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Paul George wanted to leave Indiana, and when you look at it, it’s easy to understand why. The team has scuffled since scaring the bejesus out of Miami in the conference finals in 2013 and ’14. Roy Hibbert cratered, David West left, the coach that developed George (Frank Vogel) was fired and the GM that fired him (Larry Bird) quit a year later. Perspectives change when a player hits his late 20s; the paycheck is still a priority, but the lens you look through changes when, for the first time, you can envision the end of your career.
Russell Westbrook has never hinted that he wants out of Oklahoma City, and after the last 24 hours you really have to wonder if he ever will. The Thunder agreed to a deal to acquire George, flipping Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indianapolis for him. No team has been hammered by the NBA’s evolving cap structure over the years more than Oklahoma City. Yes, they blew the James Harden deal – not paying him the full max, then dealing with the inevitable fallout of a burgeoning superstar wanting a bigger role was a colossal mistake – but the NBA’s efforts to help small-market franchises has often hamstrung the Thunder, who have drafted exceptionally well, but struggled to fit all of their talent within the league’s financial model.
All that has led to an unprecedented exodus of young talent that helped put Oklahoma City in the position it was in Friday afternoon: A capped-out, 47-win team with an MVP entering the last year of his contract and few ways to improve enough to persuade him to stay. Until Indiana came along.
We may never know everything that happened behind the scenes on this one. Boston was legitimately stunned. The Celtics wouldn’t make any deal until after Gordon Hayward made a decision, but Boston believed the offers it discussed with Indy – multiple players (Jae Crowder and Terry Rozier were part of at least one package, two sources told The Vertical) and multiple draft picks – were the most appealing. The L.A. Lakers had maintained a firm stance against including Brandon Ingram while Cleveland and Houston needed help to put together the kind of deal that would measure up. Never did the Celtics think a serviceable two-guard and a late-lottery forward would close the deal.
Across the league, theories abound. Did Indiana want George out of the conference? Seems illogical to be steered by that given that they knew George was determined to play in L.A. when he could. Did the Pacers want pieces that could help them compete? Oladipo and Sabonis are starters, but even in the woebegone Eastern Conference that team will struggle mightily to make the playoffs. Did they not want to deal with Boston? The Celtics’ brass is made up of prickly negotiators, something Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo referenced in the aftermath of last month’s pick swap. But even if the Pacers wanted Oklahoma City’s offer, it wasn’t going anywhere. What was the harm of waiting a week and seeing if they could squeeze out another offer?
There has been widespread astonishment expressed by executives at Indiana’s decision – and little known as to why.
The Thunder don’t care. Overnight, Oklahoma City has gone from a fringe contender with a questionable future to one that should challenge San Antonio and Houston for the second seed in the west. George should fit flawlessly into the Thunder system. He’s an elite shooter off screens and one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders. He’s polished off the dribble and a willing passer. The wall of defenders Westbrook saw last season won’t be quite as high with George – a 39.3 percent 3-point shooter last season – patrolling the perimeter.
In short: Oklahoma City is a contender again. They are not on Golden State’s level, but who is? What they are is a rising team with a 28-year-old MVP and a 27-year-old superstar sidekick. Not bad.
Now, we know the risks. George wants to play in L.A., or at least he did while he was in a Pacers uniform. And this is what Oklahoma City is banking on. See, it’s easy to declare a preferred destination when you are on an average team with no hope of winning anything. But many rival executives believed that if George ended up in Boston, a 60-plus-win Celtics team playing in an intense sports town and offering more money than anyone else would sway George to stay. Why should Oklahoma City be any different?
Remember: Kevin Durant left Westbrook and Co. to play with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on a team destined to win a championship. Would George leave a 55-plus-win team with one of the NBA’s best front offices for Ingram, Lonzo Ball and a team that could be years away from real contention?
Oklahoma City is hoping that answer is no. Which brings us back to Westbrook. When the euphoria of this deal dissipates, we will remember that the long-term future of the franchise still remains in Westbrooks’s hands. Committing to the team – and OKC would love to get Westbrook’s signature on a five-year, $217 million deal, like, today – won’t guarantee a George return in ’18. But it would send a strong message that he should.
How Westbrook plays this season will be an overriding factor, too. The Thunder were a one-man band last season, and they had to be. Next year, they don’t. George, like Westbrook, is a high-usage-rate player who likes the ball in his hands. Westbrook will have to make sure he gets it. And Westbrook won’t have the luxury of a slow learning curve. The clock is ticking toward next July already, and these next 12 months will be what George uses to evaluate his Oklahoma City future.
Another thing: Getting Steven Adams to the next level will fall, at least partially, on Westbrook, too. The “he doesn’t make teammates better” argument for Westbrook was always flawed. He couldn’t make Oladipo or Andre Roberson better shooters; he couldn’t turn Jerami Grant into Horace Grant. But Adams’ ascent stalled last season. His scoring ticked up minimally while his field-goal percentage ticked down. That surprised a handful of scouts, who see Adams, a 7-foot, 255-pound oak tree, as a potentially dominant low-post threat. Durant’s departure clearly hurt – there tends to be a lot more room to operate when there are two lethal scorers on the floor instead of one – but it was notable to some that Adams did not take a significant step forward. As the point guard, Westbrook has the ability to be influential in that progress.
We’ll see. The Thunder figure to be one of the most fascinating stories next season, a suddenly staggeringly talented team (again) with oodles of potential drama. Body language will be scrutinized and every Westbrook/George quote will be parsed. Oklahoma City is once again a bright star in the NBA universe. Buckle up.
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