How OKC’s wild gamble for Paul George paid off

How OKC’s wild gamble for Paul George paid off

A year ago to the day, almost to the minute, the Oklahoma City Thunder took the biggest risk in the 10-year history of the franchise.

With rumors swirling everywhere but OKC in 2017, the Thunder emerged from the shadows to land Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The motivation was obvious: The Thunder were putting themselves on the clock, with a year to somehow convince George that Oklahoma City was a place worth staying in. The odds were long. It felt dangerous. It felt desperate.

But at a private party on Saturday hosted by Russell Westbrook at a mansion near Lake Arcadia, music from echoing off the tall Oklahoma oak trees, George walked onstage, fresh off a private jet, and grabbed the microphone.

“If y’all don’t quite get it,” George said with Westbrook pacing around him like a hype man. “Let me say it again: I’m here to stay.”

Westbrook held his hand to his ear as a crowd of about 500 fans roared. A few minutes later, rapper Nas was onstage and the party was on. Paul George is staying with the Thunder and, according to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, for at least three years.

It’s confusing to some that George would select the Thunder without even so much as awarding a meeting to his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. Every sign pointed to him signing with L.A. this summer — the first sign being that George informed the Pacers in 2017 that’s where he’d be signing — but George picked OKC.

It’s a landmark day for the franchise, only two summers after nearly watching everything they’d built crumble to pieces. Kevin Durant had left, and Westbrook’s future was suddenly murky. The Thunder were coming to grips with the reality of trading Westbrook, until they convinced their superstar point guard to sign an extension and stabilize the franchise. A year later, they traded for George, traded for Carmelo Anthony and signed Westbrook again, this time to a long-term deal to keep him in OKC for the prime years of his career.

Two summers ago, the Thunder walked Kevin Durant into a meeting the day before free agency started. They had that orchestrated, too, with a sign across the street that read, “Taking on Tomorrow, Today” with examples of how he has lifted the city on his shoulders and built a franchise. They told him about a fueled-up jet sitting on a runway ready for them to go recruit Al Horford together. Durant left on his own jet and went to the Hamptons, and the rest is history.

It’s a fairy-tale comeback, one that seemed impossible to pull off. By beating back the allure of Los Angeles, and the Lakers, and Magic Johnson and maybe even a recruitment by LeBron James, the Thunder have shattered through the glass ceiling of market stereotype. This kind of moment isn’t supposed to be possible. Because here the Thunder are, with a superstar duo, both born and raised in Southern California, locked up for the long-term in the primes of their careers, choosing to stay in Oklahoma.

The Thunder carry a legacy of what-if with them wherever they go, from trading James Harden in 2012 to letting a 3-1 lead against the Warriors slip in 2016, which led to Durant’s leaving in free agency. But with George planting a flag with the franchise, they’re building a new legacy of reimagining the narrative of a small market. Something has been built in the middle of America that, for whatever reason, resonates with superstar talent and massive brands. Of course, it takes a different kind of person and player to sign up for it, and it fits Westbrook and George.

There’s obviously a pressure to win, and the Thunder’s disappointing 48-win season a year ago did not go according to plan. They figured they’d have something better to sell George on in terms of success, but with some bumpy on-court chemistry and a devastating injury to Andre Roberson, the Thunder fizzled in the first round. George assured everyone he didn’t have a championship-or-bust mindset. It was about the long term — what could be built, how they could grow.

George is betting on evolution. He’s betting on growth from Westbrook. He’s betting Presti has a few more magic levers to pull. But with the contract not being a one-plus-one — or even two-plus-one, like many expected — George is relieving some of the roaring pressure that has been in OKC the past four years. Every season and summer has been full of questions about a star dumping them or it all falling apart in their face. Now, both the franchise and the entire state can exhale. They can dock their boat in the harbor and, at least for a few years, enjoy a roster built on Westbrook, George and Steven Adams.

Presti likes to talk about the “canvas” the Thunder have been working off since they arrived in OKC a decade ago. Their first season wasn’t good — 23 wins — but it was about the potential of a young roster. From that point on, it has been about trajectory — the Thunder got good, and fast. They’ve sustained success for 10 years, and with Westbrook and George they’ve guaranteed at least a good team for another few.

The questions of how good they really are and if a Westbrook-George pairing can win a title can be tabled, at least for a few minutes. Like Westbrook before, George’s staying is a win in and of itself. It’s a victory for the organization on a cultural scale, validating so much of what it has invested in.

The Thunder’s trade for George was a bet on themselves, an all-in move that placed a wager on the culture and values of the organization. They believed they could sell George on staying because they were confident in what he was walking into. The infrastructure, the attention to detail, the first-class nature of everything — they knew what it would take in Oklahoma City.

But with a star player such as Westbrook, a committed ownership group and a front office willing to take risks, George basically spent the season being impressed. It started with a whole other party — the Thunder are really into parties, apparently — the day after George officially arrived in OKC last July. With an intricate, choreographed plan to knock George’s socks off, the Thunder hit the ground running with their recruitment at his welcome party.

It continued throughout the season, with the feeling building as early as training camp that OKC could be a place George actually might stay long term. It always felt far-fetched, some niceties being said in front of microphones, but once actual free agency opened, all that talk would be just that. George didn’t have any control over the fact the Thunder traded for him; he would have control over his free agency.

But George really never wavered. He liked OKC. He liked the franchise. He liked head coach Billy Donovan. He liked Westbrook. And he liked Presti. Free agency is about getting to pick where you want to play. Paul George chose Oklahoma City.

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