The moment the Oklahoma City Thunder got a commitment from Russell Westbrook in August, their outlook changed. They were still reeling from Kevin Durant's departure, but the word many used in the organization about Westbrook's extension was "stabilizing." The deal gave them a path forward, and something to build around.
On Monday, the Thunder dished out $184 million in future guaranteed money to two players: Steven Adams for $100 million over four years and Victor Oladipo for $84 million over four years.
As Kevin Pelton wrote for Insider, the extensions all but remove the Thunder as players in 2017 free agency, a somewhat shocking development considering the buzz that was brewing around a possible chase of hometown star Blake Griffin next summer.
But the Thunder's reasoning is pretty simple: With a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon, too many unknowns are shaping the landscape. Free agency is already a wasteland of dashed hopes and dreams, but new rules could complicate matters even more. Projections say cap holds are going to jump in the new system, meaning the Thunder couldn't just wait to re-sign Oladipo and Adams next summer and still carve out cap space. They weren't going to have significant cap space unless they renounced one or both, along with trading pieces such as Enes Kanter and Kyle Singler.
(They can still get back in the free-agency game if there's a big fish to be hooked by renouncing all of their expiring contracts -- five players -- and making some trades. Westbrook, Oladipo and Adams will take up almost $70 million of the Thunder's projected $103 million cap.)
And for the Thunder, holding on to what they have has considerable value. They aren't necessarily all-in on their current core, but they are keen on building from the inside out. In a post-Durant world, the Thunder are evaluating their next steps and the kind of roster identity they want to build around Westbrook. Part of doing that is the discovery phase -- actually watching them play. It's becoming more evident the Thunder need more space, scoring and shooting, and that will be a likely target in the trade market this year.
The other factor: potentially saving big money. Assuming they were going to match any offer sheet next summer, the Thunder did well to prevent Adams and Oladipo from restricted free agency. As of now, there will be 20 teams with max level cap space; the chances were high both players would net max-level offer sheets. With Oladipo coming in $21 million total less than a max, and Adams about $4 million under, the Thunder have kept big money in their pockets, and take a little stress off future cap sheets. That's also Oladipo and Adams choosing to leave some cash on the table and take smaller deals to stay.
The Thunder didn't, though, extend Andre Roberson. The reasons? His market is less clear, plus the midlevel exception is expected to rise and there's some question about his future fit with the roster. Roberson fit a specific role alongside Westbrook, Durant and Serge Ibaka in the starting five as an elite defensive stopper. But in a Westbrook-led world, the Thunder may go in a different direction. Especially with Oladipo signed for the long-term and playing Roberson's ideal position.
The Thunder may have stepped out from competing on the open market next summer, but they may not have had a real chance because 1) the cap situation and 2) Oklahoma City isn't, and will never be, a free-agent destination. They had hopes, and maybe still do, but free agency has never been part of the Thunder's plan. (Their biggest summer free-agent signing? Anthony Morrow to a $3 million per year deal.) Westbrook was said to be excited about the potential of chasing free agents when he re-upped, but the Thunder are remaining practical and re-tooling around him. They stay young, and they stay mostly flexible. Westbrook raves about his young teammates, but his focus is on winning.
The Thunder have embarked on the next steps in re-crafting the roster, this time exclusively around Westbrook. Adams was always going to be a foundational piece. Oladipo could be as well, though it must be noted with his deal coming in at less than the max that he's a tradeable asset on top of being a good player.
This is Plan B taking shape. The Thunder's recovery from losing a franchise player has been easier to stomach than it has been for other teams, namely because of what was in place to start with. And now they're making sure they hold on it.