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Are We Sure … the Thunder Didn’t Win the Paul George Trade?

For the first time in a decade, OKC isn’t in immediate postseason contention. But that may be exactly what this franchise needs in the long run.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Today’s question: Are we sure the Thunder didn’t win the Paul George trade?

The Thunder operate in survival mode. “Reactive” might best describe general manager Sam Presti’s front office. Often—like in the trade that brought Paul George to Oklahoma City, and then again in the trade that sent him to Los Angeles—being reactive is beneficial. Presti has the ability to recognize a changing situation and quickly adapt. Other times—such as the infamous James Harden trade—it’s an impediment. A long tally of quick reactions led Oklahoma City here: Season 1 of a rebuild.

Until this summer, every survival-mode move was made to keep the team in contention for a title. The Thunder were on that path when Kevin Durant left in 2016, following a Western Conference finals appearance. Presti tried to breathe in new life that summer by acquiring Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. It took only one year to dub the experiment a failure. Dipo and Sabonis were flipped, Paul George was tried on for size, and, in 2018, he re-signed with Oklahoma City on a four-year, $137 million deal. The Thunder had continued along their path.

George’s trade request in July was sudden and shocking and quite Thunderesque. No one suspected that OKC would win the original PG-13 sweepstakes back in 2017, and few thought he’d re-sign the following year. So his asking to leave is hardly the most surprising moment of George’s tenure in blue and orange. But to change course one year into a contract renewal is, well, highly reactive. OKC reacted in turn and, within a week, dealt both George and Russell Westbrook to contenders. For the first time in almost a decade, the Thunder are no longer on the path to contention. Maybe, if we’re being brutally honest, they haven’t been since Durant left. Now there is no doubt.

On the surface, this looks like a major step back—a huge dent for the franchise. But are we sure it’s a bad thing for the Thunder to take a step back now if it means taking two—or three or four or five—steps forward in the future?

Without Durant, Westbrook failed to pass the first round of the playoffs for three consecutive postseasons—including two in which he had George by his side. It’s easy to say Westbrook failed, and to forget that he won the MVP award in 2017 and convinced George to re-sign. But Westbrook was only ever himself—it shouldn’t be a surprise that he wasn’t enough to propel the team to championship contention.

Dealing George and Westbrook gives Oklahoma City an opportunity to truly begin again. It even all went down without any ugliness: Westbrook’s camp agreed that parting would be mutually beneficial, whereas before, trying to shop Westbrook would’ve been a betrayal of the son who stayed. Symbolically, he had been untouchable. (Monetarily, also, he became nearly untouchable following his supermax deal.) For what it’s worth, the Houston Chronicle reported that Westbrook approached the organization about a trade after the Thunder were eliminated in the playoffs, before George did. And so two unhappy superstars turned into gallons of assets.

For George, the Clippers sent Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and a record number of picks: unprotected firsts in 2021 (via Miami), 2022, 2024, and 2026, a protected first in 2023 (also via Miami), and pick swaps in 2023 and 2025. (A brief reminder of how OKC got here: Serge Ibaka was dealt for Dipo and co.; Dipo and co. were dealt for George; George was dealt for this plethora of picks. There should be an Ibaka statue outside of Chesapeake.) The Thunder began to clean up elsewhere. For Jerami Grant, traded two days after George’s deal was originally reported, the Nuggets sent their 2020 first-round pick, top-10 protected. For Westbrook, traded three days after Grant, the Rockets sent Chris Paul, two protected firsts in 2024 and 2026, and two protected pick swaps, in 2021 and 2025.

Essentially, the Thunder possess at least one additional first-round pick or pick swap in every draft until 2026. Twenty-twenty-six! The team may have to learn to cook again, but the pantry’s stocked. Even then, the idea that OKC is starting its rebuild at ground zero is untrue. Players from the Westbrook-KD teams live on, like Steven Adams and Andre Roberson. Last year’s team carries over veteran experience in Dennis Schröder and new energy in Terrance Ferguson. All of those players will become appealing assets at the trade deadline—though it’s not like OKC needs any more picks. Depending on injuries and budgets this season, that could be true for new additions Paul and Gallo, as well.

SGA should be celebrated in his own category. The versatile guard is a real, physical person for fans to latch onto. Which, knowing Oklahoma City’s fan base, is what they relish most. After years of defending Westbrook (sometimes endearingly, sometimes quite ruthlessly), they need a new player to channel that love toward. Gilgeous-Alexander, 21, is tailor-made for any fan base eager to recongregate as hype people. Even as a starter for the Clippers last season, he flew slightly under the radar despite being very fun to watch. He proved capable in isolation, pick-and-rolls, and from the 3-point line—SGA shot 43.8 percent from the perimeter after the All-Star break. Picks are great. Waiting for them to materialize into rookies can be hell.

Suddenly, the Thunder have a clearing ahead. For once, they don’t have to rush it.