OKLAHOMA CITY — It was mid-August and Paul George was holding a celebrity fishing tournament in Los Angeles. He had only been a member of the Oklahoma CIty Thunder for a little more than a month, but a large contingent of the organization made its way to participate — GM Sam Presti and assistant GM Troy Weaver, head coach Billy Donovan and basically every support staffer.
A simple gesture, but a meaningful one, laced with intent. And it came on top of some individual time Westbrook had spent with George following the Pacers’ trade. The day after fishing, they were off for their first workout together. The two were pouring the foundation for a strong relationship, but with George’s uncertain future a hot topic, it was also Westbrook’s way to start sowing seeds.
But no gesture goes as far as what Westbrook did Friday by finally signing the Thunder’s five-year, $205 million extension. He has officially planted his flag in Oklahoma City for the prime of his career, and with it, made a proclamation to both George and, now, Carmelo Anthony. I’m here.
It all started last summer with a leap of faith for Westbrook, signing an extension in the wake of Kevin Durant bolting for the Bay Area. He re-upped in OKC with the walls on fire around him, and gave the organization a path forward. A month after the lowest point in franchise history, Westbrook responded by providing the highest. When the book on this era of Thunder basketball is finally closed, Westbrook’s first extension will remembered as the stabilizing flashpoint, but this extension marks the landmark moment that secured Oklahoma City’s place in professional basketball.
That decision initially manifested with hellfire and brimstone as Westbrook brought his wrath upon the league with a historic 2016-17 season where he averaged a triple-double and won MVP. It was a season of validation and adulation for Westbrook, going from the polarizing star-crossed point guard, to one of the most admired and respected players in the league — the people’s champ. Westbrook relished his season in the spotlight and the universal freedom to do what he wanted without any co-star to accommodate alongside. It was fun. It was exhilarating.
It was also exhausting, and in the end, ineffective. The Thunder fizzled out in five games to the Rockets in the opening round, primarily because the team completely derailed when Westbrook went to the bench. As Westbrook met with Presti at the end of the season, the message was straightforward: little help, please. Westbrook enjoyed leading a team solo, but he didn’t want it to become the norm. The fuel that drives Westbrook is winning, and maybe the most competitive player in the NBA wasn’t going to make a habit out of first-round exits as his best years slipped away. It’s not that Westbrook presented some ultimatum — help or else. But there was an understanding that if the Thunder wanted Westbrook’s prime, they best not squander it.
Presti came through, landing George, and then again, hauling in Carmelo Anthony. Clay Bennett is doing his part as well with potentially a $30 million luxury tax bill next summer. If Westbrook had any remaining hesitation, the Thunder proactively answered the bell.
Despite the apparent complexities, Westbrook is extraordinarily transparent. You won’t find a two-faced quote from him. As one person close to him said last summer, “He doesn’t operate in the shadows.” You’ll know what he’s thinking. It’s just a matter of when he decides to tell you. The talk of loyalty and love for OKC and the Thunder wasn’t bluster. It was Westbrook effectively telling everyone, even if they weren’t listening — I’m not going anywhere.
Loyalty is a two-way street, and a complicated one in professional sports. But as much as Westbrook has had the Thunder’s back, they’ve had his. They’ve stood rigid in defending him against all critics, and supported him at every turn. It’s not been a relationship of convenience, but mutual respect.
The Thunder have walked side-by-side with Westbrook through his evolution, from a supposedly overrated No. 4 overall pick, to a turnover prone “point guard,” to an emotional firestorm that was ready to erupt at any moment. Westbrook has gone through a lot of forms, but it’s fitting in a way, as the Thunder (and Westbrook) begin their 10th season in Oklahoma City, he’s become fully realized as the leader of the organization. Westbrook’s a match for Oklahoma, and has become a true influence. He understands and embraces how he and the team raise the city. He doesn’t just have corporate relationships in the state. He’s no passerby. He impacts lives.
Westbrook has redefined this era of superteaming, doing it the only way he knows — on his terms. He didn’t look to bolt somewhere else to join forces. When Durant left, many around the league expected him to do the same. But Westbrook doesn’t play by conventional rules. He trusted in his shrewd and tactical executive, acted resolute in proving himself all over again and waited for it to get better.
What Westbrook is counting on, though, is that it’s not just another one season outlier. George’s free agency will now spring back into the top of the conversation, and while he’s saying nice things about OKC and the organization, the draw of Los Angeles isn’t going away. The Thunder have positioned themselves well, but the biggest hook they can sink into George is Westbrook’s cemented future. Like last summer, step one was keeping a star with the megawatt power of Westbrook. Step two was landing a co-star, which then translated into a Big Three. If you keep him, they will come.
Now, Westbrook has the entire season to recruit George (and Anthony). But it won’t be about off-court friendlies. It will be about what happens on the floor, and how it all comes together. And it’s up to Westbrook to make it work. Some will view this season as a referendum on him. Is his gravitational pull too much to co-exist with other stars? Westbrook has a second chance, an opportunity to learn and grow from any perceived past transgressions.
Besides, as Anthony said on media day, Westbrook’s not really the ‘convincing” kind of guy, preferring actions to speak louder than words. And nothing is talking louder than his new contract.
Westbrook has drawn his line in the sand. This is his franchise. His city, his state. You can either join him, or battle against him. Your choice, because he’s made his.