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Paul George is overwhelmed.
He won’t say it when the camera lights are glowing, and he certainly doesn’t play like it when he hits the hardwood. But the Oklahoma City Thunder star knows what’s happening here, how every word he says about his forthcoming free agency gets dissected as if he were speaking to a grand jury.
He’s well aware how his choice will affect the lives of others, from his actual family to this Thunder group that wants so badly for him to return alongside Russell Westbrook. So he picks his words wisely, even goes over old interviews to make sure he’s saying what he means and meaning what he says. Yet as the 3 pm EST trade deadline nears on Thursday, and with the Thunder (31-24) set to face the very Lakers team that is widely seen as the No. 1 threat for his services, there’s one thing that is helping him be more at ease: he’s not going anywhere just yet – if ever.
Even with the Kevin Durant heartbreak of two summers ago, and the cost-driven James Harden trade in 2012, Thunder general manager Sam Presti is determined to see this thing through. Ask any rival executive who has come calling for George, who thought the Thunder’s inconsistent season might prompt Presti to trade George for fear he might lose another transcendent talent for nothing, and you hear the same word: untouchable.
Even with the 8-12 start or the recent four-game losing streak that came to a halt with Tuesday’s win over Golden State, Presti is gambling on this chance to have one of the league’s most powerful superstar pairings – again – while returning to title contention. And so, as Oklahoma City heads down this familiar road, willing to pay more than a quarter billion dollars next season to keep this team together, the Thunder’s dice roll on into the summer.
“This is a very savvy, smart organization,” George told USA TODAY Sports about the Thunder, who have deemed George, Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams untouchable in trade talks. “They understand that they’re about winning, and some things take time. I don’t think when they brought us together, it was something…(where) they thought this was going to be a team that was (winning) 60, 70 (games). I think they knew it was going to be an adjustment, us three coming together.
“I’ve never been on a team with this much starpower. I know Russ had KD, and Melo has been used to being by himself, so I think what it comes down to is they know this is a process and they’re putting all their chips into us. They’re confident, and we’re confident, in this thing working out.”
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Anyone watching their latest dissection of the defending champs can understand why.
Small sample size be darned, the combination of the Thunder’s Nov. 22 win over Golden State (108-91) and the follow-up performance (a 125-105 rout) has left them bullish on their blueprint for beating the Warriors. Westbrook was a man on fire early, scoring 21 of his 34 points in the first quarter en route to a near triple-double; George not only exploded for 38 points with dangerous efficiency (six of 11 on threes), but he hounded the Warriors’ Klay Thompson (12 points) in the kind of way that should help his growing Defensive Player of the Year candidacy. They did it all while having Anthony for just six minutes too, as he turned his ankle early and watched the dismantling on television from a locker room training table.
“I like what we have in this locker room,” George said about the Warriors matchup. “I honestly think we’re hard to beat four times in a seven game series. I think we’re really hard to beat, so I like our chances.”
Their chances would be even better if Presti can turn a few second-round picks into roster help at the deadline or in the buyout market that comes soon thereafter. The season-ending knee injury to defensive specialist Andre Roberson has created a sizable void for the league’s fifth-rated defense.
The Thunder, who don’t have first-rounders to offer until 2022, are canvassing the league for the right move, with possibilities ranging from wings like the Clippers’ Avery Bradley or Toronto’s C.J. Miles to big men like Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon or Phoenix’s Alex Len. George has been open about his frustration with Indiana’s front office near the end of his time there. His positive impressions of the Thunder group should be noted.
By all accounts, though, it’s George’s fast connection with Westbrook that has everything to do with his perspective on the Oklahoma City experience. He raves about Westbrook’s competitiveness on the court, lauds his loyalty off it, and talks openly about spending his prime alongside the reigning MVP.
The fact that both were named All-Stars is yet another positive for the Thunder’s recruiting purposes, even if George’s selection came as an injury replacement and the LA location ensured the Lakers questions would be there all weekend long.
“It feels great,” he said of the fit with Westbrook. “Even tonight (against the Warriors), we were just pushing each other. When I came out early, I’m like, ‘Russ, man, take it further. Push it further.’ And then when I checked back in, he came out, ‘P, take it further, push it further.’ So it’s great. I think we’re feeding off each other. We’re both different types of players, and I think that’s why this is working so well.
“I’m a catch and shoot (player), like to play off the ball, and he’s so great at attacking and getting in the paint and making guys like myself, making it easy for me. I think that’s the reason why it’s working. We just play really well off one another.”
Does all this locker room harmony matter if LeBron James sends word this summer that he wants to partner with George and his hometown Lakers? Time will tell.
The Durant experience taught the Thunder that words spoken before July only matter so much. They were sure he was coming back, only to sense a change in the vibe near the very end when he drifted the Warriors’ way.
But for now, with George raving about the fit just as he did in training camp, he’s taking the same approach as Presti: There’s something brewing here, and they want to see it through.
“Well, I mean I’m happy here,” George said. “I’m happy here. I’m happy with this group. At the end of the season, it’s still on my decision on what I need to do for my family. That has nothing to do with my happiness here though. I’ve been really happy. It’s a great organization to be a part of, but again, you know, I don’t want people looking at this and (saying) like, ‘Hey, because he said it’s his happiness at the end of the day (that he’s definitely re-signing).
“I don’t know if whether I’m going to LA, or what I’m going to do this offseason. But I can say I am happy about being here. I’m happy with playing with Russ, happy with playing with Melo, and this organization. This front office has shown what they can do to go get pieces and how active they are about winning.”