Renting Paul George Was Worth It, Even if He Ducks Out

Sam Presti, the Gambler, pulled a shocker in the summer of 2017 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 were never All-Stars, and then traded Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo, and then signed Oladipo to a ridiculous four year deal,  and then traded Oladipo to Indiana for Paul George, and then watched Oladipo become an All-Star, has drawn a line in the sand. He is gambling that George loves playing with Westbrook, and loves OKC, and loves everything about the culture.  He had this same kind of calculus and it blew up in his face when Durant walked out. Could George repeat history?

There is good Paul George and there is bad Paul George. The latter has to do with the situation, the former has to do with the player.

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 wanted to be in 2018 when he is a free agent is Los Angeles. He absolutely would 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 in 2016-17.  Around December (2016), 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.

A Star Everywhere Points FG% 3-Point% Offensive Rating Defensive Rating
Pacers Paul George 18.1 43.2% 37.0% 107 101
Thunder Paul George 22,6 44.8% 43.1% 114 105

He is the third best small forward in the league after LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He is the best two-way player. 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. This year, he is a dominant three point shooter and he is dominating the league in steals. He got better. Paul George has improved.

It’s why his choice this summer is so critical, more so for the Thunder than the Lakers. If George stays put, the Lakers will continue developing their young guys. Without George, the Thunder have to squeeze every ounce of oyxgen out of Westbrook.

Westbrook can count on George to take and make open shots. He spaces the floor. Being second chair was new to him but he has made it work.

Even with George, the Thunder are not at the level of the Rockets who have professional shooters all over the court and a system that elevates them. The Thunder’s second tier bunch can’t do much. But the Thunder  will be a top-4 seed when everything is said and done. They have played the Warriors well and may face them in the second round. Would anyone be shocked at an upset? Not when one team has Carmelo, Russ and PG.

It’s what Sam Presti was thinking. The Thunder have the talent for an upset.  But will the 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 six 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.

This is not a business for the timid, for those who fear change.

With that as his identity, almost two years ago, Presti presumed trading Serge Ibaka for Victor Oladipo would provide more offense for the Thunder. But Oladipo couldn’t change Oladipo when he didn’t have to change Oladipo. Neither his leadership nor his ho-hum game allowed him to thrive when Westbrook was off the court. He wasn’t skilled enough yet, wasn’t versatile enough, didn’t have expectations hitting him in the face with Westbrook to cover up his flaws. Oladipo had mind numbing dunks and the Westbrook tutorial. He had to leave OKC to thrive. For all the haters who didn’t understand Presti overpaying Oladipo, a contract that was paralyzing, look at him now, an All-Star.  Sam Presti was right.

If the worst thing happens and George is impressed by OKC but wants to go home, the Thunder have cap room. Its not a consolation prize but it will have to do.

We know though, it’s never over for the Thunder. Sam Presti has their back.

 

photo via llananba