Paul George took exactly zero meetings and wasted no time whatsoever before agreeing to a four-year max contract worth $137 million to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday morning. This went down in a fun way: Russell Westbrook left a family vacation in Hawaii to fly back to Oklahoma City and host a party for George; at this party, nine minutes before the official start of free agency, George announced to an ecstatic crowd that he would be staying in town:
George’s return to the Thunder is huge, for a number of reasons. First of all it makes the Thunder an unbelievably expensive team: George’s max deal would push OKC’s 2018-19 season payroll to a whopping $156 million, against a $101.9 million salary cap; with luxury tax and repeater tax payments factored in, the Thunder are currently set to spend an astronomical $286 million on player payroll, before they fill out the remaining slots on their roster; per Bobby Marks, that $130 million tax bill would be the largest in NBA history. And that’s to hold together the basic shape of a team that lost in six games to the Utah Jazz in the opening round of the playoffs.
George’s return reflects the expectation that a healthy Thunder core playing a second season together can accomplish more than they did in year one, an idea that’s not all that unrealistic once you remember that OKC had one of the very best five-man lineups in basketball before Andre Roberson was lost to a season-ending knee injury in late January. It also redeems the chance the Thunder took in acquiring George last offseason, when he’d made it clear his primary goal was to engineer his way onto the Lakers this summer. That declaration depressed George’s value, eventually paving the way for the Thunder to swoop in unexpectedly and grab him in a trade that cost them Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, two players the Thunder didn’t value all that highly. Sam Presti was hailed for pivoting decisively after a season without Kevin Durant, and the Pacers were roundly panned for failing to convert their best player into draft assets or can’t-miss youngsters.
It’s wild to look back on that now. Oladipo became an All-Star last season and joined George on the All-NBA third team; Sabonis found his stride as a high-end rotation-grade center; the Pacers made the playoffs and gave LeBron James and the Cavs a tremendous series; and Presti suddenly looked like a guy who not only failed to find the appropriate use for two genuinely good young players in Oladipo and Sabonis, but then shipped them out for a one-year rental of a star player stopping through on his way to Los Angeles. A trade that initially looked like a lopsided victory for the Thunder swung pretty wildly towards looking like a massive win for the Pacers, but Presti’s move was ultimately always a gamble that his well-run organization and the simple charms of Oklahoma City could overcome a superstar player’s homesickness for Los friggin’ Angeles. That still strikes me as completely bonkers. And it worked!
This certainly blows for the Lakers. First of all, George wanted them! They had an opportunity last summer to trade for George, when he’d made it known he wanted out of Indiana. All they would’ve had to do was beat an offer centered around a fringe starter combo-guard on what was then considered a wildly inflated contract, plus a ho-hum second-year swingman who’d yet to establish a natural position in the NBA. But the Lakers’ confidence that they could land George in free agency this summer prevented them from making an especially impressive offer, and now here we are. Instead of being the magnet to attract other superstars to Los Angeles, George is returning to Oklahoma City for the remainder of his prime years, and the Lakers are left with a half-a-million-dollar tampering fee as the closest they ever got to landing the hometown superstar.
There’s an alternate universe out there where the Lakers traded Brandon Ingram and, say, Julius Randle for George last summer, and he spent Saturday night partying in Los Angeles, and announced a max contract with the Lakers Sunday morning. In that universe, Los Angeles’s remaining cap room and player assets are then easily converted into LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, and the Lakers are the toast of the NBA by Monday afternoon. What we’ve got here in this universe is a somewhat crummier reality where the only feasible LeBron-centered Lakers superteam involves Kawhi Leonard’s beef-jerky upper leg and DeMarcus Cousins’s crab-meat lower leg, with LaVar Ball skulking around demanding more shots for his son. It didn’t have to be this way.