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LAS VEGAS — More than Nas busting rhymes on stage, more than Paul George and Russell Westbrook mean-mugging and puffing on celebratory cigars, the most indelible image from the startling night when George spurned his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in free agency was when the five-time All-Star grabbed a microphone and nearly went hoarse as he shouted, “Oklahoma!”
George’s decision to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, without even truly testing free agency, was stunning enough, especially given that the team fell short of its expectations as an alleged super team by losing in the first round of the playoffs. But it was even more baffling because of the year-long buildup that George was inevitably going to don purple and gold. Lakers president Magic Johnson got fined for tampering. Lakers fans chanted George’s name during All-Star Weekend and whenever the Thunder came to town, thousands of dollars were spent on billboards begging him to come. And yes, George forced his way out of Indiana because he supposedly wanted a Southern California homecoming. That one year in Oklahoma, however, was enough to change where George wanted to continue his career. It was enough to make him shout.
“When I told the Pacers I wanted to play for the Lakers, that was true feelings. I wanted to come back home,” George said after USA Basketball’s minicamp at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center. “To play for home, to put that jersey on for family and for what I grew up watching. I wanted to carry that legacy. But again, I went to Oklahoma, fell in love with it, and I’m happy with the decision.”
The seemingly head-scratching decision to deny what had been considered a foregone conclusion makes more sense when viewed in this prism: George grew up in Palmdale, California, a part of expansive Los Angeles County that has more similarities to down-home Oklahoma City than the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. Chuckling at the comparison, George wouldn’t dismiss it.
“I’m a family man now,” said George, whose second child with girlfriend Daniela Rajic was born in Oklahoma last season. “I don’t need no distractions, I don’t need no big cities, no big lights at this point in my career. It’s about lengthening my career. And we felt a great vibe. For as beautiful as Oklahoma is, it doesn’t have big lights and none of that. But that’s fine with me. I’m a low-maintenance, low-key, chill guy. I’m not out in the streets, I’m not out in the club, I’m not at parties, I’m not really at movie premieres. I’m not really an off-the-court extravagant guy. After games, after practice, I’m home, I’m with my kids, I’m with my girl, and I’m chilling. It kind of fits perfectly for my personality.”
George made a deep connection with 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook, general manager Sam Presti and coach Billy Donovan, which went a long way in George securing a four-year, $137 million commitment from an organization that would’ve been sent on a dizzying spiral into irrelevance had it been abandoned by an All-Star talent for the second time in three years. George wasn’t keen on the prospect of starting over with his third team in three years and gave the Thunder extra credit for taking a gamble on him — by trading two talented pieces for a possible one-year rental — that the Lakers hadn’t.
“It was an awesome gamble. They went all-in and had blackjack,” George said of the Thunder. “My feelings for the Lakers are the same. I love the organization, I love the history, I love the legacy. But I gained a brotherhood, where if I would’ve gave them one year, that just didn’t sit well with me. I went to war, I went to battle, we made the playoffs, we were in the hunt, and we stuck together all year long. You never heard of any turmoil, no matter how we played, in the locker room. We built a real brotherhood there and I didn’t want to walk away from that.”
The Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and others would’ve loved to have had the chance to sit down with George and make free-agent pitches. But George had made up his mind weeks earlier, didn’t want to create a spectacle when he “just wanted it to be over with” and simply wanted the “assurance” of a long-term deal. As George explained his situation, Westbrook wandered over to interject, shouting, “Don’t worry about the reasons. He here. That’s all you need to know.”
Carmelo Anthony was noticeably absent from George’s announcement party — a stunning development given his appreciation for Nas — and the reasons became clear when the Thunder shipped the 10-time All-Star to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Dennis Schroder. Anthony was a poor fit in Oklahoma City, never found comfort in Donovan’s system and had limitations in what he was willing to sacrifice in order to win — namely his starting role. George acknowledged that a change was probably necessary. “As much as I loved playing with ’Melo and having ’Melo alongside us, I understand the decision of both sides,” George said. “It just didn’t work. It didn’t work.”
Presti’s decision to trade Anthony for Schroder, rather than stretch his deal or outright buy him out, merely validated George’s decision to stick around. George called Schroder “hands down, the best backup point guard in the league” and added, “You see the aftermath of Sam still being aggressive in trades. Still pulling strings, making deals happen. That goes a long way to the power of Sam and to the work ethic of Sam. … I was committed and I am committed to make things work here.”
At the party — which he described as “crazy” and “fun” — George told those in attendance to have faith in the Thunder’s championship aspirations because “we can bring it home.” But since making that statement, LeBron James has joined the Lakers — something George had a hunch would happen — and the Warriors added a fifth All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins. George understands that the path to the title hasn’t gotten any easier.
“It’s always been a battle to play the Warriors. That hasn’t changed. That’s not going to change,” George said. “We’ve just got to prepare for it and, when the time comes, we got to be ready for it. They’re a team that’s poised with a championship pedigree. They know what it takes. They’ve been together for years. Our work is cut out for us. That’s the obvious. But it’s a lot of teams on the journey that we got to go through. Everybody improved. More stars were added to the West. It’s going to be a heck of a ride, but as competitors, you look forward to it.”
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