Russell Westbrook saved the Thunder and made himself a hero

Russell Westbrook took a sledgehammer to the rumor mill late Wednesday night by reportedly agreeing to an extension that will keep the All-NBA point guard in Oklahoma City through 2017-18.

Russell Westbrook took a sledgehammer to the rumor mill late Wednesday night by reportedly agreeing to an extension that will keep the All-NBA point guard in Oklahoma City through 2017-18. The renegotiated contract boosts Westbrook’s salary considerably this next season (a season for which Westbrook was already under contract) and locks in the following season as well, meaning the point guard’s likely new free agent date is July 1, 2018.

The obvious upshot is that the Thunder no longer have to worry about losing All-NBA talent for nothing in consecutive offseasons. There were compelling reasons for Westbrook to take this deal — not the least of which is that this setup is his most lucrative long-term path — but that doesn’t make it any less of a coup for Oklahoma City.

The fear of Westbrook leaving next July as Kevin Durant did this summer was so great that if the guard didn’t agree to this extension, OKC would likely have traded him to ensure there was a return on investment. Obviously, keeping Westbrook and guaranteeing that he can’t bolt in 2017 is a preferred outcome.

But what happens now? This is not the end of the story of Westbrook and the Thunder, just a twist in the narrative. Here’s what happens because of Westbrook’s decision.

The Thunder are buyers

OKC was able to offer a renegotiated 2016-17 salary for Westbrook only because the Thunder had cap space this summer. (Thanks, Kevin.) As we’ve discussed all year, the salary cap exploded, giving most teams a large amount of space to sign free agents. Along with the cap (now $94 million and projected to be $102 million next summer), the luxury tax threshold also rose. It sits at $113 million this year and should rise again in 2017.

Because the free agent market is picked over and due to salary-matching rules, it’s unlikely OKC will be able to fully leverage that payroll flexibility between now and next summer. That’s fine. Next July is where an extra year of Westbrook really pays off.

OKC didn’t have a real shot at chasing free agents in 2016. Durant decided on July 4. Most of the top options had found deals by then and Westbrook didn’t commit to stay another year until August. In 2017, Westbrook will already be locked in and the Thunder should have gobs of cap space (presuming they don’t hand out massive early extensions to Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson, which is possible but unlikely). The Thunder will be able to credibly chase top free agents.

(This all assumes there’s not a work stoppage.)

If they don’t land any big free agents? Well, Westbrook would still be a highly tradable asset.

The 10-year breakpoint becomes an even more prominent tool

A key reason Westbrook chose this route is because he wants to sign his next long-term deal once he has 10 years of service in the league. With 10 years under his belt, he can sign a deal starting at 35 percent of the cap in lieu of 30 percent. With a $100 million salary cap, that’s an additional $5 million in the first year and just under $45 million over a five-year deal (factoring in raises).

There’s a huge financial incentive to lock in once you are a 10-year veteran. It explains Durant’s 1+1 contract in Golden State (he will likely opt out in 2017 and sign a longer, more lucrative deal with the Warriors as a 10-year vet, barring contract rule changes in a new labor deal). It explains James Harden’s renegotiation and extension, which locks him in until 2019 ... when he’ll be a 10-year veteran.

Players and agents are smartly focusing in on that milestone. Teams are offering deals (like Westbrook’s contract in OKC) that play to that strategy. It’s something all analysts should pay attention to when reading tea leaves, and something the league is surely aware of as it looks for ways to increase star retention capacity for teams and boost parity.

We have a new babyface to battle Durant’s heel

We all know Westbrook’s decision comes with huge financial incentives, and we all know it’s really just one extra year of commitment. That’s hardly a lifetime tether.

For the broader audience — and arguably for us, too — that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Russell Westbrook chose to commit to tiny, underdog Oklahoma City a month after Kevin Durant bolted for Silicon Valley.

Westbrook is obviously a hero in Oklahoma now, but this will spread beyond: He’s going to be the nation’s favorite sports babyface for the next year or two. He already checks a lot of the Wildly Popular Athlete boxes. He plays crazy hard, he’s essentially indestructible and he has a sharp competitive edge. Ignore for a moment that he’s awful with the media, that his fashion is insane and that he has intense handshake choreography. Those are niche topics compared to the broader, marquee narrative which is that when the going got tough, Russell Westbrook got tougher.

Durant didn’t need help becoming a national villain — he accomplished that by joining the 73-win Warriors. In fact, the Warriors’ own heel turn was nearly complete and Durant was the coup de grace for that whole collective. But by providing a stark contrast, Westbrook has deepened the Durant dislike we’ll see in full effect for the next year. And every little bit of anti-Durant sentiment has the effect of boosting the pro-Westbrook sentiment.

By doing the opposite of what Durant did, Westbrook has elevated his standing among the broad, non-obsessive NBA fandom. (Westbrook has long been a hero among the obsessed.) He’s being touted as an MVP favorite because his box scores are going to be insane. Instead, tout him as the presumptive 2016-17 MVP because America eats this stuff up. This is Derrick Rose in 2011. Watch it happen.

What’s amazing is that the power of the narrative will overcome the basic facts of the situation, which reveal that Westbrook is a surly shot-jacker from L.A. with expensive taste and tendencies toward being a difficult teammate. As an avowed Westbrook booster since forever, I couldn’t be more pleased to witness all that get shrouded by a narrative that says Westbrook is a loyal tough guy willing to sacrifice to bring a little city some big glory.

Whatever gets America fully on board with the Westbrook Experience works for me.

Russell West Brook