Paul George feeling right at home with the NBA’s most compelling team

OKLAHOMA CITY – A little after 5 p.m., just as the sun begins to set over the plain, a rural golf course gets its most visible visitor. Paul George is still learning the ins and outs of Oklahoma City — “I read a lot of Yelp reviews,” he said — but here, things are familiar. Not the slope of the greens or the curve of the fairway, but the ponds that buffer them. Many days, most days, George climbs into his golf cart, a half-dozen fishing poles strapped to the back, and pond hops, waving at the farmer-tanned golfers gawking at the 6-foot-9 All-Star forward motoring past them.

There may be a part of George that longs for a return to Los Angeles, but everything about Oklahoma City feels like home. “Life here, it’s not much different than Indiana,” George told The Vertical. “Really, it’s just my lake. I have a big lake in my backyard [in Indiana]. This time of year I’d get on my boat and fish. That was how I would spend my days. Now I just go from pond to pond.”

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The NBA’s most compelling team isn’t in Boston or Cleveland, the Bay Area or the Texas coast. Five months ago Oklahoma City was a single-star franchise, willed by Russell Westbrook to 47 wins and an improbable spot in the middle of the Western Conference playoff mix. Today, Westbrook is flanked by George and Carmelo Anthony, a potentially lethal offensive trio with eyes on challenging the Golden State Warriors for conference supremacy.

Last week, George settled into a cushioned chair off the floor in the Thunder’s practice facility and marveled at the talent around him. On one basket was Westbrook, the reigning MVP, a 28-year-old superstar just entering his prime. On another was Anthony, the now familiar hoodie spilling out of his practice jersey, a perennial All-Star energized after six and a half soul-sucking seasons in New York.

“You need special talent to build championship teams,” George said. “It’s no secret. You feel more comfortable out there when you have guys who can play at the same level, who can play at a high level, play with high energy as well. I’m not going to be perfect every night. But to have a guy that can play at that same level that I can some nights, that I can benefit from, is a luxury. Look at Russ — the guy averaged a triple-double and had a hard time getting [in] the playoffs. It’s just hard to do in this day and age. That was one of the hardest things for me in Indy. I wanted to be there, I wanted to stay there so much. It just didn’t seem like we were going to get to that level, of having high-level talent to win a championship.”

George is accomplished, an All-Star, a 20-point-plus scorer in each of his last three full seasons. Yet in his early meetings with Thunder coach Billy Donovan, he had one request: challenge me. George had come a long way in seven years in Indiana, but he badly wants to go further. Put me in uncomfortable positions, George told Donovan. Help me, he said, become the most complete player I can be.

Paul George is ready for the challenge of elevating his game and the Thunder. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Paul George is ready for the challenge of elevating his game and the Thunder. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

“I think Paul is still trying to stretch himself as a player,” Donovan told The Vertical. “I think Paul is just looking to be pushed. The coaching staff, myself, are trying to push him in areas where he can get better. He had an incredible run [in Indiana]. But like any elite player, those guys are always trying to find ways to get better. That’s why they are who they are. As a coach you try to challenge them to help them get better and improve themselves.”

Donovan’s task is daunting. Having three premier scorers is great. Designing an offense for them? Not so easy. Through three preseason games, Oklahoma City has looked disjointed. There are flashes of brilliance, often followed by stretches of uncertainty. Stars used to being the focal point of the offense are going out of their way to defer. Trial and error is a part of the process.

“We’re not rushing this,” George said. “We know how good we can be. It’s on us to get to that point. We can’t look ahead. We have to figure out who we are, one game at a time. We know we can be special. That’s a given. It’s about how we can get to that point and progress. It’s a take-it-slow type of deal right now.”

Sacrifice is a word tossed around often when stars come together. The Miami Heat did it. Dwyane Wade ceded power to LeBron James, Chris Bosh accepted a third-fiddle role and a pair of championships followed. The Los Angeles Lakers — remember them? — talked about it. Dwight Howard battled with Kobe Bryant and the Howard/Kobe/Steve Nash trio broke up after one season. Thumb through the usage-rate leaders last season. Oklahoma City now has three who ranked in the top 20 with one — Westbrook — who posted the highest rate in NBA history. Something has to give.

Defensively, too. The Thunder regulars were scorched in the first quarter last week by a traveling team from Australia. Anthony has pledged his willingness to play power forward, but Oklahoma City will need to gang rebound to keep some of the bigger teams off the boards.

“I’m committed here, we’re all committed,” George said. “We want this to happen and we want this to work really well. Once we get on the court, it’s been like magic. We understand one another, we have a feel for one another, we know each other’s games so well. We want to make the most out of it, to be in the best position to succeed.”

Committed — now that’s a word Oklahoma City would love to hear, say, next summer, when George will be an unrestricted free agent. George is effusive in his praise of the Thunder, from the treatment of the players (“They make everything easy,” George said.) to GM Sam Presti’s ability to assemble high-level teams year after year.

“Being able to acquire talented guys, superstar guys, All-Star guys in a small market, still being able to compete in the best conference, that stands out more than anything,” George said. “That’s been a knock on the small markets, that they can’t acquire big names or big talents. This organization has and does. They have been competitive ever since they have been in this market. And for us, it’s come in and do our job, that’s play basketball. They roll out the red carpet. You understand why this organization and the players have that unity of wanting to stay together.”

Ultimately, Oklahoma City’s success this season — and George’s role in it — will determine George’s future. For now, he’s happy. Teaming up with Westbrook and Anthony has energized him in a way he hasn’t felt since he was a third-year player knocking on the Finals door.

“You know you have a chance to play for something [in OKC],” George said. “If all it takes is to give your everything night in and night out, that’s the easy part. And I’m always going to give that. But to do it on a larger scale where you know it could ultimately turn out to be what it takes to win a championship, it definitely energizes you. It makes you look past the fatigue. You see the picture of where you can get to. And you want it.”

Three Points

Joel Embiid has played 31 games since being drafted in 2014. (Getty Images)
Joel Embiid has played 31 games since being drafted in 2014. (Getty Images)

The Sixers role the dice
Joel Embiid is a beast. In 31 games last season, Embiid averaged 20.2 points, snatched nearly eight rebounds and banged in 37 percent of his threes. His per-36 numbers (28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.5 blocks) were MVP-type stuff. But Embiid has missed two full seasons with a foot injury and is still recovering from what was originally described as minor knee surgery last March. All that serves as a backdrop to the five-year, $148 million extension Philadelphia handed Embiid on Monday, locking in the oft-injured franchise center.

Here, Philly’s options were limited. “It’s very risky,” a Western Conference executive told The Vertical. “If he’s healthy, he’s worth it. If he isn’t, it could cripple them. But they were in a tough spot. If they didn’t give him the deal, he could hold it against them later. And the fans love him.”

Indeed, Embiid is wildly popular in Philadelphia. And he is a leader in a new breed of centers that are revolutionizing the position. “I know people think the center position is being phased out, but he can dominate on the inside and outside,” said the exec. “He changes the game on both ends of the floor.”

But the Sixers are just five years removed from the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade, a deal that in some ways kick-started Philadelphia’s eventual tear down. The Sixers are better equipped to deal with an Embiid injury now — Ben Simmons has just oozed potential in the preseason — but this is a significant risk. Philly undoubtedly laced the deal with injury protections, but if Embiid’s body breaks down (again), this decision could haunt them.

Trouble brewing in New Orleans?
The news that Rajon Rondo underwent sports hernia surgery and will miss four-to-six weeks could be crippling for New Orleans. I watched the Pelicans’ preseason game against Oklahoma City, and the offense was a mess. The three-point shooting — a widely predicted problem — was one, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins didn’t have much chemistry, and Jrue Holiday looked uncomfortable in the minutes he and Rondo shared the floor.

New Orleans needs Rondo. His floor generalship is invaluable, and Gentry has seemed comfortable giving Rondo wide latitude to run the offense. With him, the Pelicans were going to struggle to beat upper-tier teams; without him, they could get clipped early by a bunch of lower ones, which could sink them early in a savage Western Conference.

Kyle Kuzma takes L.A.
The Lakers’ stockpile of young assets is headlined by Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram and fleshed out by Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson … and Kyle Kuzma? Yup. The summer-league sensation turned preseason superstar (averaging nearly 20 points per game) has scouts wondering if they missed out on something.

The Lakers say they didn’t. To hear Lakers officials tell it, Kuzma — whom L.A. had a front-row seat to scout in the Pac-12 — was ranked much higher on the franchise’s board than the 27th spot they snagged him the June draft. Now, everyone says that, but Kuzma’s sharp shooting in the preseason (62 percent) has several rival executives believing the Lakers got a steal.

“He can play,” texted one rival exec. “We missed it.”

But how? For starters, Kuzma didn’t put up eye-popping numbers in college, and scouts say the things he did in summer league in the preseason (scoring off the dribble, for example) he struggled with in college at Utah. But his mechanics have always been solid, and the Lakers believed there was a better shooter there than the one they saw in college.

L.A.’s deep in the frontcourt, so the 6-9 Kuzma may not crack Luke Walton’s rotation right away. But landing a future rotation player in the late 20s is like finding a $100 bill on the sidewalk, and the Lakers seem to have stumbled on at least a small piece of the puzzle.

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