Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz are better than anyone expected, and if anyone is analyzing the Utah-Oklahoma City series strictly based on top-to-bottom talent and matchups, a Thunder loss really shouldn't be that shocking. It's the context that complicates everything. After Sam Presti stole Paul George from the Pacers in July and added Carmelo Anthony in September, everyone expected bigger things in OKC. Even when the regular season produced more adversity than expected, the popular refrain was to remind any skeptics that this top-heavy team was built for the playoffs. When rotations shortened and talent mattered most, the Thunder were supposed to be twice as dangerous.
It just isn't happening. And aside from the very real advantages that shouldn't be understated on Utah's side—cohesion on both ends, Mitchell hitting huge shots, Rudy Gobert as the 7'2" French chess piece altering every shot within 10 feet of the rim—the bigger picture in this series is an embarrassing upset that borders on disaster for OKC. We're watching a reigning MVP and a Thunder franchise that supposedly won the offseason and reinvented itself as a contender. They're on the verge of losing to a Utah team that lost its franchise player and had to bet its season on the progress of a rookie point guard, the redemption of Ricky Rubio, and the emergence of Joe Ingles.
While we wait to see how the Thunder respond, it makes sense that most of the scrutiny has been focused on Russell Westbrook. He was supposed to be the best player in this series, and he's been closer to fourth, or possibly fifth behind Joe Ingles. It's been a pretty sobering 10-day stretch. But there will be plenty of time for referendums on Westbrook—year 1 of the supermax kicks in next year—and for now, the future of his teammate makes for a better discussion. What does this series say about Paul George?
On the one hand, there are the obvious inferences that will be drawn if the Thunder collapse continues this week. George can opt out of his contract to become a free agent and look elsewhere this summer, there have been Lakers rumors following him for 18 months, and a first-round loss to an overachieving Utah squad seems like it would make the decision easier.
George, for his part, has promised that playoff success or failure won't make the decision for him. "I'm not going to let the playoffs or how we finish this season persuade or indicate where I'm going to this offseason," he said in April. "I'm going to put everything into this, and again, I can definitely see myself being here."
We'll see. I understand that he won't let two weeks in April decide the next several years of his career, but if George were on the fence, a first-round loss will make it tougher to sell OKC as a title contender this summer. In any case, that's irrelevant for now. As far as free agency is concerned, this series is more interesting for the ways it has helped clarify exactly what type of star Paul George is.
George was phenomenal in Game 1. He erased Ingles from Utah's offense and on the other end he hit 13 of 20 shots, was 8 of 11 from three, and his 36 points were enough to make OKC unbeatable. On nights like those, he looks like he belongs in a category with Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. When George's jumper is falling he's basically unguardable, while his length and instincts make him nearly as valuable on defense.
The problem is that nights like Game 1 vs. the Jazz are the rule for Durant and more like an exception with George. The past three games have been a good window into what separates George from someone like Durant—he's shooting 37.9% from the field and 31% from three, and while OKC's defensive breakdowns are not strictly George's fault, Ingles has exploded as the secondary scorer who makes the entire Jazz offense much tougher to handle. None of this is to say that George is anything less than a perennial All-Star. It's just telling that when OKC needs to be saved, George isn't faring any better than Westbrook.
If we're all looking ahead to free agency and what's possible, everyone should also be clear-eyed about George's limits. He has gifts that give him one of the highest upsides in the NBA, but the execution is uneven, and if you're counting on George to carry your team, the results will be underwhelming. Graded on a superstar's curve, his shooting isn't consistent enough for an elite scorer, his shot selection is all over the place, and his defense comes and goes as his responsibilities on offense increase.
George would be much better embracing a role that asks him to dominate on the margins. Clean up the shot selection. Play great defense. Get easy buckets in transition. Hit open threes. His best role in the NBA would be playing next to superstars as a rich man's Andre Iguodala, not a poor man's Kevin Durant.
That's where free agency questions enter the conversation. Does George appreciate what his ideal basketball situation is? How badly does he want to play in Los Angeles? And will the teams pursuing George expect him to be more Durant, or more Iguodala?
For example, if the Lakers miss out on LeBron James but look to build around George instead, there's a good chance that deal could end badly for both sides. In that LeBron-less scenario, George would be left leading a team with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and (maybe) Julius Randle. I'm not sure they'd even make it to the eighth seed.
Strictly in a basketball context, George could be much better off joining a team like Philadelphia. He could focus on forming the scariest perimeter defense on earth next to Robert Covington, then torturing teams as a deeply unfair sidekick next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on offense. Or if not Philly, and not to take this too far down the rabbit hole, he could also opt-in to the final year of his contract and force a trade. Finding his way to Houston or Cleveland (with LeBron) could work even better than the Sixers. And if those options are off the table, then staying in Oklahoma City and betting on another year with Westbrook might make more sense than trying to play the Kobe role for the Lakers.
George is 27 years old. The second half of his career will begin this summer. He is as gifted as any of his peers, so it would make sense if he sees himself as a superstar capable of leading a contender. But stars are measured by titles, and George's legacy from here will depend on his ability to embrace a different role and find a situation that optimizes his best traits instead of indulging his worst habits. Oklahoma City hasn't looked like that situation against the Jazz.