“Time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do, we will do over and over and over again.”
There’s a scene in season one of HBO’s True Detective in which Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) lights a cigarette and explains how “Time is a flat circle.” The haunting monolog is a reference to Nietzsche’s Doctrine of Eternal Return, which suggests life is more cyclical than linear and everything is a vast loop of itself. The theory holds that if we’ve been there before, we’re certain to be there again. There’s nothing to be done about it.
While I’m not here to discuss television shows or 19th-century philosophy, the vicious cycle has quickly repeated itself for the Oklahoma City Thunder. For the third time in two summers, the organization finds itself in a maelstrom of doubt, as the future hinges entirely on the decision making of one man. The situations surrounding Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are markedly different, yet the feeling of uncertainty is eerily familiar. Whether Rome is falling or simply re-tooling for what comes next, we will all be watching from the same powerless perch — just like last summer.
But if the key to busting out of the loop is in Westbrook’s hands, there is an underlying truth here that is often overlooked. The future will be brighter in Oklahoma City should he ultimately decide to stay — but the same can be said if he chooses to leave.
Let me explain.
Scenario 1: Westbrook Returns
“The rules are that you can’t have that conversation until July 1, and when that time comes, we’ll sit down, have conversations with him about what that opportunity presents. We’re obviously hopeful he remains really excited about being a part of this organization for the remainder of his career.” – Sam Presti
The benefit in keeping Westbrook on the roster is fairly evident, as holstering a top five talent is a desire for every team in the NBA. Finding generational players is incredibly rare, yet Sam Presti has unearthed three during his time as general manager. With Durant and James Harden now nothing more than ghosts of days past, holding onto the remaining piece is more practical than believing you’ll find another. As it’s always been said — a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
Should Westbrook decide to sign the Designated Player Exception, AKA the “supermax” deal, and become the highest-paid player in NBA history, the Thunder organization will have something it hasn’t enjoyed since the 2015 offseason: Peace of mind in knowing what comes next. Keeping Westbrook almost assuredly comes with promising him a true contender, but the road to rings is theoretically shorter with him at the helm. Landing that first superstar is often the most difficult step for franchises, and the extension would keep the Thunder ahead of less fortunate competition. That counts for something.
Replacing him with a young, promising player or valuable draft picks may make sense, but there’s no guarantee you’ll ever find anything better than what you have right now. Signing him to the extension locks in a top flight superstar for the long haul, allows Presti to begin planning further than a year ahead and Thunder fans can go buy that new #0 jersey and breathe for the first time in two years. The dark cloud lingering overhead can be washed away with a few strokes of an ink pen, and the focus becomes maximizing his talents by sufficiently building around him. If you trust Sam Presti to get the job done, this is the absolute best case scenario.Why It Might Happen:
- The contract extension is worth $217 million over the course of five years. The largest contract in NBA history and barrels more than he could get elsewhere.
- He remains in Oklahoma City where he is the unrivaled star and focal point of the franchise.
- Every indication has been positive, and he seems to genuinely love the organization. Just last week he said, “Everybody knows that I like Oklahoma City, and I love being here and I love everybody here.”
- His personal brand is thriving and synonymous with loyalty. Remaining in OKC strengthens his public persona.
- He plays for a GM with a track record of success/willingness to make moves.
- $217 million. Worth mentioning again.
Scenario 2: Westbrook is Traded
“I haven’t thought about anything, obviously. Everybody knows that I like Oklahoma City, and I love being here and I love everybody here. But I haven’t even thought about that. I’m worried about making sure my wife is all right along with everything else. It doesn’t really matter at this point.”
Should Westbrook decide to pass on the supermax — did I mention it’s worth $217 million? — the writing will be on the wall. After all, if he balks at the richest contract in the history of professional basketball, chances are he’s already decided free agency in 2018 is the most enticing route. Because Presti has already lost Durant for nothing in return, the same mistake will not be made again. Westbrook either signs the extension this summer, or he hits the trade block. There’s nowhere to rest in between.
While such talk is likely a doomsday scenario for most Thunder fans, there’s actually a bit more flexibility here than what initially meets the eye. Regardless of how difficult it would be to watch Westbrook play elsewhere (not to mention the clear end of an incredibly successful era of basketball in OKC), the sad reality is that Kevin Durant went to the Golden State Warriors — and the Golden State Warriors are very good. So good, in fact, that we could be looking at 4-6 years of Western Conference dominance should they remain together. Injuries, cap fluctuation, egos and more could certainly get in the way, but for all intents and purposes, the rest of Westbrook’s prime may be spent watching KD lift golden basketballs at the end of each season.
Should Westbrook decide he has a better chance at winning elsewhere, Presti will then be given the unenviable task of trying to move him on the trade market. It’s natural to think “It shouldn’t be hard to trade Russell Westbrook!“, but very few teams would be willing to part with valuable assets for a one-year rental. Especially on a one-year rental that just turned down the richest contract in league history in order to test free agency. It would be impossible to recoup anything remotely close to equal value, but that’s not to say you couldn’t fill several needs by trading one Westbrook.
Adding young talent via trades or acquired draft picks would allow Presti to focus on developing a budding young core, which would hopefully be reaching its peak at the same time the Warriors were in decline. Such a plan is littered with pitfalls, but if Golden State isn’t going anywhere, it may be the quickest route back to contention. Some argue blowing it up is already the best option, but it will be the only option should Westbrook decide to test the waters.Why It Might Happen:
- Westbrook will be 29-years-old this year and potentially unwilling to wait on a rebuild.
- As his personal brand continues to skyrocket, his income will remain extraordinarily high regardless of his contract.
- With wife Nina set to have a baby this month, could they be looking to move closer to home in LA?
- A path back to the Finals could require teaming up with other solo superstars that are unwilling/unable to relocate to OKC.
What We’re Left With
If you ask most/all Thunder fans, the overwhelming preference is to retain Westbrook, and my genuine opinion is that’s exactly what happens. The belief that we’d rather lose with Russ than win with anyone else is a prevailing one, and it makes sense people feel that way given the last year of Thunder fandom. Sports are an emotional experience and we’re drowning in our emotions here in Oklahoma. In all honesty, Number Zero is a major part of the reason people are even moving on to begin with.
If he decides to re-up on his contract and play out his prime in Oklahoma City, fans should take to the streets and celebrate a superstar whose loyalty far exceeds what we deserve. He may never have the squad to knock off Durant and his Warriors, but years of watching him maniacally try will have to suffice as the consolation prize. Then again — if anyone is going to topple Goliath — he’s exactly the kind of guy crazy enough to do it. When push comes to shove, you want him in your foxhole.
But should he decide to leave and make a run for a title elsewhere, all is not lost in the heartland. The next crop of young guns will come in, take their lumps and we’ll soon hope they never leave us. The process will reset itself and away we’ll go, because everything we have done or will do, we will do over and over and over again.