Kevin Durant’s stunning decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the defending Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors has prompted new attention over the future of the Thunder's remaining superstar Russell Westbrook.
With Westbrook an unrestricted free agent in 2017, there are thoughts about a possible trade to his hometown Los Angeles Lakers or a contending team, since re-working his current deal evidently is not an option.
Some may believe that a move for Westbrook to one of the league's worst teams is a pipe dream. However, given the former UCLA star's ties to Los Angeles, and a report from ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith earlier this year, Westbrook eventually joining the Lakers is a possibility that can at least be entertained by both parties.
In a January radio interview, Smith claimed Durant might choose the Lakers in free agency because the organization believed Westbrook was going to follow him in 2017.
“Keep in mind this,” Smith said on the “Mason and Ireland” show on ESPN Los Angeles. “One of the biggest reasons, I’m told, that Kevin Durant may have the Lakers at the top of his list is because the Lakers have been led to believe — by whom specifically I do not know — but the Lakers have been led to believe that it is a very good chance that the following year Russell Westbrook is coming.
“So, because of that, this notion that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ain’t tight, that they don’t want to play together, that is a lie,” he continued. “They love each other, and they love being on the same team with one another. And if it so happens to be in the L.A. market, all the better.
“I’m not saying that it’s done, I’m not saying that they said they’re going to leave Oklahoma City, but it’s a big possibility. It’s a big possibility.”
Granted, Smith’s comments were six months ago and Durant ultimately refused to even meet with the Lakers, it still did reveal the Lakers' interest in an impending superstar free agent who grew up in the city and owns a home in Beverly Hills.
Westbrook has never indicated he would leave Oklahoma City, the team that drafted him No. 4 overall in 2008. But with the Thunder entering the season as longshots to reach the finals, Westbrook probably has little interest in sticking around.
The Lakers have already made some early strides in free agency with their ample cap space. They locked down veteran workhorse Luol Deng and added some size in former Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov. The addition of such veterans, as well as the recent hiring of head coach Luke Walton, should provide some stability for a team that's been in the Western Conference basement for the past three seasons.
The Lakers may also consider waiting to sign Westbrook next summer instead of making a trade. A source told longtime NBA reporter David Aldridge that Westbrook won't negotiate a contract extension with just a season left on his deal.
Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti will likely weigh his trade options if there is in fact no chance to re-sign the team's most valuable asset. The Thunder have Westbrook on the books for $17.8 million for the 2016-17 season.
Acquiring Westbrook may prove difficult for the Lakers, even if the 27-year-old pressures Presti to move him to a team with so much young talent. Burgeoning point guard D'Angelo Russell, who was selected No. 2 overall in 2015, seems almost certain to be included in a deal, but the 20-year-old comes with some baggage that could concern the Thunder. Russell came under scrutiny in May after he secretly recorded a video of teammate Nick Young, and he also suffered through poor shooting performances in the final weeks of the season.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak could also offer budding power forward Julius Randle, who’s locked into his rookie contract until 2018. Then there's the Lakers' newest addition, No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram, who has drawn comparisons to Durant. Meanwhile, Jordan Clarkson, who recently agreed to a four-year, $50 million deal, is a promising combo guard who at times plays with a style reminiscent of Westbrook.
While those might be tempting trade options, there are plenty of teams that can offer the Thunder much more. However, potential trade partners who are unsure they can re-sign Westbrook to a contract extension may be wary of surrendering young talent. As Durant proved this week, even some of the league's best teams can't retain their best players.