Paul George's Decision Brings Unlikely Validation to Russell Westbrook, Thunder

Jon Hamm@@JonMHammOklahoma City Thunder Lead WriterJuly 1, 2018

Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George, right, and Russell Westbrook during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

With four words spoken by Paul George at a private party outside of Oklahoma City on Saturday night, the Thunder's wayward ship was righted.

"I'm here to stay," he said, via Gabe Ikard of the Franchise Sports.

There will be no move to his native Los Angeles area, as was heavily speculated for the past 365 days. There will be no return to free agency next summer, as he's reportedly agreed to a four-year deal worth $137 million, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski (via ESPN.com's Royce Young).

Paul George chose the Thunder and Russell Westbrook over the Los Angeles Lakers and (maybe) LeBron James.

To the outside world, the move appeared beyond unlikely. And to an extent, that's true. One year ago, Oklahoma City looked like a pit stop in George's NBA career. In the eyes of many, the Thunder were merely borrowing George for a year before he set up shop with the Lakers.

That fate seemed even more certain after the Thunder bowed out in the first round of the playoffs to the Utah Jazz. But that was outside observation, a product of people applying their own sensibilities and buying in to groupthink. George took to the city and the organization and may have decided to stay sooner than anyone realized.

George's commitment was a win on multiple levels. For the community, it was a clapback at those who think there's little life or civilization in OKC. For Thunder ownership, it was an enormous "told you so" to those who said they'd never spend enough. For Sam Presti, it was a coup.

It was also a much-needed win for Westbrook. The Thunder star has been painted—fairly and unfairly—in a negative light. Kevin Durant's departure led to the conclusion that star players didn't want to play alongside Westbrook, who's been accused of preventing teammates from reaching their full potential. His public persona and on-court temperament aren't endearing.

Yet it was Westbrook who led the charge in the yearlong recruitment of his fellow Southern Californian, according to a source. After the season, Westbrook went paintballing with George, which he shared in an Instagram post. George and his family also attended a birthday party for Noah Westbrook, the one-year-old son of Russell and Nina Westbrook.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Offseason activities. Russ and PG getting ready to go paintballing (via @russwest44) https://t.co/3LeydtuQoc

Narratives will continue to burn like trash in a barrel, but Westbrook now has a fire extinguisher.

Those same narratives about the Thunder ownership will flare up as well. But this move was, as described by a team source, a continuation of a long-term plan laid out years ago. The blueprint all along was to save tax dollars—to stave off the repeater tax the Thunder now face—and spend big when Westbrook and Durant hit their primes. The plan moved on with George instead of Durant.

Still, it's fair to ask why George would return to a team that disappointed last season. Internally, the Thunder saw a lot of promise during a 29-game stretch from Dec. 1 to Jan. 27—the day guard Andre Roberson was lost for the season with a ruptured patellar tendon. They went 21-8 with impressive home wins over the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors during that stretch.

Yet the Thunder also lost to the likes of the Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns in that span. That illustrates what was perhaps Oklahoma City's largest issue last season after an 8-12 start: a lack of focus. A sense of entitlement seemed to grow with every win over a top team, and that cost the Thunder in the end. But it's a fixable issue.

George clicked with Westbrook, the star player he never was paired with in Indiana. George knocked down 40.1 percent of his three-point attempts and was a menace defensively with Roberson by his side. Add center Steven Adams, and the Thunder have, on paper, a trio that compares favorably with the Rockets' combo of James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela.

More work is needed to flesh out the roster. Lost in the George hysteria was that OKC reportedly also agreed to lock up reserve forward Jerami Grant to a three-year deal, per Wojnarowski. Raymond Felton and Corey Brewer should be due for visits next. The Thunder are also reportedly looking for a backup center and may be able to snag a useful veteran on a minimum-salary deal.

Notably absent from all the festivities was Carmelo Anthony. As it stands, the Thunder are facing a luxury-tax bill in excess of $130 million thanks to stiffer repeater penalties. Some trimming around the edges—like releasing disappointing swingman Kyle Singler and stretching his $5.0 million salary—could bring that number down. But Melo's presence and his $27.9 million salary is the next Rubik's Cube for Presti to solve.

Anthony still holds a no-trade clause, per Basketball Insiders, which gives him a lot of power over the situation. He was not unhappy enough to walk away, yet he doesn't feel like a part of OKC's plans anymore. The roster isn't deep enough for the Thunder to afford paying Anthony to go away. Yet reducing Anthony's guaranteed salary and stretching it over three seasons could save tens of millions of dollars.

It's a situation that might linger all summer, much like a similar one did with Anthony and the Knicks last summer.

OKC still has its taxpayer's mid-level exception, worth $5.3 million. It may be able to justify buying out Anthony if it can land a high-level player in this tight free-agent market.

The Thunder now need to reward George's faith in them. The Golden State Warriors remain an indomitable presence that puts a damper on many teams' title chances. The first step for David to slay Goliath is done, but many more remain.