Did Russell Westbrook Save Basketball?

By committing to the Oklahoma City Thunder when they needed him most, did Russell Westbrook just save the NBA as we know it?

With the news that Russell Westbrook has signed a three-year, $85 million extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA landscape has changed once more.

The announcement is seismic for a number of reasons, and it has also singlehandedly helped a faltering franchise back on its feet.

Westbrook is a top-10 (arguably top-five) player in the NBA today and losing potentially both he and Kevin Durant two summers apart would have been a crushing blow on par with the Cleveland Cavaliers losing LeBron James in 2010.

But Westbrook, who had one year remaining on his current deal, decided to restructure his contract, adding in a player option for the 2018-19 season. He will be close to 30 years old at that time.

However, this is a move that would seem to suit both parties. The Thunder get a chance to reload their roster and contend once more with Westbrook at the helm. The player, meanwhile, still has a way out of the situation if he doesn’t like what he sees by 2018.

Beyond the implications for the Thunder however, did the actions of Westbrook just save basketball as we know it? Or has he allowed what we the fans want him to do influence his decision to hang around with a team that has seen their best days come and go already?

May 10, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) celebrates a basket and a foul against the San Antonio Spurs after scoring in game five of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

I didn’t mind that Durant opted to sign with the Golden State Warriors, but a huge amount of people did, including former players. So by re-signing with the Thunder, Westbrook has become the poster child for the way the NBA used to be.

Star players would stay with their teams and if they fell short year after year, they might change franchises, but never join their great enemy.

Michael Jordan to the Detroit Pistons, Reggie Miller to the New York Knicks, even Paul George going to the Miami Heat are moves that would have been too crazy to consider.

But first the likes of Manu Ginobili, then LeBron and finally Durant, made decisions or took less money to play for teams with plenty of star power already in tow.

It’s something that’s always made a lot of sense to me, because I believe you should actively seek out the best chance you have to win big. It’s one thing to stay and be loved by one team and their fans. But if you don’t win a title, does that really matter?

That is a matter of opinion of course, and guys like Michael Jordan seem delighted that Westbrook decided to stay and try and win a title with the Thunder. It also suits a number of other people for various reasons.

It helps divide up the talent in the league so as to make it more competitive. It’s also a victory for smaller market teams like the Thunder, who can hold onto their best players at a time when there is more money than ever in the league.

While it helped them secure Westbrook’s services for the foreseeable future, more fashionable teams also have more money and the promise of a better location to throw around.

It’s a win for the little guy and it has also ensured that both Westbrook and the Thunder will be as popular as ever.

But coming at this from another angle, is Westbrook actually hanging onto a time when basketball was at it’s most ugly? There was a run in the ’90s there where mammoth contracts and hero ball dominated the league, and not in a good way.

Each team had one alpha dog, and they were usually paid top dollar to be the guy on their team. Stephon Marbury was once given a four-year, $76 million deal by the Knicks. Anfernee Hardaway got $87 million from the Phoenix Suns in a seven-year contract.

Westbrook is more proven than both of those guys (yet his injury history strikes a worrying comparison) so this is not a question of money. No, it’s more that Westbrook may now be the last protector of the NBA of old, encompassing the positive and negative aspects of it.

Hero basketball doesn’t work, even Jordan knows that. He had quality players around him to finally help him get over the hump. Teams like the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs know this and there’s a reason they have been wildly successful in recent years.

The Thunder seemed to understand this last season as well, when they had a 3-1 lead on the Warriors in the conference finals, before Durant and Westbrook tried to drag them over the finish line themselves.

We all know what happened there, and it’s part of the reason Durant is no longer in town. Did the penny finally drop for him? Did he realize that the Warriors and their team oriented approached was the best way to win multiple championships?

Another potential con to staying put is how Westbrook will be remembered. Everybody loves Jordan because he’s the best to ever do it, but suffered setbacks before triumphing six times. That he did so with the one team gives his story and authentic, Hollywood feel.

If Westbrook remains in Oklahoma for the rest of his career and doesn’t win a ring, does he become the Allen Iverson of this generation?

Not a bad on-the-court comparison of course, but there’s a certain tragedy connected to the career of AI that other players would be wise to steer clear of.

He’s the classic example of the player mentioned above. Revered by the team who picked him and loved because he went to war with them. Respected by everybody else for his ability to suit up night after night and get after it.

But ultimately, not a champion. I worry for Russell Westbrook for this reason. He stood at a crossroads, with the decision to enter the brave new NBA world as we know it, or return to a Thunder team and prove that not all star players have the same mindsets.

In doing so he may just have saved the league. Ensuring that, for now at least, a competitive balance still exists. Unfortunately however, it may also come with the cost that he will never be a champion himself. We’re thankful, but we can only hope it was worth it.