A few days before Kevin Durant left for the Hamptons, he ate dinner at BOA Steakhouse in Los Angeles with Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison. Durant's two longest-tenured teammates were making their pitch, trying to convince the Oklahoma City Thunder's cornerstone player to come back, if only for one more year.
Westbrook didn't hold back. The conversation reflected their relationship: full of depth, emotions, respect, admiration and appreciation.
Westbrook has remained silent since. Interview requests have been turned away. There have been no tweets, Snapchats or Instagrams on the subject, whether about his future or his team. There was some chatter from his youth camp a couple of weeks ago, when he told campers he'd be back next season, but that's mostly hearsay. As speculation has grown around the league about a possible Westbrook trade, some have interpreted his silence as evidence that he's unwilling to commit long-term to the Thunder and is ready to move on to a new chapter.
But in actuality, Westbrook has been forced into his free agency a year earlier than expected. Effectively, he's making his 2017 decision now. He's either in with the Thunder, or he tells them he's not, and they trade him.
Westbrook is taking time not just to figure out his next steps, but also to lick his own wounds. Reports have come out suggesting Westbrook's style of play influenced Durant to leave, though Durant publicly denied that in Las Vegas recently. The two have not spoken since Durant's decision. Those close to Westbrook say he's both angry and hurt not only by Durant's decision to leave but also because Durant didn't even call to tell him personally. Westbrook wasn't prepared to be in this position -- three weeks ago, like everyone else, he thought Durant was coming back. And he had to learn the hard way he wasn't.
Westbrook has remained mum, but he and the Thunder have been in communication often since Durant's departure. Plenty want to hear from Westbrook, but he isn't going to play out his free agency in the public eye. There won't be any "I'll make that decision when the time comes" mediaspeak. It's not hard to gauge him when it comes to public comments; he's as transparent as they come. And with Durant now gone, Westbrook understands the gravity of his own choice -- he leaves, and the organization burns to the ground in a summer. So he wants to give them clarity to either move on with or without him.
Westbrook sees the aftermath of what Durant's departure, and the way it happened, has brought on the franchise. The Thunder played out the season with Durant because every indication led them to believe he was returning. He spent the season saying the right things, talking about city infrastructure and how proud he was to have had a hand in building it and the franchise. He assured people he was coming back. Even the week before he took off for the Hamptons, he was in Nichols Hills, a suburb of Oklahoma City, seriously looking to buy a multi-million dollar home. The Thunder had every reason to believe he was going to stay to finish what he started. They had meticulously crafted a roster to support their two stars. Now, they've been left empty-handed and are recovering from a steam engine plowing through the franchise. That's not going to happen again.
So the Thunder need a commitment from Westbrook. They really want it in the form of a renegotiated extension, which would serve as a declaration of responsibility to take over the burden of the franchise, as well as stabilizing it for the long-term. The Thunder are still reeling from the sting of Durant's decision, and most in the organization have been left jaded by a cornerstone piece saying all the right things and then turning another direction at the last minute. Even with Westbrook's history of avoiding doublespeak, actions speak louder than words. So the Thunder are pushing for it, and their decision to rescind Dion Waiters' qualifying offer suggests they're paving a way to do it.
(A brief explainer on a renegotiation of Westbrook's contract: Because the Thunder are now under the cap, they can "renegotiate" Westbrook's contract up to a max-level deal, starting next season. He's set to make $17.7 million, but that can go up to around $26.5 million. So while the rising cap would allow Westbrook to make more per year if he were to wait until free agency, with the lower projections, it wouldn't be as much as he'd make overall with close to an extra $9 million in his pocket that he otherwise wouldn't have.)
It's obvious to say, but the Thunder categorically don't want to trade Westbrook. They aren't interested in a teardown. Their priority is to convince him to stay long-term and reconfigure around him. That's why they've held firm thus far outside of signing Alex Abrines; they're paralyzed until Westbrook gives them an answer. They already have received plenty of calls about Westbrook, and thus far have told teams he's unavailable. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, he doesn't want to be traded. He wants to play next season with the Thunder. It's the year after that which is in question. There's a growing belief Westbrook will think heavily about an extension but will first weigh every angle before doing it. And with Waiters agreeing to terms with the Miami Heat, the Thunder can now officially present that extension to Westbrook.
It's an easy assumption to say Westbrook would relish taking over the alpha role of the team, but contrary to popular belief, that's not something he has ever wanted. He liked being Durant's running mate. It's why he put himself out there trying to sway Durant in Los Angeles. Westbrook had no issue deferring to Durant in crunch time. Westbrook cares only about winning, sometimes a little too much. But he's now facing the reality of carrying the burden of the franchise, of being the public face, of answering every media question, of recruiting free agents, of being the cultivator of culture, of leading a young roster in transition. It's a lot to consider.
Everyone wants to know what Westbrook is thinking. And eventually they will, because he'll have no problem making it clear. One way or the other.