Despite the NBA’s best intentions, three small-market stars could soon be on the move
Gordon Hayward of the Jazz practices before a playoff game against the Warriorso n May 8, 2017.
Russell Westbrook stood on a stage in New York on Monday night, moments after winning the NBA’s most valuable player award, and began delivering a long list of thank yous. He mentioned virtually everyone who works for the Oklahoma City Thunder — many of whom were in the building — and then asked five of his teammates to join him.
It was a fitting capstone to what was a remarkable season for Westbrook and a cool moment for a franchise that was gut-punched last summer when Kevin Durant left in free agency. It also made it seem certain that Westbrook — whose award makes him eligible for the new designated player exception, allowing him to sign a contract extension with the Thunder worth more than $200 million when free agency begins Saturday — will stay in Oklahoma City for the long term.
But when Westbrook was asked a few minutes later about the potential of signing an extension with the Thunder, he did everything he could to avoid an answer.
"Man, tonight is so important for me, and obviously with the contract and stuff coming up, it’s not really on my mind at the moment, honestly," Westbrook said. "I’m just overwhelmed with a tremendous amount of blessings I’ve been able to get to be able to get this award.
"Man, I’m just thinking about tonight, and then after that, I’ll move on."
Not the most reassuring of answers for a Thunder fan.
Westbrook’s situation is one of a few fascinating ones involving star players and small market teams entering free agency this offseason, which kicks off at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. All have the potential to show whether the efforts to strengthen a team’s ability to hang onto its stars have been successful — or if the league has to go back to the drawing board.
The NBA wants to give the illusion that all 30 teams can compete for a championship in any given year. It’s the NFL model: Allow fans of every team (or, at least every team besides the Buffalo Bills or Cleveland Browns) to enter each season thinking that, with a few breaks, their team could reach the Super Bowl.
Trying to create that level of parity in the NBA, however, is impossible. With just 10 players on the court at the same time, a singular talent can make a dramatic difference in his team’s fortunes.
To this end, the NBA has repeatedly tried to keep its talent spread as evenly as possible across its member teams. And, as teams have found ways to begin clustering star talent in recent seasons — most notably the Miami Heat in 2010, and the Golden State Warriors this past summer – the league has attempted to rectify that in subsequent collective bargaining sessions.
But the upcoming free agency period could kill any hope of parity for years to come. Three of the top 20 talents in the league – Westbrook, Indiana Pacers forward Paul George and Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward — could go elsewhere in the coming weeks. And that’s after star guard Chris Paul was traded to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, pairing him with James Harden — the runner-up to Westbrook — in Houston’s backcourt.
"I don’t think the issue is small market versus big market," Silver told The Washington Post at the NBA’s inaugural awards show in New York on Monday night. "I don’t think San Antonio is a big market, and they’ve had success attracting free agents. Cleveland has had a lot of success in attracting free agents, and Oakland, historically, has not been viewed as a major market and they’ve had enormous success.
"I think what we were trying to do in this CBA was create additional advantages to incumbent teams to keep their players. I think if that’s not working … we’ll of course take a fresh look at it."
Westbrook has widely been expected for months to commit to a five-year extension using the DPE, giving him more than $200 million and committing him to the Thunder. But Westbrook’s answer Monday only reinforces the notion that he might decline to sign the extension when free agency opens. That would leave Thunder General Manager Sam Presti in an impossible position: Wait and see whether Westbrook accepts it at a later date, or consider trading him to avoid the possibility of losing him for nothing as a free agent next summer.
That’s the choice facing the Pacers after George made it clear he isn’t going to re-sign as a free agent next year, preferring instead to return to his native California to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Indiana had hoped to offer George an extension using the DPE, which would’ve allowed them to pay him substantially more than any other team. But George wasn’t named to any of the three requisite all-NBA teams, leaving him ineligible. Indiana is fielding trade offers for their all-star forward and will likely deal him over the next couple of weeks.
Like Indiana, Utah was hoping to give Hayward, who blossomed into an all-star this season, a DPE extension. But, like George, Hayward just missed making an all-NBA team and is ineligible, as well. Utah went through a methodical rebuild, has an excellent coach (Quin Snyder) and general manager (Dennis Lindsey) and has surrounded Hayward with a deep supporting cast, led by center Rudy Gobert. Yet, despite that, Hayward is expected by many to leave in free agency, with the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat touted as his most likely destinations.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. The new collective bargaining agreement was supposed to spread around the league’s stars, and allow teams to keep their homegrown talent.
Early returns, however, don’t seem promising.