The Thunder just pulled a rabbit out of their hat. They turned a guy who hadn’t meshed well with their franchise player (Victor Oladipo) and a rookie coming off a bad season (Domantas Sabonis) into one of the best players in the NBA, essentially flipping Serge Ibaka for Paul George. George isn’t Kevin Durant, but his game and impact are closer to KD than almost any other player’s in the league. The combination of him and Russell Westbrook gives the Thunder a one-two punch that can stack up with any in the Western Conference. Oklahoma City still has a lot of work to do, but for the first time since Durant left, there is legitimate reason to be optimistic about the future of their franchise. What comes next?
The first order of business is trying to keep both long-term. They will offer Westbrook a supermax extension worth five years and over $200 million this offseason, and he reportedly asked the Thunder to upgrade their roster to prove they could return to the ranks of championship contenders before he would sign it. If trading for George keeps the reigning MVP in Oklahoma City, then the deal was a success even if George leaves next offseason. He was available for so cheap because teams expect him to return home to Los Angeles and sign with the Lakers next summer, so no one was willing to offer much to the Pacers in a trade. The Thunder, who have Westbrook in his prime and are capped out for the foreseeable future, were one of the few teams desperate enough to gamble on being able to convince him to stay.
The fit between the two stars should be excellent. Westbrook won’t have the same offensive latitude that he had last season, when he could dribble the ball into the ground and hunt for shots at a historically unprecedented rate, but he should be willing to take a step back after winning the MVP and seeing the limitations of his one-man show. George, meanwhile, might be better suited to a role off the ball as a secondary playmaker, where his inconsistent ballhandling and decision-making won’t be as problematic as it was at times in Indiana. He’s an elite shooter (39.3 percent from 3 on 6.6 attempts per game last season) who can catch and fire coming off screens, and he provides some badly needed floor spacing, while being a more effective second option than Oladipo. The Thunder will also be much better when Westbrook comes off the floor, as they went from an offensive rating of 107.9 with him to 97.4 without him, a massive drop-off that made being anything more than an average team almost impossible.
The next priority for Oklahoma City is figuring out how much money to pay Andre Roberson, now a restricted free agent, and what role makes sense for him. Roberson is one of the best defensive players in the NBA, and the combination of him and George on the wings could be fantastic on that end of the court. However, he’s also an abysmal outside shooter who opposing teams don’t guard. One possible solution is sliding him up a position and playing him as a small-ball power forward, where his lack of an outside shot is less of an issue because he could be used as a roll man in the two-man game, instead of being asked to spot up 25-plus feet away from the basket as a wing. If Roberson is at the 4, playing between him and George could allow more one-dimensional shooters like Alex Abrines or Doug McDermott to be hidden defensively.
Oklahoma City has to find an elite shooter for the fifth spot in its starting lineup, even if that means sacrificing size at power forward. The Thunder had a massive hole at the position all season after trading Serge Ibaka, one Sabonis was not able to fill. Taj Gibson, whom they acquired at the trade deadline from the Bulls, is a solid player, but he’s not a 3-point shooter, which is a pressing need in a lineup with Westbrook, Roberson, and Steven Adams, none of whom can space the floor. George helps alleviate that problem, but his shooting won’t be enough, especially since he will also want to slash to the rim on occasion.
Other than Gibson, there aren’t many viable options at power forward on the current roster. Enes Kanter is the most talented of the bunch, but he’s an unbelievably poor defender most comfortable playing near the basket. Nick Collison is more of an assistant coach than contributor at this point in his career. The most interesting candidate is Jerami Grant, who showed flashes of potential in his first season after coming over from Philadelphia. Grant is an insane athlete with the length and quickness to match up against multiple positions on defense, and he’s a developing outside shooter who shot 37.1 percent from 3 on 1.5 attempts per game last season. Turning Grant into a consistent perimeter threat would be OKC’s best option, but given his poor free throw shooting (61.2 percent on 1.8 attempts per game), it might be unrealistic to expect him to be more than an energy big man who comes off the bench.
The Thunder are over the salary cap even before they sign Westbrook to an extension, so any other moves they make in free agency will have to come from using their exceptions, the biggest of which is worth $8.4 million per season. Signing shooters should be their biggest priority, and there are several intriguing names on the market, including classic stretch-4 types like Nikola Mirotic and Patrick Patterson, wings like C.J. Miles, Vince Carter, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Justin Holiday, and guards like Ian Clark, Kyle Korver, and Darren Collison. Bogdanovic and Mirotic are restricted free agents whose teams would probably match any offer the Thunder could make, but the others would all improve their team, and the market for them may not be that hot, especially as free agency starts to cool down by the end of the week. Oklahoma City is noticeably short on two-way players at the moment, so guys with at least some defensive chops (Miles, Holiday, Collison) would be a better fit.
Where the Thunder fall in the hierarchy of the Western Conference is still unclear, but a Big Three of Westbrook, George, and Adams, with the right pieces around them, is good enough to compete for home-court advantage in the first round and maybe reach the conference finals. Westbrook and George, meanwhile, would give them a puncher’s chance against anyone in the West outside of Golden State, since they have both proved they can take over a playoff series single-handedly. If Oklahoma City can figure out how to balance shooting and defense around their stars, they will be a dangerous team.
What no one outside of George’s camp knows is whether he can be persuaded to re-sign with the Thunder, or how deep OKC would have to advance in the playoffs to make staying in a smaller, non-coastal market appealing to him. Considering how vocal he was about playing with a title contender, a trip to the conference finals and a respectable showing against the Warriors might be enough. Winning two playoff series in the West, even if they stay out of Golden State’s side of the bracket, will be a monumental challenge, but this trade gives them a path toward relevancy, which wasn’t available last season with the limitations of the roster around Westbrook. Sam Presti now has a second chance to build a championship team around a star point guard and one of the best wings in the NBA. We will see whether he has learned from the mistakes he made last time.