Thunder go all in with stunning trade for Paul George

Ball Don't Lie

The Indiana Pacers have agreed to trade Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a stunning deal on the eve of free agency, according to multiple reports Friday night.

According to the reports, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis will be headed to Indiana in the other direction. Per The Vertical’s Shams Charania, the deal includes no draft picks.

George, who will hit free agency after the 2017-18 season, has made it clear that his preferred destination next summer is Los Angeles, and specifically the Lakers. The trade, therefore, represents a major risk for Oklahoma City, which could lose George for nothing after just one season.

But it’s a necessary risk that Thunder general manager Sam Presti clearly felt he had to take with the bar for title contention set so high by the Golden State Warriors. Oklahoma City will go all in to keep pace with the Warriors and Houston Rockets, who themselves pushed chips toward the center of the table by dealing for Chris Paul on Wednesday.

It was also apparently a necessary risk with Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City’s only incumbent star, who is likewise set for free agency next summer, and eligible for a lucrative contract extension once the clock ticks past midnight on July 1, 2017. The Thunder are expected to offer Westbrook the “supermax” — around $200 million over five years. A trade for George is as strong a signal of intent as any, and could be Presti’s way of convincing Westbrook that the Thunder are serious about contending.

If Westbrook accepts, he and the Thunder organization will then likely spend the next year trying to convince George to join him in Oklahoma City for the long haul. If both re-up with OKC, the Thunder will be players in the Western Conference for years to come. Even with the sizable risk, the strategy makes sense.

What was so startling about the trade was the timing, and the abruptness. Many cities had been floated as possible destinations for George. Boston and Cleveland seemed like the two most plausible. Houston was mentioned after the Paul trade. The Lakers themselves also considered a deal to all but ensure they remained in George’s future plans. But Oklahoma City? Not a single rumor. Not a single leak. Not a peep. Nothing.

That George is no longer a Pacer is no surprise. Indiana had been backed into a corner when the four-time All-Star informed management earlier in the month that he would not be re-signing with the franchise after the final year of his contract. The news sucked all leverage away from the Pacers, and depressed the trade market for George.

But it also sent a message to all 28 teams outside of Indiana and the Lakers: The only chance to woo George was by trading for him, and proving to him over the course of 12 months that the situation here is better than the one in Los Angeles. There was interest, which makes it puzzling that Indiana would pull the trigger with a relatively meager package coming to them in return. Oladipo, 25, is a nice young piece, and the Pacers are clearly priming themselves for a rebuild. Sabonis has shown promising signs as well. But neither is a surefire future star by any stretch of the imagination.

So could Indiana not have held out for the Celtics, who were reportedly ready to pony up for George after potentially signing Gordon Hayward in free agency? They had extremely valuable first-round picks to offer. Could Indiana not have squeezed at least one out of them?

But maybe the market for George just wasn’t there, and Indiana struggled to leverage one offer against another to up its asking price.

Or maybe, as some have theorized and reported, new Indiana president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard preferred to ship George to the West rather than deal him within his own conference.

It is by no means a disaster of a deal for the Pacers. But it was remarkably abrupt, and, with under three hours to go until the official beginning of free agency, left heads around the basketball world spinning.

On the whole, the deal is a win for Oklahoma City. Even if George walks after one season, the Thunder are out from under Oladipo’s four-year, $84 million deal, which wasn’t exactly a bargain. There’s also a chance, according to ESPN’s Royce Young, that the Thunder may not be done — though their next move could be the Westbrook extension:

If Presti can add another solid piece to Westbrook, the league’s reigning MVP, and George, the Western Conference might have just found itself yet another (somewhat) serious contender — as serious a contender as the Warriors’ brilliance may ever allow for.

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