All-Star forward Paul George has agreed to return to the Oklahoma City Thunder on a new contract, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, taking one of the most sought-after free agents off the board shortly before the official start of the NBA’s free-agent signing season at midnight ET on Sunday.
George confirmed the report moments later on stage at a party in Oklahoma City thrown by teammate Russell Westbrook, who reportedly flew back to OKC from a family vacation in Hawaii on Saturday just to host a shindig to celebrate the Thunder re-upping their No. 1 free agent priority:
I’m being told Paul George is on stage with Russell Westbrook at the party. “I’m here to stay,” George said. “We can bring it home.”
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) July 1, 2018
Paul George: “If y’all didn’t quite get it, let me say it again. I’m here to stay.” https://t.co/eP2LbJW2Y7
— Brett Dawson (@BDawsonWrites) July 1, 2018
And he’s here to stay for a while, and for quite a chunk of change:
Paul George has agreed to a four-year, $137M max contract with the Thunder, league source tells ESPN. Deal includes a player option.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 1, 2018
George, 28, spent the first seven years of his career with the Indiana Pacers, developing into an All-Star swingman widely discussed as one of the sport’s most gifted and versatile two-way players — an All-Defensive Team-caliber stopper and a top offensive option with advancing skills as a driver, 3-point shooter and ball-handling facilitator. Last summer, though, as he prepared to enter the final year of his contract, George’s representatives reportedly made it clear to Pacers brass that he did not intend to re-sign in Indiana once his deal was up; he was widely reported as determined to go to the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that could offer the Palmdale, Calif., native both a maximum-salaried contract and a chance to return home.
Despite those rumblings, Thunder general manager Sam Presti made one of the 2017 offseason’s boldest moves, swinging a trade on the eve of free agency that sent George to Oklahoma City in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and big man Domantas Sabonis. At the time, the deal looked like an absolute steal for a Thunder team in desperate need of another star on the wing to pair with Westbrook following the departure of Kevin Durant the year before.
It was also a gamble — a calculated risk, but a very big one nonetheless — that, even after losing Durant and dropping from the ranks of title contenders down to mere playoff hopefuls, Oklahoma City’s organization, culture and structure was strong enough to be able to sell George on the prospect of sticking around long term rather than just playing out the final year of his deal and heading to the West Coast.
As the season wore on, though, Oladipo developed into an All-Star in his own right in Indianapolis. And while George performed well — he averaged 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game in his first season with the Thunder, shooting 40.1 percent from the 3-point arc and finishing second in the league in both made triples and steals — Oklahoma City as a team teetered through an inconsistent year that ended earlier than anticipated, with a loss to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. It began to look like the Thunder might wind up rolling snake-eyes on their gamble, losing out on both a star-in-the-making in Oladipo and the confirmed star they traded him to get.
When George exercised his right to opt out of his contract and enter unrestricted free agency, many observers around the league expected him to at long last make his way to L.A. By the time Saturday night rolled around, though, the rumblings had grown too loud to ignore that George had been swayed by his year in Oklahoma City — by the development of his friendship with Westbrook, by his belief in the Thunder’s organizational culture, and by his affinity for the fanbase he’d found in the market.
As it turned out, George would never hear that leaked L.A. sales pitch. He took no other meetings, returning to OKC for Saturday night’s party and agreeing to a deal to stay put.
The most astonishing part about Paul George staying in OKC is that he didn't even meet with the Lakers. Speaks to how strong the bond was with Thunder, Westbrook.
— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixYS) July 1, 2018
George deciding also looks to deal a significant blow to the Lakers, who enter free agency hoping to land multiple marquee superstar free agents to return the flagging franchise to its former prominence. With George staying put, the pressure is on president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka to land one of the other big fish on the board — either the biggest of them all, LeBron James, or reported trade target Kawhi Leonard, or ideally both — to kickstart the Lakers’ resurgence and keep one of the league’s glamour franchises from once again coming up empty in the NBA’s annual summertime sweepstakes.
While the Lakers regroup and look to redouble their efforts elsewhere, the Thunder will run back a roster that finished 48-34 in its first season together. How high a ceiling that squad has remains very much a matter of debate; whether it’ll prove to be worth the exorbitant luxury-tax payments that seem likely to come with Westbrook, George, ascendant center Steven Adams and veteran scorer Carmelo Anthony (who opted into his $27.9 million contract for next season rather than test free agency) all earning well over $20 million per season, even more so.
With Paul George and Jerami Grant on board, Oklahoma City now has a payroll of $156M with 11 players under contract. Because of the repeater tax penalty, the Thunder currently have a tax bill of $130M. The tax bill would be the largest in NBA history.
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) July 1, 2018
And yet, George’s return gives the Thunder not only the certainty of maintaining a level of overall quality for the next few years, but also fresh hope of reaching a new ceiling.
With another season of chemistry for the core of Westbrook, George and Adams, a hoped-for bounce-back season for Anthony — or a buyout agreement/waiver that would send him on his way, allow Presti and head coach Billy Donovan to reorient their attack, and save a staggering sum of money — a return to health for defensive linchpin wing Andre Roberson, and continued development for young wings Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson, Oklahoma City will once again take aim at the titans elsewhere in the West, believing they’re capable of beating the best in the league if they can just more consistently put their best game together. That best game prominently features George wreaking havoc on both ends of the floor. Now we know they’ll be able to bank on that possibility for at least the next three seasons.
Whether the Westbrook-George pairing, plus whatever other tricks Presti’s got up his sleeve, can become potent enough to meaningfully contend with the likes of the Golden State Warriors will remain to be seen. If nothing else, though, Oklahoma City has steered away from a doomsday scenario — losing George without the financial wherewithal to replace his contributions, staring down the luxury tax anyway, and possibly having to think about detonating everything by shopping Westbrook — and remained on track for consistent contention, while showing other teams around the league that players aren’t the only ones who can bet on themselves and win.
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