Did Paul George Make the Right Call Choosing OKC, Westbrook over LeBron James?

Jon Hamm@@JonMHammOklahoma City Thunder Lead WriterJanuary 19, 2019

Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George, left, is pressure by Los Angeles Lakers' Lonzo Ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

A Western Conference coach recently mused—off the record—whether star players wanted to team up with four-time NBA MVP LeBron James. It's a fair question to ponder, especially in the wake of Paul George's decision to spurn the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency this past July and re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After his Thunder were waxed in overtime by the short-handed Lakers, George's decision to pursue titles with Russell Westbrook instead of James will be questioned again.

It appears as though George made the right call, the last several Thunder games notwithstanding—a 1-5 stretch in which the once-dominant Thunder defense has all but evaporated. But it's about more than a comparison between James and Westbrook.

Pairing up with James means winning a lot of games and the possibility of competing for a title. But he also gets all of the spotlight. And if a LeBron team comes up short, the blame rarely lands on him.

How much this factored into George's decision to remain in Oklahoma City with Westbrook is uncertain. What is known is what he's stated publicly.

"The most important thing is winning a championship," George said during a three-part ESPN series prior to entering free agency.

"Obviously, I've developed some good relationships with Russ," he said during a press conference prior to the opening of training camp. "Then just over the course of the whole season, it just steamrolled, just got better and better, and here I am."

"Here" is Oklahoma City. "There" is Los Angeles. And though George has never played for the Lakers in his career, he may always be connected to them.

        

Unwelcome response

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

When the Thunder visited the Lakers for the first time this season, L.A. fans unloaded a chorus of boos normally reserved for the likes of Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio or Kevin Durant in OKC. They were exacting revenge after he spurned the Lakers in free agency in July.

Granted, it wasn't much of a decision. He never entered the free-agent market. He never even tested the temperature of it. He announced his decision to remain with the Thunder moments after free agency began.

James didn't announce his intention to sign with the Lakers until after George made his decision. Yet it also seemed like the worst-kept secret in the league. In an NBA where players are more connected than ever, it's reasonable to presume that George made his decision knowing where James would end up.

The two stars may have successfully co-existed. The Lakers have pieced together the league's sixth-best defense to date, and George likely would have made it even more formidable. His 38.5 percent success rate from deep would be a welcome addition on a Lakers squad starved for consistent long-range shooting.

But even if George had gone to L.A., the Lakers still would unquestionably be LeBron's team. In OKC, he can have the best of both worlds: playing for a title contender and getting national respect for his work.

Ironically, eschewing the bright lights of L.A. may have allowed him to get more noticed.

         

Gaining recognition

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JANUARY 10: Paul George #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots the ball against the San Antonio Spurs on January 10, 2019 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

George may be behind Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Stephen Curry in the MVP race, but he's being recognized for impressive work that may have gotten overshadowed in Los Angeles.

"He's putting himself in good spots and he's playing the game the right way, as he always does," head coach Billy Donovan said.

During a six-game stretch without Westbrook in November, George averaged 26.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 45.5 percent from the field and nearly 39 percent from deep. That was merely a launching point.

Since Westbrook's return Nov. 19, George has averaged 28.0 points per game. He has 15 games with at least 30 points this season, more than the 11 he notched all of last season.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

George has looked far more comfortable and in control than he did a season ago, when the entire Thunder team seemed to be walking on eggshells. This season, the Thunder are a plus-6.3 with George and Westbrook on the floor together, up from a plus-4.7 last year.

"I think that was probably a big adjustment for him last year," Donovan said. "Playing with Russell, playing with Carmelo [Anthony], trying to figure it out. Now the ball is in his hands a lot, but it's not in his hands where he's always making a play."

That added familiarity is paying off for George this season. Had he joined the Lakers instead, he would have had to endure yet another season of chemistry-building with a new cast of characters. And the changes likely would have continued as the Lakers pieced together their squad around James and George.

Meanwhile, the year in OKC allowed George to figure out how to best impact the game.

"The way Paul plays, he gets points in these flurries where he can run off nine or 10 points really quick," Donovan added. "Then he just gets lost in the game in a very positive way. He just plays the game. Gets guys shots. Defense every possession."

George is averaging 2.3 steals and 3.7 deflections per game, both of which rank among the best in the NBA. He's part of a swarming Thunder defense that averages a league-high 10.3 steals per game, which makes him a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, if nothing else.

"He just likes to play the game the right way," Donovan added. "The idea of directing things at him, like, 'This is your shot' or 'We're running this play for you to shoot,' he just doesn't play like that. And I respect that."

      

Depth matters

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 02:  Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers attempts to control a rebound between Hamidou Diallo #6 and Nerlens Noel #3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 107-100 Thunder win at Staples Center on January 02, 2019
Harry How/Getty Images

There's more to consider beyond former MVP teammates.

Oklahoma City also features Steven Adams, an All-Star hopeful and one of the best centers in the league. Forward Jerami Grant has made significant year-to-year strides since OKC acquired him from Philadelphia in November 2016. Injured guard Andre Roberson was gaining Defensive Player of the Year attention before a devastating knee injury last January. Guard Dennis Schroder is perhaps the most talented backup point guard in the league.

Add in promising young role players such as Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo, and OKC has a solid core to work with. Most of that core is also signed through the 2020-21 season. If the team starts to get stale, Thunder general manager Sam Presti has shown that he's willing to get creative and swing for the fences when needed.

The Lakers also have a young core, but it's largely been propped up by James' presence. L.A. is only 5-7 since James injured a groin muscle on Christmas Day. Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart have all been good but not great, and it may be tougher than expected to package some of them for star help. L.A. also hasn't finished with a winning regular-season record since 2012-13.

Compared to the Lakers, the Thunder had more immediate, proven assets to work with. George also had a full season to see whether he enjoyed playing alongside Westbrook, which he seemingly does.

The Lakers, meanwhile, still need to figure out what they have beyond James. While L.A. is making championship blueprints, OKC's project was already well underway.

The jury is out on whether George can accomplish his championship goals with the Thunder over the next few seasons. If he comes up short, there will be a crowd in Staples Center more than happy to remind him of what could have been.

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