LAS VEGAS — With dozens of autograph seekers waiting in 110-degree heat screaming their names, Russell Westbrook and Paul George stood arm in arm and mugged for the cameras. The Thunder’s two remaining All-Stars were at ease during USA Basketball’s Thursday minicamp, with memories of a first-round playoff exit, a tense free-agency period and the Carmelo Anthony trade already in the rearview.
As practiced commenced, Westbrook rolled up his short shorts, threw down hammer dunks, mingled with Kyrie Irving, took jumpers with former OKC teammates Kevin Durant and Victor Oladipo and received entry passes from new USAB coach Gregg Popovich. Before exiting the UNLV gym, the 2017 MVP donned reflective sunglasses, looking like a man whose chief summer job—recruiting George back to the Thunder—had already been accomplished.
Indeed, the Thunder did their off-season work early, convincing George to re-sign on a four-year, $137 million contract and then celebrating with a lakeside party in Oklahoma on June 30, hours before free agency officially opened. George’s decision came so quickly that he never held formal meetings with outside suitors, including the Lakers.
The five-time All-Star small forward said Thursday that he had hoped to play for the Lakers prior to being traded by the Pacers in 2017, but that his experience with the Thunder last season changed his mind.
“When I told the Pacers I wanted to play [in LA], that was true feelings,” said George, a native of Palmdale, Calif. “I wanted to come back home. To play for home, to put that jersey on for family and for what I grew up watching. I wanted to carry that legacy. But I went to Oklahoma, fell in love with it and I’m happy with the decision.”
George’s decision represents a crossroads for both the Thunder and Lakers. Had George left Oklahoma City, Westbrook would have been stuck in a frustrating déjà vu, forced to carry an undermanned roster like he did following Durant’s 2016 exit.
Had George joined the Lakers, he would have been an ideal running mate for LeBron James and, possibly, a lever to help compel a Kawhi Leonard trade. Instead, LA’s dream for an ultra-versatile “Big 3” has been reduced to a Big 1, with Leonard traded to the Raptors and James left surrounded by youngsters and one-year rentals.
“I’m a family man now,” the 28-year-old George said of his decision. “I don’t need no distractions, I don’t need no big cities, no big lights, at this point in my career. For as beautiful as Oklahoma is, it doesn’t have big lights and none of that. But that’s fine. … I’m a low-maintenance, low-key, chill guy. I’m not out in the streets, I’m not out in the club, at parties, I’m not really at movie premieres. After games, after practice, I’m home, I’m with my kids, I’m with my girl, and I’m chilling.”
Central to his decision-making, George said, was Thunder GM Sam Presti’s aggressiveness. Last summer, Presti traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana without knowing whether George would re-sign in Oklahoma City. The initial trade was supplemented by a welcome party and a sustained recruitment.
Everyone wants to be loved, but George sounded impressed that Presti is “still being aggressive in trades, still pulling strings, still making deals happen” this summer. Last week, Oklahoma City traded Anthony, who was unhappy with his offensive role, to Atlanta for point guard Dennis Schroder.
After losing to the Jazz in the first round, the Thunder should enter the 2018-19 season with improved depth and fewer distractions. Anthony’s departure figures to be addition by subtraction given his poor fit, and OKC’s second-unit received a boost with the acquisitions of Schroder and center Nerlens Noel.
“As much as I loved playing with ‘Melo and having ‘Melo alongside us, I get the decision on both sides,” George said. “I understand the decision on both sides. It just didn’t work. It didn’t work.”
While George was often squeezed on both sides by Westbrook and Anthony—two natural-born scorers—his partnership with Westbrook now has more room to blossom. What’s more, the two stars won’t face nonstop questions about their future; Westbrook is under contract through at least 2022 and George is inked through at least 2021.
George said that his somewhat surprising decision to commit to the Thunder for at least three seasons—rather than taking a shorter contract—was motivated by the “assurance” that a long-term deal provides. He didn’t appear to give the Lakers much serious consideration, suggesting instead that he would have regretted his unfinished business if he had left the Thunder after just one year.
“My feelings for the Lakers are the same. I love the organization, I love the history, I love the legacy,” George said. “But being around Sam, being around Russ, being around [coach] Billy [Donovan], [Andre Roberson], Steven [Adams], I gained a brotherhood. [Giving that group only] one year just didn’t sit well with me. I went to war, I went to battle, we made the playoffs, we were in the hunt, and we stuck together all year long. You never heard of any turmoil, no matter how we played, in the locker room. We built a real brotherhood there and I didn’t want to walk away from that.”
Now that their partnership is solidified, Westbrook and George must turn their attention to the Western Conference’s crowded championship chase. After finishing with 48 wins and the No. 4 seed last year, the Thunder are positioned to take a step forward in 2018-19. The Rockets lost a pair of key supporting pieces in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. The Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard and the Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins. The Blazers, Jazz and Timberwolves made no major acquisitions. The Lakers landed James but failed to assemble a Superteam around him. Of course, the Warriors—who inked Cousins—are a different story.
Although their first-round loss to the Jazz was embarrassing, the Thunder can reasonably aspire to make the 2019 Western Conference finals. Golden State looms as a prohibitive favorite in a postseason match-up against Oklahoma City, but that says more about the defending champs than it does about the Thunder. While a partnership with James in LA would have been more glamorous, Oklahoma City gives George a similar shot at knocking off Golden State next year and beyond.
“It’s always been a battle to play the Warriors,” George said. “That hasn’t changed. That’s not going to change. We’ve just got to prepare for it and, when the time comes, be ready for it. They’re a team that’s poised with a championship pedigree. They know what it takes. They’ve been together for years. Our work is cut out for us. That’s obvious.”