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The Russell Westbrook Contract Conundrum

Russell Westbrook’s next step after Kevin Durant’s departure isn’t clear, but he has plenty of appealing options.

Tommy Beer

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Almost immediately after Kevin Durant announced he was leaving Oklahoma City (well before the hot takes related to Durant’s decision had been extinguished), nervous OKC fans and pundits across the country began discussing what would happen to the Thunder as a result of this monumental turn of events.

Specifically, how would the franchise handle the impending free agency of Russell Westbrook?

If Westbrook is unwilling to commit to Oklahoma City before hitting the open market next summer, can General Manager Sam Presti and the Thunder take the chance that they might lose two future Hall-of-Famers in consecutive offseasons with absolutely nothing to show for it?

Surely Presti and company will have to at least explore the possibility of trading Westbrook this summer.

However, attempting to trade a star player with just one year left on his contract is always an arduous task. The Thunder could only realistically expect to get back cents on the dollar. It’s almost impossible to receive equal value in return when trading away a superstar, even under ideal circumstances. Having little to no leverage makes it that much more difficult.

The teams that are most commonly assumed to be pursuing Westbrook via trade (such as the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers) are obviously hesitant to fork over significant assets for what could result in simply a one-year rental; especially when the Celtics and Lakers are fully aware they’ll likely be able to make a push to sign Westbrook as an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Thus, it has been rumored that the Celtics would make Westbrook agreeing to a restructured extension a prerequisite to completing a blockbuster deal.

So, how likely it is that Westbrook actually would consider an extension?

Well, TNT’s David Aldridge reported in early July that there was “no chance” that Westbrook would agree to an extension.

Is that still the case?

Aldridge also tweeted that, “It just makes no sense financially to do renegotiation/extension.”

While the potential financial benefits of playing out the 2016-17 season and then hitting free agency next July are significant, it would be fiscally prudent for Westbrook to at least weigh the pros and cons of inking an extension.

If Westbrook knows where he wants to spend the prime of his career, agreeing to an extension would greatly increase the probability of his preferred destination trading for him now, as opposed to having to wait to relocate next summer.

It’s true that we rarely see extensions in today’s NBA, due primarily to the complexities of the current collective bargaining agreement. The first impediment is that only a limited number of veteran players qualify for such an extension. Per salary cap expert Larry Coon’s FAQ: “A contract for four or more seasons can be renegotiated after the third anniversary of its signing, extension, or previous renegotiation. Contracts for fewer than four seasons cannot be renegotiated. A contract cannot be renegotiated between March 1 and June 30 of any year.”

Westbrook, who has completed four seasons of his current contract, does have the ability to renegotiate and extend his contract, just as James Harden and the Houston Rockets did earlier this month. Would Westbrook be willing to follow Harden’s lead?

Let’s look at the financial implications of such a decision.

There are a number of varied options for Westbrook to consider. Each one offers a complex mix of positives and negatives. In the end, he’ll have to weigh the relative importance of immediate financial security and establishing roots sooner rather than later versus the appeal of a prodigious payday a bit further down the road.

The first, and seemingly most likely scenario, is refusing to renegotiate/extend his current contract. That means simply playing out the final year of his deal, the 2016-17 season, and hitting the market as an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, 2017.

Following the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, Westbrook will have nine NBA seasons under his belt, which means he will be a Tier 2 Free Agent (those players with between seven and nine years experience), and thus eligible to sign a contract with a starting salary that accounts for approximately 30 percent of the salary cap. (As Coon clarifies: maximum salaries are based on 42.14% of Basketball Related Income [BRI], rather than 44.74 percent. For this reason the maximum salaries are not actually 25 percent, 30 percent or 35 percent of the cap, and instead are a slightly lower amount.)

In early July our Eric Pincus reported that the NBA has informed teams that they anticipate the salary cap to land at $102 million next season. 

Thus, Westbrook will be able to sign a contract next summer starting at roughly $28.8 million. If he was not traded, the Thunder would possess his full Bird Rights and they would be able to offer both more years (5) and larger annual percentages (7.5 percent).

Westbrook is currently scheduled to make $17.8 million this season. Here is what the max offer from OKC next July would look like (estimates based on a cap number of $102 million):

 

2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21 2021-22
$17.8 MM $28.8 MM $30.9 MM $33.2 MM $35.7 MM $38.4 MM

 

 

If a team such as the Celtics or Lakers traded for Westbrook this year they would also then possess his Bird Rights and could sign him to the same contract.

However, if Westbrook plays next season in Oklahoma City, and then signs elsewhere, a new (non-OKC) team would be unable to offer him the same lucrative package. Boston, for instance, would be able to offer a max contract of only four years in length with annual increases of just 4.5 percent.

Here’s the breakdown:

 

2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21
$17.8 MM $28.8 MM $30.1 MM $31.5 MM $32.9 MM


 

Next summer, OKC (or whichever team controlled his Bird Rights) would be able to offer a max deal that sums to $167.0 million over five years. The max any other team could offer would be $123.3 million over four years.

Okay, with that as the baseline, let’s now look at the extension options on the table for Westbrook.

The benefit of a renegotiated extension is two-fold. First, Westbrook would be able to increase his 2016-17 salary from $17.8 million, all the way up to $26.5 million. Secondly, Westbrook would be able to immediately lock in a contract, which guaranteed him payment through 2020, thereby avoiding the risk of the catastrophic economic loss associated with a career-threatening injury suffered over the next 12 months.

However, there are some stipulations associated with extensions. Veteran extensions are limited to four seasons, including the seasons remaining on the current contract. Thus, Westbrook would only be able to lock in three additional seasons. So, while he’d be able to cushion himself from a worst-case scenario, he’d eliminate the potential of a big, long-term payday in July of 2017.

Another stipulation related to negotiated extensions is that the team signing Westbrook would need to have at least $8.8 million in cap space.

When Dion Waiters signed with Miami, his $12.8 million cap hold was wiped off OKC’s books, which means the Thunder now have the room required to tack on the additional $8.8 million to Westbrook’s deal.

If a team such as the Celtics were to receive confirmation from Westbrook’s agent that he would be willing to renegotiate/extend his current contract, they would need to clear the required cap space via trade to be able to offer a “max extension” as well.

Here is what restructured/renegotiated extension for Westbrook would look like:

 

2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20
$26.5 MM $28.3 MM $30.4 MM $32.7 MM


 

Westbrook would secure approximately $118 million in guaranteed money the moment he signed the extension. He would miss out on the free agency bonanza of 2017, but he would only lose about $500,000 per year, when comparing his annual salary from 2017-18 through 2019-20. That’s a total of roughly $1.6 million over those three years. However, it is important to note that when you factor in the $8.8 million more he’d make in 2016-17, that’s a net gain of about $7.2 million ($117.9 MM vs. $100.7 MM) over the next four seasons.

There is one other of option Westbrook could consider. He could sign a shorter extension with guaranteed money in 2016-17 and 2017-18, but with a player option for the 2018-19 campaign. This would essentially be a compromise between playing out his final season, and signing a full four-year extension.

The Vertical’s Bobby Marks broke down this scenario in detail last week:

“Westbrook, currently with eight years of service, could renegotiate his salary for this season to reflect a max-level contract while adding two additional years, with the third being a player option. This approach would have Westbrook becoming a free agent in 2018, when he reaches 10 years of service and becomes a Tier 3 max player. Waiting another year for free agency would see Westbrook’s salary start at $35 million in 2018 instead of $28.6 million.”

2016-17 2017-18 2018-19
$26.5 MM $28.3 MM $30.5 MM

 

Then, in the summer of 2018, Westbrook (assuming he’s still healthy and can command a max contract) could opt out and would be able to sign a massive, mind-boggling five year contract worth north of $200 million, with the team that owned his Bird Rights at that point:

2018-19 2019-20 2020-21 2021-22 2022-23
$35.4 MM $38.1 MM $40.8 MM $43.4 MM $46.1 MM

******

There are clearly plenty of appealing options for Westbrook to choose from. His ultimate decision will have a massive impact on multiple franchises. However, Westbrook has yet to even publicly address his feelings regarding Durant’s departure, let alone his own foreseeable future.

Thus, the Oklahoma City Thunder will remain stuck at a fork in the road until Russell Westbrook decides which direction he wants to head in.

 

 

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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