NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Inside why Westbrook re-upped with Oklahoma City — The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a major victory of sorts yesterday when All-Star guard Russell Westbrook put pen to paper and signed a contract extension. His new deal keeps him in town for as long as three more seasons and saves face for the Thunder after they watched former MVP Kevin Durant bolt for the Golden State Warriors this summer. So why did Westbrook avoid his chance a free-agency riches next summer and stick with OKC? Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, who first reported Westbrook’s deal, has the details:
When Russell Westbrook traveled to Oklahoma City to meet with general manager Sam Presti in the aftermath of the franchise’s lost weekend in the Hamptons, Westbrook held no interest for a post-mortem on Kevin Durant. For a front office still mired in angst and anger, Westbrook delivered a sobering splash of ice water: What’s next?
No nostalgia, no reflection and no regret: In Westbrook’s world, Durant had been deleted like his old teammate’s text message saying goodbye on the way to Golden State.
So, what’s next?
Westbrook’s free agency loomed in the summer of 2017. The Thunder couldn’t afford to lose two All-NBA players for nothing in consecutive years. If Westbrook had left an impression that the loss of Durant left him unenthusiastic about the franchise’s future – never mind unwilling – sources say the next step would’ve come swiftly: Westbrook would have been moved into the marketplace, traded for a package of young players and draft picks.
And yet as the rest of the NBA expected Westbrook to begin executing his exit strategy – perhaps to the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Knicks – his own mind kept returning to Oklahoma City. Westbrook felt invested in the franchise, reveled in the role of a young core’s leader and became intrigued with the challenge of persuading a co-star to join him in free agency.
“The idea of running out to find a super team, that isn’t who he is,” one source close to Westbrook told The Vertical. “He thought, ‘These are my guys here,’ and he wanted to go to battle with them.”
As much as Durant had people of influence coming and going in his life – a revolving door of agents and spiritual gurus, personal trainers and various hangers-on – Westbrook’s inner circle never changed. His parents, his wife and his agent. With Durant, there was perpetual calculation of who had his ear and who had nudged his way into prominence. This was important information for those recruiting him to stay, and those recruiting him to leave.
Trading for Westbrook was an immense risk, because there’s no penetrating his world. Rival players couldn’t recruit him as Draymond Green and the Warriors did with Durant, because Westbrook has never shown an inclination to become buddies with his competitors. He wants to destroy them. Durant’s best relationships were outside the team, but Westbrook counts Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Nick Collison among his closest friends in the league. He invited Victor Oladipo to train with him in Los Angeles, the Thunder’s new backcourt bonding over the sweat inside a Santa Monica gymnasium.
People always had it right with Durant: He was a community treasure, a gentleman who forever took time for those big and small within his orbit. Only, it happened that Westbrook’s fierce on-court disposition – and his sometimes brusque demeanor with the media – caused the outside to mistake his core.
If his fashion forays took him to runways in Paris and New York, he was still mostly comfortable tooling around Oklahoma City, delivering free Jordan Brand gear to lower-level team employees, bringing donuts to blue-collar workers and answering his front door to come out and play with the neighborhood kids.
For everyone waiting on Westbrook to unload on Durant, they could be disappointed. Yes, he has his thoughts and opinions on Durant’s move, but it is unlikely that he’ll be moved to share them in dramatic detail. What’s more, there’s a significant chance it could be years before Westbrook and Durant ever engage in a meaningful conversation again. Westbrook doesn’t do nostalgia, nor disregard slights – real or perceived.
Durant is deleted. Done and gone and no longer part of his world. “What’s next?” he asked – and the Thunder connected with Westbrook on a plan to construct their next act. Once, it was James Harden and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Now, it’s a superstar solo act – with an eye upon Los Angeles Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin in 2017 free agency. Griffin is an Oklahoma kid gone Hollywood, a star who has his own tensions with Chris Paul on the Clippers.
For now, this is Westbrook’s chance to become a recruiter, a gatherer, and bringing back Griffin could make these Thunder a legitimate threat to Golden State in the Western Conference. Between now and then, Westbrook walks back into the Thunder’s downtown arena on Thursday, takes his seat on the podium and the image will be unmistakable: His franchise, his city.
No. 2: Westbrook opens up on Durant’s departure — In eight seasons together, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook took the Oklahoma City Thunder to The Finals and both players accomplished more than a few personal accolades. Yet that duo is no more, what with Durant now on the Warriors and Westbrook staying put in OKC. So how did Westbrook learn of Durant’s exit? What is the status of their friendship now? Westbrook addressed those queries and more in his news conference Thursday, writes Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman:
Their paths, now different, still likely end in the same place: the Hall of Fame. Around OKC, the sting of Durant’s departure will slowly subside. Time will create perspective. The past eight years will eventually be remembered as a golden age in Thunder hoops.
But when it’s discussed, the relationship between Russ and KD will dominate the conversation, just like it has become Shaq, Kobe and not much else when you bring up the early 2000s Lakers.
The partnership was fruitful, the highlights electric, the friendship, for the most part, genuine. But the ending, well, has been surprisingly sour, adding another layer to a relationship that’ll long be remembered and debated.
Those around Westbrook say he fumed about it for a couple weeks, particularly how KD handled the exit and how little communication Durant maintained with him at the end.
“(I found out) like y’all found out,” Westbrook said. “On the news, on the cellphones, the social media. I talked to Kevin early on in the process. But nothing after. Just a text message from him, that’s about it.”
From their late teens to their late 20s, the two, together in a city random and new to both, built up a relocated franchise into their identity. Those around the team tell legends of their early-morning combo workouts, racing each other to the gym hours before practice and bonding in a quiet facility. Durant has talked about how both Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins were there for him a few years ago when he was going through some family issues. Durant attended Westbrook’s wedding last summer.
“Some people handle things differently than others,” Westbrook said. “That’s the way he wanted to handle it and it’s fine. My job now is to see what’s ahead of me.”
Durant’s landing spot, of course, added an extra dagger. He didn’t bolt for a random team in the East. He went to a rival. The team Westbrook and Durant had just battled in a 7-game bloodbath a month earlier. Did that make it sting more?
“Sting for who?” Westbrook said. “Listen, I understand free agency. I understand having the opportunity to go where we need to go. But once that happened, I told Sam (Presti): ‘What’s next?’”
Durant is currently in Brazil preparing for the upcoming Olympics. On Thursday, he was asked if he reached out to Westbrook to congratulate him on the extension.
“Nah, that’s a touchy subject, I’ll see once everything dies down,” he told reporters, before saying he was happy for him. “It’s good for him, man. It’s good for his family. It’s good for the people in Oklahoma City.”
A couple weeks ago, out at Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas, Durant was pretty candid on a number of subjects about his departure. But when questions about Westbrook arose, he got visibly uncomfortable. It’s clearly a sore subject KD has little interest in speaking about. Durant was recently quoted as saying he was unsure if their relationship would ever be the same.
On Thursday afternoon, Westbrook was asked if it would be.
“We’ve been together eight years,” Westbrook said. “You don’t throw that away. Obviously he’s now with a new team. But we definitely will talk. Eventually. But, obviously, now we haven’t.”
No. 3: Union says Wade, family excited about move to Chicago — When a free agent makes a decision to switch teams in the offseason, his choice affects not only the team he’s leaving and the team he’s going to. The player’s family, friends and his life and general feel the aftershocks of the choice, too. Such is true for Dwyane Wade, his wife, Gabrielle Union, and his children after he moved from the Miami Heat to the Chicago Bulls. In an interview with BasketballInsiders.com’s Alex Kennedy, Union talks about the move to Chicago and what she sees next for Wade:
Kennedy: Dwyane obviously surprised people this offseason by joining the Bulls. How much are you looking forward to the move to Chicago and the new opportunity for Dwyane and the family?
Union: “It was shocking. There’s no way around that word. It takes some getting used to. We had just built our dream home in Miami and everyone sort of had their life in Miami so it’s big move for everyone. We all love Miami so much and Miami will still be one of our homes. For Chicago, I think the biggest thing for everyone was winter. There was the fear of winter. It was like Game of Thrones, ‘WINTER IS COMING!’ (laughs) Once we moved on from that, we just found our home and we got the boys in school, it was good. We were afraid because we were thinking, ‘Oh, the boys are about to start high school and how is that going to work?’ And they were, by far, the most eager [to move]. They’re like, ‘Ah! Cool, let’s go!’ As long as they got to keep their South Florida AAU team, they were cool with it. Everyone is just kind of jumping in. We can either dip our toe into the pool or cannon-ball and we’re cannon-balling. I think they like that they got to practice at the Bulls’ facility too. They love it, they’re excited. The first month was cool; hit me back later and we’ll see if they still love it (laughs). No, we’re all really excited.”
Kennedy: You mentioned the dream home in Miami and Dwyane obviously had a ton of history there. When did you start to realize that Dwyane leaving Miami was a possibility?
Union: “Even when we were on vacation, I think me and everyone just kind of assumed [we’d be back]. Like, ‘It looks kind of bleak right now, but they’ll work it out. They always work it out! They’ll work it out.’ It probably wasn’t until Denver’s offer came in that I realized. That offer was… a lot. Then there was another offer and another offer and another offer. And it was like, ‘Oh wait, hold on. Are you thinking about this?’ I mean, how can you not? When there’s an offer on the table that is, what, $13-15 million more than to stay home, it’s like, ‘Wow. Okay. Wow.’ But even still I thought, ‘I’m sure they’ll figure it out. They’ll figure it out!’ Really, even down to the hour that he made his decision, I just thought they’d work it out – like everyone else thought. But Chicago made the moves necessary to make his offer work. He didn’t go with the most money. Some people are saying it was just about money, but he would’ve taken Denver’s offer if that was the case. Denver’s offer was a lot, a lot – considerably more than even Chicago’s offer. It was just about finding a place where he’s comfortable, and he’s comfortable at home. Then, the rest of us had to get comfortable with it (laughs). It just seemed like after the season he had and then the postseason, he was just so excited – more so about his body and his health and that he was able to take his game to a different gear. Moving was the last thing on his mind, but yeah…”
Kennedy: You know Dwyane better than anyone. How determined is he to make this work in Chicago and silence his critics who are doubting him and the team?
Union: “I think more than making it work to silence the critics, he wants to put himself in a position physically, health-wise, to continue playing at a high level. That’s very important. Getting to know Jimmy [Butler] and [Rajon] Rondo is very important. But they haven’t even played together yet, so I don’t know where the criticism is coming from. You have Jimmy, who is an up-and-coming star and on the Olympic team. You have Rondo, who led the league in assists. I don’t know how a guy leads the league in assists and is an assist machine, but somehow gets no credit. You have my husband, who is already top five in shooting guards in the last two years in the NBA, but if you factor in what he accomplished and the amount of minutes he played, he’s one of the most efficient players in the league. What is there to criticize? But I get it. Everyone needs page views and things like that, and criticism does a lot better than raving endorsements so I get the business of criticism. But it’s kind of absurd. Now, if a few months in around the All-Star break it looks nuts, then, by all means, criticize! (laughs) But to criticize how it’ll work when these guys haven’t played together is just insane, in the same way that anointing the Warriors champions for adding KD. It’s like when the Big Three came together in Miami. Everyone was like, ‘Ugh, they’re going to win it all. Change the rules! We have to stopppp thissss!’ Cut to different teams winning championships. I mean, the Warriors have to get used to this because they haven’t all played together. Even in the Olympics, where you have three of them, it’s still not the whole team. They need time to get to know each other, to gel, to figure out the system and how it works with all of these moving parts.
“It’s all exciting though. I think the Warriors are exciting. Just like I think the trio of Jimmy, Rondo and D is exciting. I think Carmelo [Anthony] D-Rose, Joakim [Noah] and Kristaps [Porzingis] in New York is exciting. Seeing how the Spurs will do without Timmy [Duncan] is exciting. There are a lot of great storylines. To critique now is the lowest-hanging fruit. I’d rather err on the side of excitement.”
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