- The clock is officially ticking on the Paul George Experiment in Oklahoma City. If the Thunder can't turn their season around, they may be forced to trade the free agent-to-be before the deadline.
In the latest episode of the Open Floor podcast, Ben Golliver is joined by SI senior writer Lee Jenkins to discuss Paul George's rough start in Oklahoma City and what might happen if the Thunder's struggles continue.
George returns to Indiana on Wednesday night to take on the Pacers for the first time since his summer trade to Oklahoma City. The Thunder, meanwhile, are looking to snap out of a slump (seven losses in their last 12 games) against a red-hot Pacers team, led by one of the players George was traded for, Victor Oladipo.
If the Thunder (12–14) can't turn their season around in the next few weeks, they could look to premptively move George, a free agent this summer, before the deadline. George has long been rumored to be interested in his hometown Lakers, but contenders like the Cavaliers could also make a run. Golliver and Jenkins discuss those topics and more in the most recent episode of Open Floor. (This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.)
Ben Golliver: You wrote two features on Paul George over the summer. What’s your sense on how things are going for him in Oklahoma City? And what’s your confidence level that they’re going to be able to figure this out by the trade deadline where Sam Presti has pretty much acted every single year?
Lee Jenkins: It’s two months, right? They’re on the clock. They have two months. I keep thinking they are going to figure things out or turn it out. You know, I’m a horrible handicapper, but I picked this team to be second in the West and I thought defensively that they could give the Warriors the most problems. Clearly, that’s not the case. It is starting to feel like that Lakers from 2012-13 when we all said, “They’re going to figure it out! They’re going to figure it out!” and they just never figured it out. The difference is that team had tons of injuries and this team—that hasn’t been the problem. The problem has clearly been fit.
I wonder if they hadn’t gotten Melo, would we still be having the same conversation? Would the Thunder have the same issues, you think?
Golliver: Well, I’ve been pushing that one pretty hard. I think Paul George is just squeezed from both sides. It’s always hard to play with a guy who is as ball dominant as Russell Westbrook, and then you’ve got a guy who is always going to be high usage like Melo, and you’re trying to find your fit between those two guys? That’s going to be tough. Especially when you’re accustomed to being the alpha guy in Indiana your whole career. Personally, I kind of just think that somewhere in Paul George’s mind he still kind of views himself in that role. It doesn’t always come out. He doesn’t always put himself in takeover mode, but when you look at the kind of shots he prefers, those are Kobe–type shots. Those are alpha male–type shots. And you can have one guy like that on your team, but when you have two or three and it becomes redundant in that same way, you’re going to have a very inconsistent offense.
So they can’t undo the Melo move and I think it would be harder to trade Melo here if they wanted to shake it up in the short term. From Sam Presti's side of things, we’ve had some emailers say that they expect Presti to be the first one to realize it’s not working and to be proactive and try and get out in front of it. That could mean a Paul George trade at the deadline. That could mean some other tinkering to the rotation, adding other pieces. What do you think his attitude would be if this continues going forward into the trade deadline?
Jenkins: They have Westbrook under contract, so that issue is taken care of. This is why the Melo move was always kind of baffling—because I was there the week they got George. The week he showed up. And they were going to do everything they could to make this guy have the best experience. This was going to be the Kevin Durant do-over, right? They were giving Westbrook another opportunity; they were giving themselves as an organization another opportunity. But the minute you get Melo, it just seems to undermine all of that. It undermined the effort to kind of make George feel like Oklahoma City would be his home. It just became inevitable that individually, he was going to have to sacrifice even more then he would have just playing with Westbrook. It also went from a team where all the pieces seemed to fit to a team that was a little bit more confusing.
Presti doesn’t want to lose another star for nothing. So I’m sure it’s something he’s going to have to think seriously about. But they were really committed to this and they really believed in it. They really believed in Paul George, from all the research they’d done, was essentially the best kind of player you’d want to put next to Russell Westbrook. Probably the best one outside of Kevin Durant. So for them to abandon it, they’d have to feel as if its hopeless that they’ll make a run this season and that it’s hopeless they’ll re-sign him. I think the one thing they have going for them, is that Paul George said he wanted to go to a team where he could win a championship, and are the Lakers really that team? Are we prepared to say that? Because, to me, the Lakers are kind of the specter over all of this—over the Cavs, over the Thunder. All these teams we talk about are so wildly interrelated. That Paul George could end up going to Cleveland? What does that mean for LeBron? And George and the Lakers? And the Lakers and LeBron? And every game that Lonzo Ball struggles, to me it sort of has to open Paul George’s mind a bit in terms of destinations next year. Clearly, if Oklahoma City continues to go this way they won’t have a realistic chance. I don’t think Paul George would want to run this back again. But it does make you wonder about Cleveland. Before, I kind of felt that Cleveland was wanting Oklahoma City to succeed in order to maybe have a shot at Golden State or at least rough them up a bit. Now, Cleveland is probably in a position where they’re rooting against Oklahoma City for the possibility that George winds up there. It’s just so wild to me how this stuff changes on the fly.
Golliver: It’s pretty crazy. I’m glad you mentioned the think about Oklahoma City and that maybe they don’t have a chance to win a title. Because remember, that was sort of their mentality coming into the season. Didn’t George kind of say they thought they could be on that level or that it was the hope? One thing we can say about Paul George, in his defense, is he is doing his part. Defensively, I believe he still leads the league in steals and deflections. It’s not him just gambling and being all over the place. I think when you look at him and Andre Roberson, I’m pretty sure they have one of the best two-man defensive rating combinations in the league. The defense has been solid and he’s been a huge reason why. So what this kind of sets up potentially to me, in George’s eyes, is he can look to the Thunder and say, ‘Guys, I did my part. I tried to do what I could on offense. The pieces didn’t really work. I busted my butt on defense, I did everything I possibly could. And we were nowhere near a tier-1 team in the Western Conference. And I told you and I told everyone before I came here that that’s where I want to be.' That doesn’t really leave Presti much room to wiggle. If you’re him, and it’s not working, you’re thinking you need to pull the trigger potentially in February otherwise George is going to leave in the summer for nothing. I would love to see Paul George go to Cleveland, and I think from matchup purposes that’s the dream move that makes the Finals that much better against Golden State.
Jenkins: You would take that risk if you are Cleveland?
Golliver: Yeah, I think it’s really tough. But first of all, that Nets pick, there’s a wide range where that pick could land at this point given how tight everything is. If that’s the No. 10 or No. 9 pick instead of a top-five pick I’d be less worried about it in terms of the risk factor. Because I think this draft really has five guys that are awesome, and I think it would be really hard to miss out on one of those guys for the next eight years if you’re Cleveland. But if you’re LeBron, and Andrew Sharp and I have gone over all of these scenarios on the podcast—San Antonio, Houston, L.A.—this Cleveland thing is looking pretty good. When he’s playing on this level, and if you give him Paul George, if I’m LeBron I think I’m going to the Finals this year, and the year after that. And he can probably try and recruit Paul George to re-sign and because the pieces are there. That’s the trade they should have made with Kyrie, by the way. I think if they could go back and do it over again, don’t you think they should have found a way to get Paul George earlier in the summer?
Jenkins: No doubt. I think they would had if things hadn’t gone haywire with Dan Gilbert and David Griffin, I think that was the direction they were going. But I think the timing of Kyrie’s trade request coupled with some of the other drama there scuttled that. There were all sorts of different deals going on—and all of them would have had Paul George coming to Cleveland. And I don’t know if Paul George was necessarily excited about going to Cleveland, like that was his main destination. But if it’s true he wants to win a championship, and that’s his No. 1 priority, I don’t see how he doesn’t end up in some package with LeBron. Even though I’m not sure they have some sort of incredible friendship, but when you look at the free agents, if there’s going to be a package of two guys going somewhere, it seems like it’s going to be them. And their skills obviously complement each other. Shoot, then again I thought George and Westbrook’s skills complemented each other too. But I feel like it might be worth the gamble. George is probably the only guy that’s worth that type of risk.
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