When you can acquire Paul George for nothing more than Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, you have to get the job done. That's just a no-brainer.
It doesn't matter that George might end up departing for the Los Angeles Lakers after just one year away from the Indiana Pacers. The Oklahoma City Thunder had a chance to pair him with Russell Westbrook, and they pounced, as first reported by ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne:
Ramona Shelburne @ramonashelburne
Paul George has been traded to OKC, per sources2017-7-1 01:41:54
That was how the news broke and shocked the entire NBA-watching world. This was supposed to be the calm before the free-agency storm, and Blake Griffin had already agreed to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers. Then came the bombshell report that George was on the move, and not to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics or Lakers.
Obviously, this is a coup for the Thunder, who now boast the services of two of the league's 15 best players.
But can they coexist?
The Potential to Surround Westbrook with Defense
At this point, it's no secret Westbrook struggles on the defensive end.
He can make the occasional athletic play, but he's far more prone to watching the ball and functioning as a distinct liability. He'll wait on the perimeter before darting in for a defensive rebound to kick-start a fast-break attempt, and that can often be detrimental to Oklahoma City's overall efforts.
George's arrival could change that, and not just because he'll take charge on a number of offensive possessions and allow Westbrook to conserve more energy for two-way play.
The small forward is a legitimate defensive stud who can consistently take on tough assignments. He's capable of switching on picks to guard plenty of different positions, and he genuinely seems to pride himself on his point-preventing prowess.
Just imagine if the Thunder are also able to re-sign Andre Roberson, who's a restricted free agent this summer. It's a tough proposition given the addition of George's massive cap figure, but it's possible if they're willing to dip into the luxury tax.
They could throw out two All-Defense candidates on the wings, both of whom are capable of rotating onto point guards and power forwards alike, then leave Steven Adams to protect the hoop. Westbrook's porosity would be rendered almost irrelevant, and he'd be able to focus solely on doing his thing offensively. Even more importantly, and we're still assuming the Roberson/George combination exists, Westbrook would always be paired with a bona fide stopper.
But should the Thunder let Roberson walk and use their cap space to pursue more high-profile options, they'd still have added someone who can fill the departed swingman's defensive shoes and help on the other end.
This is where the pairing truly starts getting exciting.
An Off-Ball Weapon
Right off the bat, it's easy to assume Westbrook and George could struggle to coexist.
We all saw the give-and-take between the point guard and Kevin Durant before the latter left to join the Golden State Warriors, and it created frustrating late-game situations a bit too frequently. The Thunder were obviously still a dominant outfit, but they provided the inspiration for innumerable think pieces about the superstar tandem's feasibility.
No such concerns should exist here.
During the 2016-17 campaign, George posted a usage rate of 28.9 percent while assisting on 16.1 percent of the shots his teammates made while he was on the floor. Throughout Durant's final season in OKC, those numbers stood at 30.6 and 24.2, respectively. That's a big difference over the course of a full 82 games, and it's compounded by starkly different styles.
Durant's usage always came when he was the creator of his own looks. Over his final three years with the Thunder, he required assists on just 48.3 percent of his two-pointers and 60.6 percent of his triples. On the flip side, George has always created an even higher percentage of his twos (37.5 percent of them were assisted last year), but he's been heavily reliant on set-up passes beyond the arc. It's that comfort and willingness to serve as a spot-up threat that will work wonders with Westbrook.
We don't yet know the exact sets the Thunder will run with this tandem.
George has traditionally leaned upon the pick-and-roll—17.5 percent of his possessions saw him function as a PnR ball-handler last year, while another 2.5 percent had him rolling to the hoop—but head coach Billy Donovan will surely draw up some new looks. The specifics depend on the surrounding roster, and that's far from settled with a projected starting five, per Rotoworld, of Westbrook, Alex Abrines, George, Adams and an empty slot at power forward.
But one thing is certain: George will thrive as a spot-up shooter with Westbrook operating in drive-and-kick fashion.
No one in the NBA generated more assists per game off drives than the 2016-17 MVP, and he did so with a roster that largely struggled to make the most of his passes. Just look at how Paul George's spot-up numbers compared to last year's Oklahoma City contributors:
NBA Math @NBA_Math
Russell Westbrook might be happy when he sees how Paul George's spot-up shooting in 2016-17 compared to that of his Thunder teammates: https://t.co/S9p2RzW25T2017-7-1 04:59:37
Abrines was the only high-usage player with an above-average finish. Josh Huestis and Doug McDermott also sat in the green, but they took a combined 50 attempts.
In terms of volume and efficiency, George immediately becomes the best spot-up option on the roster. And lest we forget, he produced those numbers for the Pacers without a player like Westbrook to draw away defensive attention. Stop and think about what he might be capable of when foes compress around the rim-seeking floor general and grant him even the tiniest modicum of extra space on the perimeter.
Declining Usage Rate
Ultimately, the biggest benefit of George's presence doesn't have anything to do with X's and O's.
Westbrook wore down last season.
Under constant pressure to do the heavy lifting and compile ridiculous numbers of triple-doubles, he showed hints of fatigue. You'd never know it from casually watching him play, thanks to his inhuman stamina and indefatigable motor. But the signs were there when breaking down his shot selection. Late in games (especially during the playoffs), he stopped passing to his teammates and began jacking up ill-advised three-pointers.
What made Westbrook so special during his solo season was his ability to burst toward the hoop. Whether operating in transition or the half-court set, he was impossible to stay in front of, and he knew how to finish plays at the basket. So when he started settling for contested jumpers, that was the only indication he was willing to provide that fatigue may be setting in.
Having a running mate of George's caliber will inevitably help mitigate the tiredness. Westbrook can now afford to sit on the bench and catch his breath—a luxury granted to him rather infrequently last year, given the fact that OKC's net rating dropped by 12.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the pine.
And that's the best news of all.
George's presence alongside Westbrook should produce wonderful things for the Thunder, elevating the team's ceiling up toward that of the second-tier teams in the Western Conference (assuming the rest of free agency goes well, of course). The newfound ability to avoid a dropoff without the reigning MVP, however, might matter just as much.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.