The Case for OKC
Paul George and Russell Westbrook. Photo Courtesy of SI.com
Former Tonight Show host Jay Leno once told the story of why he never left the flagship late night enterprise at the height of his run for greener, more lucrative pastures. Leno’s response was masterful in its clarity. “Sometimes,” Leno said at the time, “you gotta know when you got a good thing.”
As we approach NBA Free Agency 2018, Oklahoma City Thunder fans await the decision of their prize free agent Paul George. In the past, there has been speculation, and downright pronunciation on the part of George’s camp, of his inevitable return to his native California.
Thunder General Manager Sam Presti and his front office have spent a year evangelizing to George that they have a good thing in Oklahoma City. And despite all the detractors that point to the allure of Hollywood or living in the middle of nowhere or playing alongside Russell Westbrook, Presti might be right.
Because not only is the situation in OKC a good thing for George, but it is the best thing for his basketball future.
By any objective measure, the 2017-2018 Thunder campaign did not live up to expectations. The team finished an underwhelming 48-34 in what was a down year in the Western Conference for teams not named Golden State or Houston and were bounced from the first round by the Utah Jazz in six games. There were flashes of brilliance, but for the most part the season was up and down.
Given such an unsteady experience, why would George elect to stay in Oklahoma rather than bolt to the glamourous lights of Los Angeles? There are a few reasons.
First and foremost, George has tremendous chemistry with Westbrook. On the court, Westbrook and George were able to find their offensive rhythm towards the end of the season after going through the typical growing pains that come with pairing a collection of all-star talent. As with the Miami Heat in 2012 or Golden State this season, the integration of a new star tends to improve in Year Two and OKC fans should expect the same with George and Westbrook.
Defensively, George gives the Thunder another A-1 defender opposite Andre’ Roberson. Combine that with center Steven Adams, and Oklahoma City has three top shelf defenders in its starting line-up. Add an engaged Westbrook, and that number climbs to four.
Off the court, Westbrook and George have hit it off. Westbrook, who whether he ever admits it or not, has learned a lot from the circumstances surrounding Kevin Durant’s departure to the Warriors in 2016. The result of that growth has been Westbrook overtly expressing his desire for George to remain with OKC.
Speaking of teammates, as of today, Oklahoma City has the best roster to compete against Golden State. Don’t laugh, it’s true. All season long I argued that the Thunder were in the best position to compete with the Warriors because they had two things most teams did not: guys who can defend, and guys who can score.
If you subscribe to the theory that the known is more valuable than the unknown in the NBA, then the Thunder has the best roster for George. You have a prime Westbrook, who is a former NBA MVP and better than anyone on the Lakers roster. Adams is a top five player at his position and is only 24. Roberson, though his offensive struggles are well documented, has proven himself to be an elite wing defender, and is also in his prime.
And let us not forget Carmelo Anthony, who will be back in Oklahoma City next season. Seriously, don’t laugh. Anthony is a professional shot maker with a hall-of-fame resume. You cannot say that about anybody on the Lakers or even the Philadelphia 76ers for that matter. Maybe one day, but not today or on July 1st.
This is not to say that the Thunder roster doesn’t need some tweaking. More offensive fire power is a must, and in the era of switching everything on defense, talented wing defenders are at a premium. But there are players available at discounted prices. Dwight Howard and Shelvin Mack come to mind. Just this week, news of the Indiana’s decision not to exercise Lance Stephenson’s option caught George’s attention.
If you are George, compare the prospect of supplementing your current roster with veterans at discounted prices to trying to construct a title contender on the fly without the benefit of the aforementioned growth year under your belt. When viewed in those terms, the choice seems clear.
Lastly, and most importantly, George seems happy in OKC.This statement triggers an immediate head scratch from the masses – how could someone turn down L.A. for a dustbowl in the middle of nowhere? The cynic will likely say that George is just saying all the right things while biding his time until he can return to southern California.
Maybe there is some truth to that. Or maybe, George has found the perfect life balance in Oklahoma City. An elite teammate and budding friendship with Westbrook. A front office willing to show him how much it values him. And a fan-base looking to return to the glory days of the not too distant past.
In George’s quest to get to Los Angeles he stopped in Oklahoma City and found Palmdale. For the Thunder faithful, that is a good thing.