Imagine the Oklahoma City Thunder’s sales pitch to Paul George this summer.
Sure, we had an incredibly uneven season and almost missed the NBA playoffs. Yes, we lost in the first round to a team whose starting five had a combined zero All-Star nods and whose best players are a rookie, a very tall Frenchman, and a guy whose nickname includes the term “Slow-Mo.” Okay, your co-star Russell Westbrook took more than 40 shots in each of two elimination games, and frankly didn’t even glance in your direction more than a half-dozen times during the last game. Fine, you’re right, our city is the cultural antithesis of your beloved hometown of Los Angeles. And indeed, Carmelo Anthony is probably coming back on a $28 million contract.
What do you say: should we run it back?
That seems like a longshot.
But stranger things have happened, and money talks. The Thunder can offer a five-year maximum contract to George; any other team can only offer a four-year deal. George turns 28 soon. This shouldn’t be the last huge NBA contract he signs, but it will determine where he spends what should be the prime of his career. It will cover the time that will determine what kind of career he has: that of a really good, top-20-of-his-generation career, or more.
This really all depends on what George wants.
Let’s be honest: the basketball situation in OKC is not incredibly attractive. But this should be its low point, if they stay together. The Westbrook-PG duo didn’t hit their ceiling this year. You’d expect another season of working together would help them develop some chemistry and lead to a little more trust from Westbrook. Having clarity on the future could allow general manager Sam Presti to tweak the roster in ways that better take advantage of the two stars’ strengths and cover their weaknesses. Perhaps there’s a change on the sidelines — Billy Donovan did not inspire confidence in this series, though Westbrook’s unique style is responsible for much of the predictability of the offense. If nothing else, getting Andre Roberson back next year should be a boon.
All that said, isn’t this — a lack of juice in the playoffs — why Paul George declared a year ago that he’d leave the Indiana Pacers in 2018? Because there was no co-star and no hope of making a real run at title contention? Because he couldn’t get past LeBron? George had been openly flirting with going home to L.A. and joining the Lakers as a free agent in 2018, so Indiana folded and traded him. Smart move: the Pacers got an undervalued young star (Victor Oladipo) and solid young blue chipper (Domantas Sabonis) instead of potentially losing George for nothing.
The Thunder gave up those young players, betting that adding George to Westbrook could convince both to stay. The latter bit on the bargain. He signed a max extension in August. Now we wait to see if the gambit worked on the former.
The Lakers really are central to this question. Does George really want to play for that franchise? If so, why? Is it the market, is it about going home, is it because he thinks the Lakers are ascendant? Those answers will determine whether OKC has a shot to keep George.
You also wonder how open PG will be to pitches from other teams ... or players. He would be a marvelous fit with the Philadelphia 76ers. He could be a dynamo partner for LeBron James. If the King calls and wants to create package deal to anywhere, George has to listen. Of course, if that happens, the Lakers could be a prime destination. Two birds with one stone.
For Oklahoma City, there will be a binary outcome, but it’s already clear the team made the right decision in trading for George. The Thunder were not prepared to rebuild in the wake of Kevin Durant’s exit, and had limited ability to add top-end talent through free agency. Trading for a George rental, given OKC’s situation in 2017, is a move you make 10 out of 10 times. Carmelo Anthony? That is revealed to have been a mistake, unless that move was the tipping point for Westbrook to sign the extension. We’ll never know. But the George deal was indisputably the right move.
It was always a risk because of what could happen in July 2018. You don’t win anything in the NBA without taking risks. The Thunder brain trust assuredly believed OKC’s season would end on a higher note than it did. But all that really matters now is what Paul George wants. And we’re not going to figure that out until July 1.