NBA AM: Can The Thunder Keep Russell Westbrook?

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Keeping Russell Westbrook?

Yesterday, the Oklahoma City Thunder rescinded their qualifying offer on free agent guard Dion Waiters. While that by itself is notable because he is no longer a restricted player and can leave the Thunder with nothing to show for him, there is a bigger concept that fueled the decision to release the offer.

There is a quirky section of the NBA’s labor deal with the players that allows for teams with salary cap space to use that space to re-work an existing player’s contract. Not all players are eligible and deals can only be worked upwards and not downwards, which happens in other sports like the NFL.

It also can only happen if the team has ample cap space to cover the value of the new deal.

Last week, the Houston Rockets did this with guard James Harden, re-working his deal to get him to the current max salary level and tack on an extra guaranteed year to his contract.

The Thunder are hoping to pull off the same kind of deal with guard Russell Westbrook. On the surface, it seems foolish to think Westbrook forgoes free agency next summer since it’s commonly believed that Westbrook, out of all the Thunder players, was most likely to bolt when given the opportunity. However, the math might sway him. At least, that’s what the Thunder are hoping.

Westbrook is in the final year of his deal and is scheduled to earn some $17.769 million. If he were to agree to re-work his deal now, the Thunder could move that number to the NBA maximum and get Westbrook to $26.540 million this year, an $8.77 million increase.

The prevailing wisdom is that it’s always better to hit unrestricted free agency, but with the 2017 salary cap now projected to come in at $102 million, Westbrook’s max salary next summer looks to be in the $28.764 million range. The second year of a re-negotiated deal would come in at roughly $28.299 million, or roughly $464,000 less.

Less sounds bad, but factor in that Westbrook would be netting close to $7.43 million more doing a four year re-negotiation now versus four years at his current rate and a free agent deal next summer.

Now there is something to be said about a fourth free agent year; however, few players stay in their deal for the entirety, especially players like Westbrook.

The question becomes, will Westbrook stay? There are very few situations in the NBA where doing a new deal with your own team makes financial sense, and in the case of Westbrook and the Thunder he could earn $7.4 million more staying where he is than in any situation he can find in free agency.

Putting that on the table will give the Thunder the clearest answer to their next question, and that is: should they trade Westbrook? If Westbrook won’t agree to the re-negotiation upwards, then the Thunder have their answer. He plans to walk and they have to trade him.

None of this would be possible with Waiters on the books, and he could have screwed up the process by picking up the Thunder’s offer sheet. Pulling the offer sheet does not remove the possibility of Waiters coming back since the Thunder still hold his Bird Rights. What it does do is ensure the Thunder have the cap space to re-work the Westbrook deal. The real question is, will Westbrook take the money?

The Future Of DeMarcus Cousins

Stop me if you have heard this one… Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins is hard to work with.

There are a few things that are almost undebatable. Cousins is arguably the best center in basketball. Cousins, when focused and motivated, is as impactful a basketball player as anyone in the league. Lastly, no one believes Cousins wants to be in Sacramento long-term.

Cousins has been a monster since the Kings’ season ended, taking up residency at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas, going hard six days per week. He’s trimmed some 25 pounds off his frame and looks as good as he ever has as a professional.

Cousins has been driven for weeks not only to be ready for the Olympic games in Rio as part of USA Basketball, but also to be in the best shape of his life this season.

The Kings will have their sixth head coach in Cousins’ six NBA seasons, and while Cousins had nothing but good things to say about Dave Joerger, there is the ever looming notion that at some point the Kings and Cousins are going to need to part ways.

Cousins has two years remaining on his deal (this season and next) and given the sheer volume of big men the Kings have drafted and signed in recent years, it’s hard to believe the Kings are not going to at least listen to trade offers, especially if things do not improve out of the gate.

League sources peg the Kings’ stance on Cousins as a “non-starter.” They simply won’t go there on trade talk despite long-standing interest from the Boston Celtics and at least one inquiry for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

There is no doubt that Cousins is an incredible NBA player. It is everything else that comes with Cousins that’s problematic and while the Kings are trying desperately to get negative influences out of their locker room in trade and change the culture, it’s hard to imagine that Cousins is going to find the success he wants personally and as a team in the next 24 months. And if that’s not the case, when do the Kings succumb to the reality that trading Cousins sooner than later will yield the best overall return?

The Kings have been steadfast. They have told team after team they are not trading Cousins. But is that really the smartest move for the franchise?

The Thunder lost Kevin Durant for nothing in return. The Atlanta Hawks waited too long to trade Al Horford and they too got nothing in return.

A common theme among executives this summer was that in order to extract real value out of a player, a team has to trade that player with at least a full year left on their deal. Cousins has two left on his.

The prevailing belief is that the Kings will try to make this work this season with Cousins as the center piece and focal point. But what do they do in December or January if they are not firmly in the playoff hunt?

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