It’s what we all expected two years ago: Paul George, a two-way game-changer in his prime, formed a superstar tandem with a former Most Valuable Player to lead a team toward the top of the Western Conference standings and into title contention. It just wasn’t supposed to be this team.
When George takes the court at Staples Center on Wednesday, he’ll do so as a visitor, lining up for the Oklahoma City Thunder against the Los Angeles Lakers. That wasn’t how it seemed like things would shake out in February 2017, when the Indiana Pacers began “gauging the trade market” for George, seeing what they could get for a four-time All-Star whose sights were reportedly set on joining the Lakers once he reached free agency in the summer of 2018.
The Pacers stood pat at the 2017 trade deadline, but George — a native of Palmdale, California, about an hour northeast of L.A. — reportedly remained “hell-bent on heading for Laker Land.” He indicated interest after the season, too, with his representation reportedly informing the Pacers he’d opt out of the final year of his contract so he could head west. From that situation, Indiana managed to make lemonade, flipping its best player to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, because getting a pair of recent lottery picks/somewhat distressed assets was better than watching George go to L.A. and having nothing to show for it.
The deal worked out pretty damn well for the Pacers, who landed last season’s Most Improved Player, and maybe this season’s, too. It hasn’t been half-bad for OKC, either, because as it turned out, George wasn’t that hell-bent on L.A. Thunder general manager Sam Presti bet that the organization’s cultural and competitive bona fides were strong enough to convince George to re-up rather than relocate. And despite an up-and-down 48-34 season and first-round postseason exit in Year 1, that’s exactly what George did, inking a four-year, $137 million contract at the opening of free agency to stay put.
You can understand why the Lakers might not really be sweating the way the summer turned out; as head coach Luke Walton told reporters Tuesday. “We’re very happy we have LeBron James on our team.” (To say nothing of the fact that, with all their potential trade assets still intact and another max-salary slot available, the Lakers could be targeting even bigger fish than PG come this summer.) But watching George shine so brightly alongside Russell Westbrook as the Lakers continue to search for a reliable second option, it’s hard not to feel staggered by the fact that George never even took a meeting with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka.
“I felt really good where I was at,” George told Sam Amick this summer. “I felt I was in a good place with Oklahoma.”
He’s in an even better one now. With his future secure and his spot alongside Westbrook in OKC’s pecking order firmly entrenched, George is playing the best basketball of his career. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 2.2 steals per game, all career highs. He’s turning in the second-highest effective field goal and true shooting percentages of his career and turning the ball over less frequently than ever despite shouldering a larger offensive load in his second season in Oklahoma City.
At first, George took on that playmaking burden because he had to, with offensive focal point Westbrook missing the start of the season while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and six more games due to a nasty ankle sprain. The shift in offensive balance has remained in place even since Westbrook’s return, though, in part because Russ can’t shoot straight right now, and in part because George’s dark-horse MVP candidacy has earned him a larger slice of the pie.
The Thunder enter Wednesday at 23-13, a game and a half behind first-place Denver in the West and 2.5 up on the Lakers. They’ve weathered Westbrook’s injuries and struggles, and a persistent lack of long-range shooting, thanks to a suffocating defense, built largely around George’s length and versatility, that ranks first in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Oklahoma City forces turnovers on a higher share of opponents’ possessions than any other team in the league, with George (who tops the NBA in total steals and is second in deflections) and Westbrook (who leads qualified players in steals and deflections per game) providing a voracious first line of defense on the perimeter.
Westbrook deserves praise for cranking up his defensive intensity along with his customary glass-cleaning and table-setting to try to make up for his shot-making deficiencies thus far. And George might deserve some credit, too: As he recently told Amick, “I asked Russ at the start of this year if he had an all-Defensive Team [selection] yet, and he said, ‘No.’ And of course, my answer to that was, ‘Why not?’”
It was a little bit of a dig and a tweak, a play on Westbrook’s preferred catchphrase. But it was also a call to arms, the kind of thing you feel empowered to do because you’ve spent time developing a relationship with somebody and because you’ve solidified your standing within the organizational structure. That Westbrook has responded to George’s rejoinder and emergence not by bristling at sharing the spotlight, but by both stepping back (Russ’s usage rate hasn’t been this low in nine seasons) and digging in (he ranks sixth among point guards in defensive real plus-minus, which would be his best finish since ESPN introduced the statistic in 2013), offers an indication of the strength of their partnership, and of the spot George occupies within Oklahoma City’s hierarchy. It’s a little window into what won George over during his season-long recruiting visit to OKC.
“Everything just felt comfortable,” he told Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated before the season. “I felt at ease. I felt I belonged.”
Maybe he would’ve felt like that as a Laker, too, given the chance. George has made it clear in multiple interviews that his desire to play in L.A. wasn’t just a fabricated sideshow, going so far as to tell Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated that, “had [the Thunder] trade never [gone] down, had I played one more year in Indy, I would have been in a Lakers uniform.” Maybe he wouldn’t; not everybody seems to be leaping at the chance to link up with LeBron these days. Maybe the Lakers should’ve struck while the iron was hot, taking the All-NBA player they could have had at the moment rather than waiting for a shot at another down the line. Or maybe Magic will really pull it off, and the Lakers will land Anthony Davis, or Kevin Durant, or Kawhi Leonard in July to pair with LeBron, and all parties will move on feeling OK about how it all played out.
Whatever your preferred hypothetical, George seems content with his here-and-now reality. What might have been doesn’t matter quite so much when you’ve already got what you want, and you don’t have to miss going home when you’ve found a new one that might suit you even better.