Sam Presti, the Gambler, pulled off another shocker as NBA free agency re-shaped the Western Conference with another All-Star to make the conference that much tougher to get through. The GM who drafted Russell Westbrook as a surprise number four pick in the 2008 draft (Westbrook averaged 13 points a game at UCLA), and drafted Serge Ibaka in the same draft, and drafted James Harden the following year in 2009, and then traded James Harden for pieces that have never been All-Stars, and then traded Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, and then signed Oladipo to a ridiculous four year deal, has now traded Oladipo to Indiana for Paul George.
There is good and there is bad. Paul George is a perennial All-Star and makes any team better. He has a sweet stroke, a good feel for the game, is adept at shaking off defenses and getting the shot he wants. But he also had diminishing value because he made it clear the only place he wants to be in 2018 when he is a free agent is Los Angeles. He absolutely will not sign an extension. So Presti was in the renting a player business. Still. It was a shrewd move in an attempt to try to close the deal on Russell Westbrook who was non-committal about signing an extension. Westbrook didn’t just want a second star, he needed one. Yes, he won the MVP. But he nearly killed himself doing it.
Paul George is a star but don’t misrepresent who he is because of the adjectives. Great player doesn’t always mean Kevin Durant or LeBron James. If Paul was top-5, the Pacers would have been more, done more, and George would have made one of the All-NBA teams and stayed in Indy because of the designated player massive payday.
Frankly, George was a reluctant leader this past season . Around December, George began going rogue and complaining about everything including the officials. He had one tantrum where he accused the NBA of a conspiracy against small market teams which was to say the NBA cared so much about the Pacers they were designing stealth strategies to keep them from succeeding. It was laughable and desperate. No one cares about the Pacers enough to strategize how to stop them. After the All-Star break, he began telling friends he wanted out, he wanted to go home to L.A.
His influence as the best player on the Pacers hit rock bottom in the playoffs when he criticized teammate C.J. Miles for taking the last shot in Game 1 against the Cavaliers. George wanted the last shot for himself despite an 0-15 record on last second shots with less than 20 seconds left. His less than supportive behavior incentivized a collective eye-roll. Paul George is not Kevin Durant.
But he is an All-Star. He is the third best small forward in the league after LeBron James and Kevin Durant. His numbers last year were part of the Paul George great player bio. He made the most shots in his career, attempted the most shots, had the highest field goal percentage, was nearly a 40% three point shooter, but his free throws, both attempts and free throws made, were down. His rebounds were down and he has never been a very attentive offensive rebounder given his size and athleticism. Nor is he a shot blocker or a particularly effective playmaker.
His 23.7 points last year was a career high and his defensive rating was a career worst. Notably, Paul George has not had an offensive rating higher than 109. In contrast, Kevin Durant’s lowest offensive rating was 111. That was nine years ago. Durant has never had an offensive rating lower than 120 since the 2011-12 season. George is not the Kevin Durant replacement.
But Paul George is an effective scorer on every part of the floor. This past season he finished 62% of his shots at the rim, 48% 3-10 feet, 41% from the midrange, 48% on long twos. So he definitely fills a huge hole for the Thunder, someone Westbrook can count on to take and make open shots, a person who can be on the floor with the Thunder’s mediocre second unit and he spaces the floor. But he gets frustrated when he doesn’t get the ball when he wants it. He’s never been second chair and his idol is Kobe Bryant. So, how is this going to work?
Rest assured, the Thunder got better tonight. They still are not at the level of the Rockets who have professional shooters all over the court and a system that elevates them. It will be tough when they play the Wolves who acquired Jeff Teague to compliment Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. They vault in front of the Clippers but not the Spurs.
Sam Presti did what a GM is supposed to do. He made his team more relevant than they were the year before.
But will this gamble pay off?
The James Harden trade gamble didn’t [pay off]. In a way, an argument can be made that Sam Presti was ahead of his time. He had a Big Three first, before it was glamorous. But it was short-lived and the Thunder are still trying to figure out how to repeat that 2011-12 season. It’s been five years since a NBA Finals appearance, a long haul. But Presti cannot be faulted for making moves that can go two ways: success or failure.
You miss every shot you don’t take. This is not a business for the fearful.
With that as his identity, a year ago, give or take a few days, Presti presumed trading Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo would provide more offense for the Thunder. But Oladipo couldn’t change Oladipo; he was who he always was, average. Neither his leadership nor his ho-hum game allowed him to thrive when Westbrook was off the court. He wasn’t skilled enough, wasn’t versatile enough, despite his mind numbing dunks. Presti gambled again by overpaying him, a contract that was paralyzing. So either way it goes, George stays or bolts to La-La land, Oladipo and his money are someone else’s problem.
If the worst thing happens and George isn’t impressed by OKC, the Thunder have cap room amid a big free agent year in 2018: Chris Paul, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, Dwyane Wade.
It’s never over for the Thunder. Sam Presti has their back.
photo via llananba