The Oklahoma City Thunder place a high value on players’ ability to “fit in” – and it’s clear Russell Westbrook no longer does. If he doesn’t fit emotionally, he’ll be a bad fit financially. One way or another, he can’t be a part of their long-term planning.
Westbrook and Kevin Durant got into a shouting match during a timeout in the Thunder’s victory at Memphis Wednesday night. As detailed by The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry, Westbrook was yelling at Thabo Sefolosha for passing up an open shot and when Durant tried to calm him down, Westbrook snapped at Durant. Back on the court, Durant patted Westbrook on the head and they appeared to coexist the rest of the game.
A Thunder source said the altercation amounted to “nothing at all” and a source close to Durant said, “I don’t think it’s that big a deal.”
But Westbrook couldn’t get over it enough to make a shot Wednesday, finishing 0-for-13 from the field. And it isn’t the first time he and Durant have clashed. The Thunder can’t afford to bet it will be the last. Even Durant’s ally qualified his downplaying of the situation by saying Durant and Westbrook were fine “right now.” He couldn’t guarantee they’ll stay that way.
If the Thunder do want Westbrook, it’s not a given that he wants to be there. He’s told friends he feels Thunder coach Scott Brooks blames him for losses, while the credit for victories goes to Durant. You also don’t hear Westbrook constantly profess his love of playing in a small market the way Durant does.
Culture is a big part of the Thunder program. They value fit over talent. One of the reasons they took James Harden over, say, eventual rookie of the year Tyreke Evans in the 2009 draft was because they thought Harden could tolerate a secondary role.
Now, about the money. Westbrook becomes a restricted free agent after this season. He’s about to get real expensive. And thanks to the new “Derrick Rose Rule,” which allows players who win an MVP or make the All-Star starting lineup or All-NBA team twice in the first four years, he could be even more expensive. As in, eligible for a contract that pays him 30 percent of the salary cap. Westbrook was second-team All-NBA last season.
The Rose Rule already bumped Durant’s paycheck by an extra $2.5 million a year, and Westbrook could be living in that same $18 million-a-season neighborhood. Depending on what other moves the Thunder make, a huge boost to Westbrook’s salary could put Oklahoma City in luxury tax territory next season and beyond. Starting in 2013-14 the tax will be progressively more punitive than the simple dollar-for-dollar surcharge in place now, and there are additional penalties for repeat tax “offenders.” In addition tax teams have restrictions on their abilities to make trades and sign players to the full mid-level exception.
Within minutes of the bench spat Wednesday night Twitter exploded with all kinds of trade suggestions for Westbrook. But I didn’t see anyone mention the best idea: to Golden State for Stephen Curry.
Curry is still on his rookie contract through 2012-13 (when he’ll make $4 million) so he would almost guarantee the Thunder stay below the tax threshold for another year, and he probably won’t be eligible for the Rose Rule pay boost, which would keep his maximum salary 5 percent lower than what Westbrook’s might be when it’s time to re-sign him.
Curry would also give the Thunder more scoring punch from the starting 2-guard spot than they currently have from Sefolosha. From Golden State’s perspective, Westbrook is a better defender than Curry, and that should count a lot for the new-look Warriors. (Believe it or not, Mark Jackson’s squad is among the top 10 defenses for fewest opponent points allowed so far.) And Westbrook is more likely to cause sprained ankles than suffer as many as Curry has.
Eric Maynor is more than capable of taking over at point guard for the Thunder. According to 82games.com, the lineup of Maynor, Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison had almost identical offensive and defensive points-per-possession numbers as the same unit with Westbrook. And Maynor had a higher net on-court/off-court plus/minus than Westbrook last season. Don’t forget that Maynor played the entire fourth quarter while Westbrook sat on the bench in the Thunder’s lone victory against Dallas in the Western Conference finals. When Maynor needs a rest they could bring in Harden and slide Curry over to the point, then sub Maynor back in to give Curry a breather.
It makes sense all the way around. More importantly for Oklahoma City, it fits.