kinney is a freelance writer.