Paul George won’t spend next season riding shotgun with LeBron James, joining a Superteam in Boston or heading home to be the face of the Lakers. No, the four-time All-Star forward is headed to Oklahoma City to play with NBA MVP Russell Westbrook.
The Pacers have agreed to trade George, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, to the Thunder in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and second-year forward Domantas Sabonis. George (23.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.3 APG), who is set to make $19.5 million next season, recently informed Indiana that he was willing to play out the 2017-18 season with the Pacers but that he would not re-sign next summer.
Let’s grade the trade.
Well, no one can accuse Thunder GM Sam Presti of timidity.
There are a few angles to unpack here but the most important is Westbrook’s future in Oklahoma City. While every franchise worries about its stars skipping town, Oklahoma City was staring at the possibility of trading away James Harden, losing Kevin Durant for nothing in free agency, and then being forced to trade Westbrook to guard against another free-agency defection in 2018. That series of events would shatter a fan base, to put it mildly, and it would spur even the most calculating executive to swing for the fences.
George fills multiple major needs for the Thunder. He’s a secondary scorer who will alleviate Westbrook’s unsustainably high workload. He is a quality, versatile defender who can credibly check elite wings like Durant and Kawhi Leonard in possible postseason match-ups. And he is a signal to Westbrook that the Thunder are serious about building a winner around him rather than merely riding his coattails to exciting but empty regular-season success.
The cold truth about Oklahoma City’s 2016-17 season is that the Thunder went about as far as Westbrook could carry them. If a 30-point triple double wasn’t enough to win 50 games or two playoff games, why wouldn’t he start to look around for greener pastures? While there’s still plenty of deal-making left to play out over the next few weeks, Oklahoma City can enter next season with the hope of winning a playoff series and the dream of reaching the Western Conference finals. That was never going to be possible with Oladipo and Sabonis.
Nevertheless, the obvious longer-term risk must be factored into an analysis of this move. George has intimated that winning and returning to LA are among his top priorities. Oklahoma City will never be Southern California. And will the Thunder be able to put things together quickly enough to win at the level that will satisfy George?
Before Thunder fans stress out too much over the possibility of George’s departure next summer, it’s worth noting that the deal relieves Oklahoma City of Oladipo’s four-year, $84 million contract. Although that seemed to be a reasonable agreement when it was reached last fall, on the heels of the Serge Ibaka trade, Oladipo didn’t set the world on fire during his first year in Oklahoma City. His contract wasn’t going to be an Enes Kanter-like albatross going forward, but Presti will find himself in a significantly more flexible salary cap position next summer if George does walk.
The ironic part about this trade for George, who has had many major organizations around the league weighing the pros and cons of renting him for a year, is that his 2018 decision won’t ultimately decide whether this was a winning move or a losing one. If he re-signs in Oklahoma City, it’s clearly a home run. But the move can still be a success if George leaves as long as Presti’s pluck convinces Westbrook to re-up.
Pritchard made the right, difficult decision—to trade George early so that his franchise could move forward—but the return leaves so, so much to be desired.
In Oladipo (15.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.6 APG) and Sabonis (5.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG), he acquired two rotation players with some degree of untapped potential but no real shot at star potential. He also inherited a significant contract—the $84 million owed to Oladipo—that is most likely going to look no better than mediocre as it unfolds. The bright side: Oladipo (age 25) and Sabonis (age 21) are aligned well with franchise center Myles Turner (age 21).
With George gone and word spreading that Jeff Teague is likely headed out as well, Indiana was unavoidably headed for a major step back in 2017-18. But Oladipo, a former Indiana Hoosier, is neither good enough to inspire hope as a lead option nor cheap enough to receive the benefit of the doubt. The George-less Pacers will need him to step up in a big-time way, a development that seems unlikely given his fairly forgettable sidekick season alongside Westbrook. Sabonis (5.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG) similarly projects as a useful, skilled big but not much more.
While it’s impossible to know the validity of online rumors, there were indications in recent weeks that Cleveland was interested in sending Kevin Love for George while Boston was offering some combination of flexible contracts and picks. Either scenario—a bona fide face of the franchise or asset accumulation—would have been preferable to this modest return.
There is this small consolation: By sending George to the West, Pritchard ensured that the Pacers would only face him twice next year and kept him away from their conference’s elite teams. Will that really matter if the Pacers can’t even crack the top eight in the weakened East?