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The Thunder Will Keep Paul George. Now Comes the Hard Part.

Oklahoma City’s gamble trade for George paid off in a big way, but Russell Westbrook may still struggle to catch up to the two MVPs that got away

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Whatever their shortcomings, you have to give the Thunder this: They’re never boring. When Paul George didn’t pick up his player option for next season and officially became a free agent, there was cause for concern in Oklahoma City. The panic was short-lived. Before the clock even struck midnight on Saturday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that George would re-sign with the Thunder. According to Woj, it’s a four-year max contract worth $137 million with a player option on the fourth year.

Earlier Saturday afternoon, all sorts of rumors began percolating that pointed to PG staying in OKC. Marc Stein reported that George was “strongly considering a two- or three-year deal to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder.” If that wasn’t enough, an OKC barber to the stars evidently picked up PG at the airport and then instructed Thunder fans to “get ready for some great news.” Oh, and Westbrook threw a “summer hype house party” while George was in town—one attended by OKC’s front office that also gave everyone a chance to officially chat and do the deal. The Thunder gave George the hard sell—which might have been exactly what was required considering PG’s personal propaganda in the run-up.

George recently chronicled his offseason with a three-part behind-the-scenes ESPN documentary. The second episode was particularly fascinating, and featured Thunder general manager Sam Presti explaining his thinking on the matter the way executives around the league always do—by referencing A Tribe Called Quest.

During the episode, George’s agent, Aaron Mintz, mentioned how ballsy it was for Presti to trade for his client last offseason despite the fact that PG could become a free agent this summer and hadn’t given any assurances that he would stay put once he landed in OKC. Of course, Presti didn’t quite see it that way, which is when he got all Midnight Marauders on everyone.

“I’m a big A Tribe Called Quest fan,” Presti said. “There is a line that basically says, ‘Scared money don’t make none.’ I think that’s the case. […] If you expect Paul George or any player to have any confidence in you as an organization, you have to demonstrate it yourself. Scared money don’t make none.”

He gets full marks for adopting a classic line from an all-time great group, and I admire the gambler in him. But it’s also possible that whatever the opposite of scared money is—aggressive money? Bold money?—also won’t make none for the Thunder when we look back on all this. They got their man (again), but what kind of shape does that actually leave them in?

When the Thunder shipped Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana for a one-year George trial, it seemed like a pretty sweet deal for them. But then Oladipo blossomed, won the Most Improved Player of the Year award, and helped the Pacers come within one win of dispatching LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, George, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony struggled with their fit all season before the Jazz dispatched them from the first round of the playoffs in six games. Now the Thunder are just happy that George stuck around so they can take another crack at being a midlevel Western Conference team and not get knocked for throwing away a really good player in Oladipo and a useful one in Sabonis for nothing. That’s a win of sorts on the whole, but not a great one.

The Thunder will run it back with a core of Westbrook, Anthony, and George—which gets them what, exactly? OKC was 10th in offensive and defensive ratings last season, which was just good enough to push them to a fourth-place finish in the Western Conference. For George’s part, he spent a lot of time spotting up and led the team with a career-high 7.7 3-point attempts per game. George is a better-than-average shooter from distance (he’s made 37.6 percent from 3 for his career), but part of the reason he was deployed that way was because the Thunder didn’t have a ton of other options. After George, the Thunder’s best and most prolific 3-point marksman last season was Melo, who made 35.7 percent on 6.1 attempts per game. When you have George and Anthony propped up as your principal long-range shooters, you might want to question your system or your roster or both.

That system has everything to do with Westbrook, of course. Everything runs through him, as it did during the Thunder’s final game of the season, when Russ took an almost impossible 43 shots in a final playoff loss to the Jazz. By comparison, George took just 16 shots in that game. PG wasn’t very good that night—he made only two shots from the field and finished with five points, eight assists, and three rebounds—but he also wasn’t very involved. The Thunder spent all year trying to figure out how to mesh Westbrook, George, and Anthony into a quality crew—only to die yet another death on Russ Heat Check Hill.

Now that George is indeed staying with the Thunder, maybe Westbrook finally starts playing a different style and gets his teammates more involved. Maybe Anthony even softens his stance on refusing to change his game or come off the bench. Maybe the Thunder re-add Andre Roberson—they were an excellent defensive team with him in the mix—figure it all out and become real contenders. Those are big maybes, though. And trying to improve the team around those three guys won’t be easy given the fiduciary complications. Melo chose not to exercise the early-termination option on his contract, thereby setting him up to get paid a ridiculous $27.9 million in the final year of his deal. Because of course he did. Who wouldn’t in his situation? And at least we got that fantastic fuck-you photo out of it.

But by looking out for himself, Anthony further handicapped the Thunder, who are now looking at a massive luxury-tax hit that would push their total payroll to something approaching a quarter billion dollars. In addition to retaining George, the Thunder also re-signed Jerami Grant to a reported three-year deal worth $27 million. That’s no doubt a relief to OKC, because it couldn’t afford to watch Grant walk away from its already thin bench. But keeping Grant might be the best the Thunder can do in terms of putting other players around the main three guys. And when you’re excited about holding onto Grant, that says something about your situation.

How thrilled could OKC ownership possibly be about paying so much for a team that still doesn’t project as a real rival to the Warriors or Rockets even with George? Let’s not forget—and stop me if you’ve heard this one before—that this is the same franchise that killed its own budding dynasty before it had a chance to grow up when it made a late, low-ball offer to James Harden back in 2012 before ultimately trading him to the very same Houston team it’s now trying to catch up with. Now all of a sudden the Thunder are willing to burn money and pay a heavy luxury tax just to be playoff detritus again? It’s hard to imagine or justify. And this represents what the Thunder considered the best-case scenario.

But what if OKC’s worst-case scenario had happened instead? What if George had thanked the Thunder for their hospitality, packed up his things and moved to new digs? The Thunder obviously didn’t want that to happen, but it might have set them down a better path in the future even if they didn’t realize it right now.

Had George signed with another team, the Thunder would have been minus an All-Star and it wouldn’t have made their financial situation any less dire. Not counting George, the Thunder owe about $117 million in guaranteed salaries to nine players next season. With the salary cap set at $101.8 million, that would have sent OKC barrelling toward a luxury-tax hit even without PG. And without George, it would be even harder to envision the Thunder moving enough pieces into place to make a deep or serious playoff push in the Western Conference next season. Maybe they would have bought out Anthony and reallocated those funds in that hypothetical, but the Thunder would still have been in an extremely precarious position. One that perhaps would have forced them to do some difficult internal auditing.

Had George left, it might have pushed the Thunder to consider the unthinkable: blowing it all up. That’s a parallel universe that’s probably hard for Thunder fans to entertain given that the organization just re-signed George. But at some point the organization has to take a long, hard look at what it’s built and whether it was all worth it. Is it possible to build a title contender around Westbrook, who signed a five-year, $205 million extension last September? Because if it’s not—and so far we haven’t seen any signs that he can do it all by himself even though he keeps trying to—then they’ll eventually have to consider hitting a hard reset and ask around about what Russ might fetch. Not only are the Thunder handcuffed by their current cap sheet, OKC is also thin on the asset front moving forward. The Thunder have no extra incoming picks, and they owe a 2020 first-rounder to Orlando (protected 1-20). Clearing the decks and starting over wouldn’t have been easy to stomach, but it might have been the better option. The Thunder got what they wanted and retained George. But the smarter and admittedly more painful play might have been for Presti to follow the advice of a decidedly different Tribe line: “Sit back, relax, and let yourself go.”