A Storm is Brewing

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-Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Russell Westbrook put an end to the speculation surrounding where he will be once his current contract expires at the end of next season.

On Thursday, Westbrook inked a deal worth over $85 million to last for the next three seasons that will keep him in Oklahoma City. He will have the option to enter free agency after the 2017-18 season but for now, the Thunder have him locked in for at least the next two years.

The news came as a great sigh of relief for Oklahoma City and its fans, who have already experienced one thunderous blow of heartbreak when Kevin Durant left for Golden State this summer.

Not only did Westbrook’s new contract put an end to hypothetical scenarios of Westbrook playing in Los Angeles or for another team, it also has shown the growth of his persona.

Throughout his career, Westbrook has been dogged with the “ball hog” label. Some pundits went even further by saying that he is a selfish player. It was especially prominent earlier in his career, as he took a high number of shots but failed to exceed the 45 percent field goal percentage mark until his fourth season.

That criticism has died down in the last couple of years. He created a new label for himself, “a triple-double machine.” This past season, his 18 triple-doubles tied Magic Johnson for the most in the last 30 years. He averaged 23.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 10.2 assists.

His player efficiency rating spiked over the last two seasons peaking at 29.1 in 2014-15. Prior to that season, he had never eclipsed a PER of 24.0.

While a star in his own right, Westbrook often found himself taking the backseat to Durant.

His latest move, however, was far from selfish.

Westbrook’s commitment to the franchise pins him as the new leading man for the Durant-forsaken Thunder, saving them from having to do hit the panic button and do a complete rebuild. Sam Presti has something to work with and fans have someone to rally around. After all, the world has already seen the abysmal mess a team can quickly become when its star player leaves them with nothing to go ring chase elsewhere. (Yes, LeBron-less Cleveland teams, I’m talking about you.) Oklahoma City secured him at the right time, as he is beginning to hit his stride in his prime.

He becomes the much-needed hero the Thunder needs, while Durant begins his villainous narrative in California.

While the Thunder has Westbrook in the fold for the next couple of years, it needs to now sign the right pieces to build around him.

Oklahoma City has gotten to work, departing with another staple in the starting lineup in Serge Ibaka. In return, it got Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and newly drafted Domantas Sabonis from the Magic.

It also recently signed a rookie from Spain, Alejandro “Alex” Abrines–a 6-foot-6 swingman that spent the last four years playing for FC Barcelona.

Presti’s recent track record suggests that he isn’t that great at bringing in pieces to build around his stars. Since James Harden left the Thunder, it has been longing for another game-changing threat outside of its cornerstone players and the starting lineup.

Randy Foye, Andre Roberson, Kevin Martin, Kyle Singler, Dion Waiters–the list of serviceable players goes on. They’ve done their role and chipped in here and there, but it hasn’t been similar to Harden’s production. No one has been able to match the 16.8 points per game and 49.1 shooting percentage that he posted in the 2011-12 season.

This season will reveal how the new-look Thunder will jive without Durant. Obviously, in it’s current state Oklahoma City still has a long way to go in order to catch up with the back-to-back Western Conference champions talentwise. It has a couple of years to give Westbrook the supporting cast the team needs to be successful, as well as to further entice him to stay in the future.

Westbrook has had experience with carrying the Thunder without Durant, as he averaged a career-high 28.1 points per game in Durant’s injury-riddled 2014-15 season. During that season, however, Oklahoma City fell short of the playoffs despite Westbrook’s efforts.

Would Westbrook suffer the same fate once again with Durant’s absence?

One thing is certain–the chip-on-your-shoulder Westbrook has certainly made it clear to the NBA that he’s looking to prove himself. He wants to get it done with Oklahoma City and is willing to do so without his “brother.”

While Durant is elsewhere, Westbrook is willing to stick it out for at least a couple more seasons. The Thunder came close to taking down the Warriors in this year’s playoffs.

The two teams will provide for some interesting storylines once they meet in the regular season. Should they clash in the playoffs, it’ll be brother versus brother–the first time Durant and Westbrook will compete against each other on different NBA teams.

Aside from the loaded weight Westbrook has placed on his shoulders to carry a franchise and an entire city, there is the pressure that comes with sibling rivalry.

The feeling of knowing you never want to lose to your brother, especially one that has forsaken you.

 

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