I’m not sure how to feel.
On the one hand, this was the best case scenario for OKC. Gun to my head, I was willing to wager that Paul George was gone. From his non-committal responses to every single interview, his unapologetic love and hometown connection to Los Angeles, to his three-part Sportscenter series covering his free agency, who would’ve guessed that he would end up planting his flag in Oklahoma?
Without a doubt, the signing was an unquestionable W for OKC—the way Paul George low-blow betrayal-ed the Lakers WWE-style was just the Chocnut Spinkles on top. Without George, the Thunder wouldn’t even sniff the Playoffs, provided Russell Westbrook doesn’t go post-apocalyptic on the NBA all over again (it’s for the best that he doesn’t, I’m not sure my heart can take that level of stress anymore). Instead, they have not one, not two, not three, but four years of PG-13 and Westbrook in their primes.
(While we’re on the subject, let’s put the “Teammates hate playing with Russ” narrative to bed. Do you think George would choose to spend the best years of his athletic prime with a guy he didn’t 100% believe in? I don’t.)
Add in Steven Adams—a Top 5 center in the league who gets better and better with every season—and you’ve got a core that can at the very least compete with any opponent. Who knows how the ball bounces in 2019? Injuries can derail even the most dangerous of opponents and if OKC stays healthy, they have enough talent to make things interesting.
At their best last season, OKC was a menacing, suffocating force on the defensive end—smothering even the most elite of offenses. When the team struggled to utilize three, ball-dominant, number one options in the first few months, their stifling defense was enough to earn them some wins. When those shots did start to fall though? The Thunder were a nightmare. By February, they had a defensive rating of 102.9, good for 5th best in the league. The dynamic duo of George and Andre Roberson were the cornerstones of the OKC defensive onslaught, both equipped with the length and the speed to not only switch on to any opponent, but to recover the defensive lapses of Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. Their impressive (but ultimately brief and ill-fated) run culminated with a statement victory over the defending champs, with George exploding for 38 points.
And yet on the other hand, that was the best case scenario for OKC?
Having followed this team very closely since their Finals run in 2012, I can say with supreme confidence that last season was the most agonizingly painful Thunder season in franchise history. By far. At times, the team looked straight out of the early 2000s—with their insistence on pulling up from 18 feet with a defender in their grill and half a second left on the shot clock; with their refusal to run any set plays and just take turns ISOing the ball; with… just everything about Anthony. OKC basketball was grind-it-out, hairline-receding, stick-my-hands-into-my-eye-sockets basketball.
Remember just a minute ago when OKC crushed the Warriors in February? Two weeks later, the Thunder would lose to the Warriors 80-112—that score makes the game look closer than it actually was, believe it or not. Granted, OKC just lost Roberson, effectively torpedoing their defense to below league average levels. But if Andre freaking Roberson is the difference between contending and pretending in the NBA, something definitely isn’t right.
Not to mention the fact that with the signing of George and promising forward Jerami Grant, OKC is in the books for a whopping $156 million in salaries. It gets worse. That’s way, way, way over the tax limit, netting them an additional $130 million in repeater taxes—the highest tax bill in NBA history. Their taxes are higher than the actual freakin’ salary cap.
(And yes, I know what you’re gonna say. “Where was that money when they decided to trade James Harden?” You’re hilarious.)
That bill isn’t definitive yet, however. OKC can waive and stretch Carmelo Anthony’s final year of his contract over the next three years, bringing their total salary, and in effect, their tax bill down by about $91 million. Regardless of whether or not #StayMe7o stays in OKC, ownership is going to pay through the ass to keep a team that was bounced in the first round of the playoffs—to a team led by a rookie no less. Which makes me say once again: that was the best case scenario for OKC?
One thing’s for sure. Paul George thinks it’s the best case scenario for him. And whether or not it was a blatant cash grab, a refusal to team up with the guy that’s spanked him countless times in the East (hey, we can’t all take The Hardest Road), or a belief in the team they had put together, we’ll have four years to see if it actually was the right move.
Photos from Getty Images