NBA executives are just as stunned as you are that the Pacers traded Paul George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Seconds after the trade broke, one agent texted me nine consecutive tears-of-joy emoji. Front offices top to bottom are often huddled together at the start of free agency, doing their best to strategize their team’s future — when the news of the trade broke, one Eastern Conference war room erupted in one collective "WHAAAAAAAATTTT????!!" A Western Conference front-office executive said, "There were at least three or four teams that had objectively better offers."
What were those "objectively" better offers? Two league sources said Indiana’s demand was "two starters and three picks." The Celtics and Nuggets were two of the teams making strong pushes for George, per multiple league front-office sources, while the Cavaliers were likely one of the others. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported the Celtics were offering Jae Crowder and another starter, with three other first-round picks, which aligns with the outlined trade structure above. The Nuggets reportedly put together a "monster" package for George at the deadline, and most recently had put Emmanuel Mudiay on the table, per one league source. It’s unclear if Gary Harris was a piece involved in talks, or which picks were included. Never mind the asset-rich offers the Pacers were reportedly fielding — are Oladipo and Sabonis really any better than Cleveland’s proposed offer of Kevin Love?
"I guess they think Sabonis is good," texted one executive, which sounds reductive, but it explains everything. Indiana may have had better offers in the eyes of you, and me, and everyone else on the planet. But their perception is all that matters to them when it comes to decision-making. They might perceive Oladipo as a potential franchise guard and Sabonis as a player with superb potential playing alongside Myles Turner. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure; think about the past two superstar deals we saw.
Remember Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé viewing Buddy Hield as the next Stephen Curry? Sacramento valued Hield more than any other asset it was being offered for DeMarcus Cousins, so the Kings took Hield, sources told me at the time. The Bulls clearly saw something in Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and/or Lauri Markkanen for them to trade away Jimmy Butler. The case must be the same for the Pacers. Other teams had what I, and people around the league, consider better offers, including the Celtics and Nuggets, at least. I view Oladipo as a sixth man and Sabonis as a rotation big, but they must see something more.
Shit, let’s be real here. They have to be seeing something more here. You’ll notice something conspicuously absent from the trade details: Indiana didn’t even get a friggin’ draft pick. Just one week after Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard said, "We’re not gonna take any bad deals," Pritchard essentially assumed the role of the goofball in your fantasy football league who asks for the world for his star wide receiver, then ends up trading him for a backup tight end and a kicker.
It’s hard to fathom the Pacers couldn’t even get a measly second-rounder out of the deal. Sam Presti must be doing cartwheels. He flipped Serge Ibaka last year for Oladipo and Sabonis (and Ersan Ilyasova). One year later, that same tandem is flipped for George, one of the league’s great forwards. There is no risk for Oklahoma City. Oladipo is a perfectly fine player — he can defend, he can play some point, he can get buckets. He’s nice. He’s nothing special. He’s also getting massively overpaid, at $21 million annually over the next four years. Sabonis will be a productive player for a long time: He’s smart and he plays his ass off. But he’s also a step slow defending on the perimeter, and his shooting has yet to translate to NBA 3-point distance — after shooting 44.4 percent from 3 over his first 30 games, then converting a pathetic 21.8 percent in his remaining 51 games.
Oladipo and Sabonis weren’t going anywhere. Indiana could’ve held off on a deal, which is exactly what I was expecting. It’s hard to make sense of the timing. Pritchard seemed to have leverage — one of the executives I talked to after the deal thought so, too. After the draft, Pritchard detailed how they had multiple acceptable offers on the table, but they wanted to stay patient. I thought he was waiting to hold the Celtics over a barrel, knowing they might’ve needed George to land Hayward, or maybe for the Lakers to parachute into trade talks. They at least had options, whether the plan was to improve in the short term or long term.
"You know, right now there’s enough on the board that we feel good about that we could pull the trigger at any time," Pritchard said last week after the NBA draft. Every league source I’ve spoken to raved about how Pritchard managed to create leverage out of thin air for a player who everyone thinks is going to the Lakers one year from now. One agent remarked how there were so many different variations of trades on the table that the one he took would depend on the dominoes that fell in free agency. In a league where Cousins and Butler were dealt for what was perceived as low value, it seemed like Pritchard was about to pull out a masterpiece return for George. What the hell happened?
We’ll find out more over the coming days. In the meantime, the Thunder just got a gift from the basketball gods and the Pacers are happily jogging on the treadmill of mediocrity.
All 28 other teams are wondering what’s going to happen next. The Western Conference is stacked more than ever, while the Eastern Conference is a barren wasteland, open for any team to take the crown if the Cavaliers slip even a little bit. If Utah’s main selling point to Gordon Hayward was to run it back and make another run, with a reloaded roster, suddenly their hopes are looking quite low. The East provides an easier path, and Hayward will be meeting with both Boston and Miami over the weekend. The Celtics are built to win for many years, with their mix of youth and veterans, while the Heat are a piece away from being really freaking great. One agent told me that Miami was a real threat, and might have the edge over Boston.
Two sources believe that Oklahoma City’s acquisition of George likely assures that Russell Westbrook will sign the five-year designated player veteran extension, which aligns with what ESPN’s Royce Young reported earlier this week. Young added on SportsCenter, "Westbrook gave a mandate that he wanted to see the team improve." He got it with George — at least for this season, since it’s uncertain if George will reup next summer. Other teams vying for a George trade also felt that he could be won over after a year of making a deep playoff run. The Thunder aren’t done trying to make moves — not when the immediate futures of two top-15 players are entirely dependent on next season’s result. We’ll see if Presti has anything left up his sleeves.
Man, this freaking league. Take a breath, get some sleep, and get ready: We’re just getting started.