Paul George is finally on the move weeks after informing the Pacers organization of his desire to change teams when his contract ends in 2018. When this saga began, he seemed a lock to land in Boston. Then he was a sure-thing for Cleveland. There was some chatter about the Wizards and some more about his hometown Lakers. But in the end he appeared to be bound for Boston after all. The Celtics made the most sense as a trade partner for the Pacers. They had the assets Indiana wanted in return for their franchise player and were seeking to add a star to a roster that had just made the Eastern Conference Finals.
It makes perfect sense, then, that George wound up in Oklahoma City in exchange for [mediocre] wing player Victor Oladipo and [sort-of-interesting] power forward Domantas Sabonis. The NBA is weird, the Pacers are unintelligible, Danny Ainge exists to frustrate his fans, and Sam Presti is a genius. The pieces were always there, we just failed to put them together.
Just like that, the Thunder are conference finals contenders again, only a year after losing their franchise cornerstone for nothing. They got a top-5 NBA talent for pennies on the dollar. This is a tremendous feat, even if George turns out to be a rental and walks to Los Angeles at the end of his contract. If the George trade convinces Westbrook to sign a designated player max-contract extension with the Thunder this summer, this move will have been a win for the team no matter what happens when it's over. For now, though, it hasn't even begun and it's exciting to think about what this will mean for a team still looking for its footing in a post-Kevin Durant life.
It's not hard to imagine what this will look like on the court. Westbrook has already spent most of his career playing alongside an extremely talented, sweet-shooting, athletic, play-making frontcourt player. Paul George isn't at Kevin Durant’s level, but when he's locked in, the distance between the two isn't quite as far as you would think. We’ve seen this before and we know what it looks like. The two stars will terrorize opponents on the break, and they’ll win a lot of games off of their sheer individual talents. The moments in which they work in tandem will be breathtaking, but if Westbrook doesn't adjust his game, those moments will be a puzzlingly few and far between.
If Westbrook’s time with Durant is any indication, making the duo work in the long run may be tough. It's going to require a lot of sacrifice from Westbrook, who is coming off an MVP season in which he posted a league-record usage rate to drag an awkward roster to a playoff berth. If he’s going to fit with George, he’ll have to give up a lot of shots and cede control when the game is on the line. The question of whether he'd be able to adjust his game to better gel with his co-star dogged him when he played alongside Durant, and how he answers those same questions will likely define how we view his time with George.
How much Westbrook is willing to sacrifice on the court will have implications not just for the upcoming season but for the very question of how long George will last in a Thunder jersey. The reports about Paul George’s Laker dreams are real, and if he doesn't like the fit playing alongside Westbrook, the Thunder may have to shop him at the trade deadline or risk losing him for nothing when he goes to Hollywood in the offseason. To keep George happy, Westbrook will have to work to fit into a team concept that transcends the I-go-now-you-go back-and-forth of the Durant years.
Remember, Durant bolted for Golden State at least in part because he tired of standing on the wing watching Westbrook wave off screens to jack bricks from the elbows. If Paul George is made to feel the same way, he’ll be good as gone in no time, and the Thunder will be back where they were when Durant moved on last summer.
If Westbrook signs the max extension and George walks, the Thunder get another shot at retooling around their franchise point guard. They made some missteps last time around—the Oladipo contract extension was an ill-advised show of faith—and if George leaves they have a chance to give it a more educated go. No matter what you think of his game, Westbrook is undeniably a star player. It's not hard to imagine what a great team built on his talents looks like. Even without George, the Thunder could be in a far worse spot than the one they could be in with Westbrook, center Steven Adams, and a mountain of cap space.
If both George and Westbrook stay, we could be looking at the makings of a bonafide contender, the kind that could even make a run at the Golden State juggernaut. They'll still be at least a player away, but the foundation for something real will be there. When Westbrook met Durant as an opponent for the first the first time this season, he approached him at half court and barked, “I’m coming! I'm coming!” Now, with Paul George at his side, maybe he really is.