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Russell Westbrook’s Renewed Mission in Oklahoma City

Can he take on the rest of the league and still come out on top?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Russell Westbrook made it clear Thursday: He will remain in Oklahoma City for the near future, reportedly agreeing to a three-year, $85 million extension, with a $30.6 million player option in the final season. Westbrook is making more money both in the short-term and long-term: The extension renegotiates his salary for the upcoming season, giving him a sizable raise, from $17.8 million to $25.6 million; and should Westbrook opt out after 2018, he will have 10 years of service under his belt, making him eligible for a max contract that starts at 35 percent of an ever-growing NBA salary cap. His earnings could be historic. After what happened with Kevin Durant, the Thunder couldn’t afford to go into next season with Westbrook on an expiring contract, and the thought around the league was that they would move him if they couldn’t agree to a deal. With the extension in place, the rebuilding effort in Oklahoma City is over before it really got going. For now, Westbrook is locked in. So, how good can this team be with Westbrook as The Man?

The Thunder will look radically different than the team that took the Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference finals. Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Dion Waiters are gone. This season’s team will be built around Westbrook and their phalanx of big men. It will be a bigger and stronger version of the team that won 45 games two years ago with Durant missing most of the season. Oklahoma City will be a power football team in basketball garb, with Westbrook as the option quarterback and the duo of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter as pulling guards who pound the opposition into the sand.

Adams, a rapidly developing 23-year-old coming off the best playoff performance of his career, is now the second banana. He’s an incredibly mobile Goliath, almost as comfortable sliding his feet on the perimeter as he is protecting the rim. After averaging 25 minutes per game the past two seasons, he will have a much bigger role for the new-look Thunder, and he’ll be asked to anchor a number of different units. His ability to guard in space and make plays in tight confines will be key when he’s playing in supersized lineups with Kanter, and his ability to single-handedly control the paint will allow them to play smaller lineups with Andre Roberson at the 4. He showed flashes of a post game in the playoffs, something he will be asked to expand on this season.

The foundation of their offense will be the Westbrook and Adams pick-and-roll, which means spreading the floor will be crucial. That’s the biggest concern for the Thunder, as they are replacing Durant and Ibaka with Ersan Ilyasova and Victor Oladipo. Ilyasova is the only plus 3-point shooter in their projected starting lineup, which also features Westbrook, Oladipo, Roberson, and Adams — and sixth man Kanter can’t reliably stretch the floor past 18 feet, either. Opposing defenses are going to pack the paint as much as possible and dare the Thunder, particularly Westbrook, to beat them from the outside.

The only problem with that approach is that even two or three defenders aren’t enough to keep Westbrook from where he wants to go. He’s one of the fastest players in the league, and no one plays with more energy more consistently. He will probe and probe and probe until he finds a crack in the defense and gets to the rim. Up front, Westbrook will either be playing alongside a frontcourt player like Ilyasova, who can make the most of his opportunities out on the perimeter, or his supporting front line will include two mashers like Adams and Kanter on the offensive glass. No team in the league is going to pound the glass harder than the Thunder, who will try to control tempo, take advantage of their size, and count on Westbrook to win games late.

This season should be manna from heaven for the Let Westbrook Be Westbrook crowd, as he’s going to take as many shots as he wants from as many different spots as his heart desires. He had a usage rate of 38.4 percent two seasons ago, second all-time behind Kobe Bryant in 2006, and he’s liable to shatter that record. Will he be the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson? There may be no star in the league more suited (or more willing) to going 1-on-3 for 82 games. Everyone is calling it the Russell Westbrook Revenge Tour, but will we even be able to tell the difference? Westbrook treated preseason games like the NBA Finals, even when he had Durant, James Harden, and Ibaka on his team.

As has often been the case for the Thunder, their success will depend on their youth. Guys like Oladipo, Mitch McGary, Domantas Sabonis, Cameron Payne, and Alex Abrines all have huge roles to play, not only this season but also going forward. Oladipo will be playing for a contract while transitioning to a role as Westbrook’s sidekick. McGary was buried on the bench after a promising rookie season, and now he’ll get the chance to show what he can do in a bigger role. Sabonis was a late riser on many draft boards who will need to prove he can transition to a more perimeter-oriented role after dominating the paint in college. Payne and Abrines, as two of the only plus shooters on the perimeter, will be needed to open up the floor for Westbrook and keep the offense afloat without him. Payne, a 2015 lottery pick who showed flashes of greatness as a rookie, is the player who could break out and change their trajectory this season.

The Thunder still have a lot of length, a lot of athleticism, a lot of size, and a lot of Russell Westbrook. The question will be whether they will have enough shooting, and whether anyone can step up and be the second and third options. They are going to have to play great defense, something that has slipped over the past few years, and they are going to have to take care of the basketball. A lot of that will come down to the tone Westbrook sets on and off the court. It’s his team now, his franchise, his city, and his state. Part of the appeal of Westbrook is the unhinged madness he brings to the court, but he will have to channel that more than ever. As big a load as he has on offense, he’s still going to have to buy in on defense and get everyone to commit to grinding out games. The loss of Durant means they can’t just skate by teams with a top-five offense anymore.

In a best-case scenario, Westbrook (who turns 28 in November) can lead a young team into the second round of the playoffs and create a foundation that appeals to a star like Blake Griffin or DeMarcus Cousins. In a worst-case scenario, Westbrook lets his most unwelcome tendencies take center stage, the youth stagnates without enough shooting, and the Thunder are fighting for the eighth seed out West the next two seasons. Either way, it should be fascinating. Westbrook is Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, a man with no fear and nothing left to lose, willing to walk into a crowded bar with no backup. He’s not likely to win a championship with this team, but he’ll go down finishing what he started. Maybe that was his destiny all along.