'We're Still Figuring It Out': Will Early Struggles Push OKC to Trade George?

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IDecember 19, 2017

Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George, right, looks on from the bench with Carmelo Anthony, left, during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017, in Philadelphia. The Thunder won 119-117 in triple overtime. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Chris Szagola/Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Paul George stood on the court at the Wells Fargo Center last Friday and sized up every question as though it were a shot opportunity in this new-look, sub-par-results Oklahoma City Thunder offense.

But he handled the questions much better than he or anyone else in a Thunder uniform has handled those looks at the basket so far.

"With the talent we have, we don't want to just be getting by," George said, in the midst of an eventful, emotional and potentially pivotal road trip for the franchise. "We want to start building towards being a dominant team."

And then came the question that had to be asked, given the Thunder's shooting woes, flirtatious relationship with the .500 mark and the bold gamble the organization took when it decided to pair George with fellow stars Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony this season:

"How?"

"We're still figuring it out," George said.

In the city that coined the term "Trust the process," the Thunder found themselves confronting a similar dilemma this past weekend.

After reeling off a win in George's homecoming in Indiana, the Thunder worked into triple overtime to leave Philadelphia with a rousing 119-117 victory. But as it has so many times already this season, the momentum didn't last. Under 24 hours later, OKC fell to a Knicks team missing Kristaps Porzingis, thanks in part to a 5-for-18 shooting performance from Carmelo Anthony in his return to Madison Square Garden.

Yet despite his still-commanding presence, Anthony is not the root cause of the Thunder's concern surrounding its present or future. The real issue is George and his future. And the longer the team's struggles endure, the more likely the Thunder will have to confront that—whether they like it or not.

The new-look Thunder have not been more than a game over .500 all season.
The new-look Thunder have not been more than a game over .500 all season.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

"It's a three-man circus," a Western Conference executive told Bleacher Report. "They don't play well together. There's no ball movement, no chemistry. You can tell by watching them play, it's out of sync. There's no rhyme or rhythm to how they play."

No joy, either.

"George has got to be frustrated," the executive said. "You can tell by the way he's playing. He's not playing with any enthusiasm, not playing with any spunk. He's kind of playing like a second or third wheel out there."

George, 27, was booed mercilessly last Wednesday night in Indiana, where he spent the first seven years of his career. It made no sense, really, because George—having realized it was time for a changegave Pacers executives Larry Bird and Kevin Pritchard the courtesy of letting them know what he was thinking about his impending free agency. Armed with the knowledge that George would likely leave in 2018, the Pacers were able to trade him for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, rather than lose him for nothing.

Barely two regular-season months into his OKC tenure, George hasn't been able to mesh with Westbrook and Anthony, and the team is 15-15 and on the fringe of the playoff picture. So as rival teams begin wondering if George could be available at the trade deadline if the Thunder's struggles continue, there's something else worth wondering: If George concludes that his Oklahoma City experience will be one-and-done, will he be inclined to give the Thunder the same kind of heads up?

"Well, I think this is a different scenario because it's our only year together as far as we're on one-year contracts," George told Bleacher Report. "I want to put everything into this and see where that takes us. I'm not giving up; I'm not giving in. I want to give this thing everything I have and we'll see where it goes."

Paul George is shooting below 41 percent from the field this season, the worst mark of his career.
Paul George is shooting below 41 percent from the field this season, the worst mark of his career.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press/Associated Press

George is right about himself and Anthony, 33, being on one-year deals; each has a player option for the 2018-19 season. Westbrook, 29, signed a five-year, $205 million extension in September that keeps him under contract until 2022-23.

"We all enjoy playing with one another," George told B/R. "This could possibly be me being here for multiple years. But ... I'm not going to just throw it in and be like, 'No, I'm done with this.' We've got a long, long, long season ahead of us. And I'm committed to that."

According to a league source with knowledge of the team's thinking, the Thunder were under no delusions that George was committing to anything beyond this season when they shipped Oladipo and Sabonisproducts of the Serge Ibaka trade with Orlandoto Indiana for the four-time All-Star. Furthermore, the source said, the team has shown no inclination to entertain trade discussions.

Despite outward appearances, team leadership insists the chemistry has been great—that Westbrook, George and Anthony have all embraced the change and sacrifice they'll have to undergo for this hastily assembled Big Three to work.

"They're willing to work and they're willing to sacrifice and they know that they have to change," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "And I think that change sometimes is difficult. It's difficult, it's challenging, it's new. … But I think for the way we need to play to maximize our team, we're going to have to move the ball, share the ball, and that's been a little bit different for most of these guys."

George and Anthony are cut from the same cloth, having spent the bulk of their careers as the undisputed No. 1 options on their respective teams. Westbrook is adept at sharing the spotlightand the glorywith one other star, that being Kevin Durant. But he's never had to play nice with two other ball-dominant stars.

"For us three, it's learning to play off the ball and learning to space and do all the little things," George told B/R. "We have to learn and try to figure out. It's a big sacrifice when you're used to running an offense, when you're used to knowing where your shots are going to come. We're so used to dictating games and manipulating games with the ball in our hands. We've got to figure out how to do it now without the ball and how to help your teammates without the ball. It's a learning experience."

The results so far have been uninspiring. All three stars have the worst field-goal percentages of their careers by sizable margins. This is at once an indictment of a possibly ill-fitting puzzle and something the Thunder can view optimistically as an aberration. Three players with that much talent aren't going to shoot the ball that poorly all season.

Are they?

Though his usage rate is down, Carmelo Anthony has still taken more than 20 percent of his shots in isolation, among the highest rates in the NBA this season.
Though his usage rate is down, Carmelo Anthony has still taken more than 20 percent of his shots in isolation, among the highest rates in the NBA this season.Brandon Dill/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Carmelo played a certain way with certain players in New York for seven years," Donovan said. "Paul played the same way for seven years. For Russell, it's been 10 years here. And now, you bring these players together and now you're taking [away] what's made them successful in who they are. … But when you talk about jelling and meshing and becoming a team, there are certain things that you have to do to become the kind of team you want to become. And they're probably a little bit different than what some of those guys have maybe done in the past."

The natural inclination is to point the finger at Anthony, whose reputation as a ball-stopping solo act preceded him. But Anthony has hoisted up 20-plus field-goal attempts only six times all season, and his 24.3 usage rating is the lowest of his career, according to NBA.com.

"He's told those guys, 'You're going to carry the majority of the water,'" a person familiar with the team's dynamics told B/R. "He's content to pick up the scraps."

Still, Anthony ranks seventh in the league with 22.2 percent of his shots coming in isolation, according to NBA.com. Making matters worse, he's producing only 0.84 points per possession on those opportunities while shooting 40.6 percent. That's not what GM Sam Presti had in mind when he put this band together.

Once Durant left, the pressure on Presti was immense to surround Westbrook with multiple stars so he would feel good about signing that record extension. But was it too much change all at once?

"I think they messed with the chemistry too much," the Western Conference executive said. "They probably would've been fine with just George and Westbrook and some role players."

With such a departure from Presti's typical long-view approach, don't hold your breath for him to panic and pull the plug on this Big Three experiment. In a stretch with seven of eight games at home through New Year's Eve, there's a chance to settle in, resurrect deflated shooting percentages and take some of the pressure off.

But the NBA calendar is unforgiving. With virtually all players in the league now trade-eligible, rival teams will be sniffing around to find out what it would take to entice Presti to hit the reset button, rather than risk losing George as a free agent.

Despite having one of the best defenses in the league, the Thunder's dysfunction on offense has left a lot of people in Oklahoma City looking for answers.
Despite having one of the best defenses in the league, the Thunder's dysfunction on offense has left a lot of people in Oklahoma City looking for answers.Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

It's a possibility that George isn't yet ready to entertain.

"We're going to turn this season around and we're going to start playing the right way," he told B/R. "I'm sure late in the season, in April and May, we'll be happy where we're at."

But the real question is: Will George be happy where he's at? That's what makes the Thunder's gamble, and their season, so fascinating.

   

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA. 

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