How Paul George’s Return to OKC Changes Thunder’s Outlook, Now and Long-Term
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Paul George and Russell Westbrook
- After all signs pointed to LA, Paul George has agreed to re-sign with the Thunder.
- George’s return keeps the Thunder relevant in the short and long term.
- The Thunder will have a real shot to win the Northwest Division, so consider betting that future if it’s even money or better.
Sam Presti pulled it off. A year after Kevin Durant departed in free agency, sending Oklahoma City into a tailspin that threatened to completely derail the franchise, general manager Presti took a leap of faith in the culture he’d built and traded for Paul George. In doing so, he dealt Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, a package which at the time didn’t blow anyone away.
In time, it looked worse and worse, with the Thunder stumbling out of the gate before recovering in January and starting to look like the team they had envisioned, only for Andre Roberson to be injured, disrupting their identity before they lost to the Jazz in the first round. Meanwhile, Oladipo surged to an All-NBA selection in Indiana. All the while, talk continued that George was G-O-N-E. It had been such a foregone conclusion that George would return “home” to Los Angeles and join the Lakers.
It was so pronounced the Lakers were fined for tampering in an effort to secure his services. It was an ongoing joke about how obvious it was PG was headed to LA.
Yeah… about that. Multiple outlets reported Saturday night that the Thunder and George had reached an agreement on a four-year, $137 million deal with a player option in the fourth season.
It’s an unqualified success for the Thunder. There will be talk of their enormous tax bill, which will likely require them to waive Carmelo Anthony using the stretch provision, and how they’ve tied up so much money into a team that was eliminated in the first round.
Here’s why that talk is flawed. First, your cap space should go to players like Russell Westbrook and Paul George. No matter what you think of either, Westbrook is unquestionably a top-three point guard in the league. His ball-dominant ways may limit a team’s ceiling, but he’s also not without growth opportunities, even at this stage in his career.
George is unquestionably a top-five wing. And Steven Adams is probably the best non-star center in the league, on a non-star contract.
After that it becomes about how much money Thunder owner Clay Bennett spends. For a franchise that is so often dinged for its thrifty ways in a small market, it’s hypocritical to then turn around and hit the Thunder for overspending to keep their two stars. The James Harden trade still haunts the franchise and is more complicated than most consider it, but if you believe frugality cost OKC in 2012, it’s only fair to recognize its willingness to suffer the cost to keep this team together.
OKC would have been cap-strapped no matter what. The choice wasn’t between George (and the tax bill) and a better option, but between George and a total rebuild. In keeping George, they prove the value of the culture Presti has helped build and ensure a window of contention (whatever that means in the Warriors era) for three years. The Thunder re-signed their last two biggest impending free agent stars on long-term deals. That’s worth celebrating.
For George, it makes more sense than it appears on the surface. George’s box score numbers declined last year. However, he and Westbrook fit better than the narrative made it out. George’s best value is as an off-ball weapon coming off screens. His numbers in those areas were among the best of his career.
Now about this team…
OF CEILINGS AND CONTINUITY
The Thunder were better than their results showed last season. Through November, they suffered with inconsistency, unfamiliarity and a rash of bizarre clutch-situation losses. They lost games in stunning fashion despite sizable leads time and time again. Once they righted themselves and stopped losing every single coin-flip game they found themselves in, they took off.
From Dec. 1 on, the best four-man lineup in the NBA in net rating belonged to OKC’s starters: Westbrook, George, Roberson and Adams. Three of the top four belonged to OKC as well. They found their identity and their rhythm, and were rounding into shape.
Then Roberson’s injury hit. Roberson was the Defensive Player of the Year leader when he went down. OKC had defined itself, going all the way back to preseason, as a bullying, physical, defensive team. The Thunder would figure out the offense later, but they defined themselves with defense. Losing Roberson changed all that. George had been the second-best defensive player on the floor; now he was called on for all the toughest challenges Roberson had been assigned. It became more difficult to hide Westbrook and Anthony.
The Thunder’s first-round loss to Utah wasn’t surprising given all that. Utah had hit its stride, and OKC was a defensive team without its best defensive player. Anthony was a shell of himself, and his old self was never the most efficient to begin with.
Next season, OKC should be better, based solely on continuity and avoiding the kind of mishaps it wandered into last season. Whether that means the Thunder keep pace with the West is a different question. And they remain significantly behind Golden State, despite their regular-season victories against the Warriors. Oklahoma City never hit its ceiling last year — never found the best version of this team. With or without Melo, the Thunder have a better chance of finding that in 2018-19.
It will take luck, good health and some adaptability from Westbrook that he hasn’t shown, but the blueprint is there. The first step was getting George. The second was keeping him. Now the Thunder can figure out how to go from here to where they’ve been trying to get to for so long.
So, what does that mean for this upcoming season’s investment opportunities?
FINDING THE SWEET SPOT
OKC’s win total was 52.5 last season. It finished with 48. The Thunder’s win total should be somewhere around there when it’s released. However, with no way of knowing if Melo will be on the team and what impact he’d have, there are more outcomes where they come up short of that number.
Likewise, their title odds may be better for return on investment, but there’s no viable path to a title. The Warriors and Rockets remain ahead of them, Utah will likely only be better with Donovan Mitchell’s improvement, and the LeBron question continues to hang. OKC should be better than last year, but the gap between that and the championship is greater than the opportunity value.
The division title should be interesting, however. The Thunder were -150 to open last season. Given their struggles and the strength of the division, those odds won’t get shorter, and there’s a possibility of it being plus-money. The Thunder still have the best player in the division, and maybe the second-best as well. Minnesota is almost sure not to improve, the Blazers are cap-strapped if they bring the team back and don’t rebuild, and Denver is still spotty. That leaves Utah. The Jazz will be good next season but may take a step back given their unsustainable finish to the season.
The door is open for a division title for OKC, far more than the projected title or win total odds. There’s opportunity there.
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