The last time we saw Russell Westbrook, he was standing almost front and center at the final National Basketball Players Association news conference.
Sporting a red hooded sweatshirt with a black backpack strapped to his shoulders, the Oklahoma City Thunder's point guard, at times, appeared solemn and slightly confused as he flanked union chief Billy Hunter while he delivered the news that would further delay Westbrook's long-term security.
The next time we see Westbrook, he could be just days away from finally being signing a long-term deal that secures him as the Thunder's second significant linchpin.
With the NBA lockout set to be lifted, and the league now just days away from ratifying a collective bargaining agreement, Westbrook will soon officially become eligible for an extension to his rookie contract. It has long been the most important bit of business on the Thunder's offseason to-do list. We just didn't know the process would see a 149-day setback.
But we know Westbrook, a first-time All-Star and Second-Team All-NBA selection last year, wants to get a deal done. He quashed all delusions about his desired long-term home back in the spring.
“I definitely want to play here,” Westbrook said at his season-ending interview with reporters. “I love being here. I definitely would love staying here.”
The feelings of the Thunder's front office are no doubt mutual now that Westbrook has morphed into arguably a top five point guard.
The question now is when might a deal take shape?
Under the previous collective bargaining agreement, teams had until Oct. 31 (or the following business day if Oct. 31 fell on a weekend) to come to terms on an extension with rising fourth-year players. But because the lockout prohibited franchises from all contact with its players — preventing any necessary contract negotiations — since July 1, the Thunder has never been able to enter into talks with Westbrook's representatives.
Those talks, though, are expected to begin in full bore on Dec. 9, when the league formally reopens for business following the final approval of the CBA. Generally, July 1 is the first date in which teams can negotiate rookie scale extensions and contracts with free agents.
An NBA spokesman said via email Saturday that it's currently unclear when the new deadline will be to come to terms on rookie extensions for rising fourth-year players such as Westbrook. Under normal circumstances, a rising fourth-year player would become a restricted free agent in the following summer if an extension was not agreed upon by Oct. 31. The Thunder experienced that scenario with former forward Jeff Green, who subsequently was traded to Boston in mid-season in the deal that brought Kendrick Perkins to OKC.
Details of the amended CBA are unclear. But if the league maintains its previous rookie scale extension format, Westbrook would be eligible for a five-year extension that carries annual raises of 10.5 percent of the extension's first year's salary. It would be the same contract structure Thunder forward Kevin Durant signed last summer.
It's possible, however, that in their settlement owners and players agreed to lower the annual raises for extensions, if not the total number of years as well. That could mean Westbrook, for example, might be eligible for a four-year extension with, say, 6 percent or 8 percent annual raises.
If Westbrook is allowed to sign a five-year extension, the deal would kick in before the start of the 2012-13 season and keep Westbrook in a Thunder uniform through the 2016-17 season. Durant, who led the league in scoring in each of the past two seasons, is signed through the 2015-16 season.
But it's Westbrook's deal that appears destined to be the overriding factor that will determine the remainder of the Thunder's salary cap structure and what the franchise can and cannot fit onto its books going forward.
Westbrook's rapid rise has placed him among the league's elite point guards. Last season, he averaged career highs with 21.9 points and 8.2 assists, while adding 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals. He ranked second in regular season triple-doubles with three.
That statistical production is in line with Chicago guard Derrick Rose, who won last year's Most Valuable Player award, and puts Westbrook in position to command something close to a maximum contract. Carrying two max contract players, however, could be costly for the Thunder and might greatly impact the franchise's ability to retain its core. With the new collective bargaining agreement increasing restrictions on spending for high-payroll teams, as well as instituting a more punitive luxury tax system, it's doubtful that a small market franchise like the Thunder can sustain a payroll that fields two max players.
If Westbrook agrees to something less than the maximum allowable salary, the Thunder could be in a good position to later ink Serge Ibaka and James Harden, both of whom are eligible for extensions to their rookie scale contracts next year.
Based on a hypothetical sample roster recently floated by the league, a franchise potentially could field a competitive team with a balanced payroll that, by 2013-14, is topped by one maximum salary ($17 million), with a second All-Star caliber player earning $14 million.
Using that formula, the Thunder might be able to comfortably tender Westbrook a deal in the five-year, $75 million range if the rules remain the same. That would give Westbrook an average salary of $15 million starting at $13 million and would be $20 million more than the extension heralded Boston point guard Rajon Rondo received.
Under that scenario, however, the Thunder would have to commit to being a big-spending team. Last season, only five teams spent at least $75 million, or the projected tax level in two years, which the league's sample roster proposed franchises spend. The Thunder's payroll last season was slightly more than $58 million, and it likely will be slightly less this year.
But, at last, the rampant questions about Westbrook's future are about to have some real answers.
Key points to the tentative agreement to end the NBA lockout
NBA owners and players have reached a tentative agreement to end the 149-day lockout and plan to begin the delayed season on Christmas Day.
Here are some highlights:
* The deal: Largely completed around 3 a.m. EST Saturday, then announced. More details still must be tackled including dismissing all pending lawsuits, making the National Basketball Players Association an actual union again and voting by both the players and owners to ratify the agreement.
Key dates: Dec. 9 (free agency opens, camps open), Dec. 25 (games begin).
Owners' biggest win: Reducing the players' guarantee of basketball-related income to no higher than 51 percent after they received 57 percent under the previous collective bargaining agreement. With each BRI point worth about $40 million based on last season's revenues, that's a swing of at least $240 million annually, erasing most of what owners said were $300 million in losses last season.
Owners' biggest loss: The NFL style hard cap and non-guaranteed contracts they sought. The system is in fact similar to the old one, just with harsher luxury tax penalties to limit spending.
Players' biggest win: The preservation of the midlevel exception — though in a reduced form — and various trade rules for teams over the luxury tax, keeping the biggest market teams in the running to bid for them, even if they can't pay as much as they used to.
Players' biggest loss: Money. They're transferring more than $1 billion in salary and benefits to owners in the first six years of the deal.
What's next: Look for talks early this week on a preseason schedule, the dismissal or settlement of pending lawsuits, then movement toward getting the entire CBA written.
The Associated Press