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Paul George Makes The Thunder Contenders Again

Paul George is headed to Oklahoma City, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, and the Thunder may be back to being title contenders — or at least in the mix to be the West’s second-best team behind Golden State.

Just hours before the NBA’s free agency period begins, the Indiana Pacers have traded George to the Thunder for former No. 2 overall pick Victor Oladipo and rising sophomore Domantas Sabonis. Oklahoma City had acquired Oladipo and the draft pick that became Sabonis from Orlando in a trade for Serge Ibaka last offseason.

George is a free agent after this coming season, and it’s believed that he has not agreed to sign a contract extension. The assumption around the league has been that the Lakers are his preferred long-term destination, which is a large part of why the Pacers couldn’t even secure a draft pick for their outgoing star. So this is certainly a calculated risk for OKC, but MVP Russell Westbrook can also become a free agent after the 2017-18 season thanks to a player-option. And while he hasn’t been as forthright as George, his hometown Lakers have long been a rumored destination for him as well. So the Thunder are on the clock to sell themselves as a place where Westbrook can contend, or alternatively, to take their last, best shot at winning a title while they still have him. The George trade should accomplish both.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projection system, adding George to the Thunder and subtracting Oladipo and Sabonis should put the team at 51 wins:

The Thunder are back

CARMELO projections for the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder

PLAYER MIN. PER GAME OFF. PLUS/MINUS DEF. PLUS/MINUS
Russell Westbrook 35.0 7.6 0.7
Alex Abrines 15.0 0.0 -1.8
Paul George 35.0 2.4 0.4
Steven Adams 30.0 -0.6 2.0
Enes Kanter 25.0 0.5 -1.2
Jerami Grant 20.0 -2.0 0.1
Doug McDermott 15.0 -0.6 -2.7
Kyle Singler 10.0 -2.5 -0.3
Terrance Ferguson 5.0 -1.6 -0.1
Semaj Christon 5.0 -3.0 -1.5
Andre Roberson 25.0 -1.2 1.8
Norris Cole 5.0 -1.8 -1.4
Nick Collison 4.0 -3.1 0.7
Replacement level player 11 -1.7 -0.3
Team total 3.7 0.6
WINS LOSSES
Thunder’s projected record 50.8 31.2

The top-5 of Westbrook, George, Enes Kanter, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson are worth 53 wins all on their own. But CARMELO thinks so little of the Thunder bench that the rest of the roster is worth -2 wins. That bench was bad this past season, but young players like Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott may improve with an additional season with the team, and this season’s first-round draft pick Terrance Ferguson has potential as a spot-up shooter on the wing, which the team desperately needed last season. Still, with Taj Gibson likely leaving in free agency, the Thunder will be thin. But while their projection doesn’t put the team nearly at the level of the Golden State Warriors, or even the newly minted Chris Paul Houston Rockets, acquiring George should have an outsize effect on the Thunder.

It’s hard to overstate how perfect a fit this is for Oklahoma City. George isn’t Kevin Durant — he doesn’t rebound as well, and isn’t quite the playmaker that Durant can be when called upon — but he replaces a lot of what the former MVP took with him when he departed for Golden State. The most obvious way he helps is by giving Westbrook a legitimate partner in the offense. George is a very good shooter: He shot 39.3 percent from 3 last season, and has floated between 36 and 40 percent the past several years despite taking some of the most difficult shots in the league. George shouldn’t have to take on the world quite the same way in Oklahoma City.

George may actually end up fitting slightly better with Westbrook than Durant did — in practice if not in terms of absolute skill. Durant dominated the ball late in games for the Thunder; Westbrook would defer, often to a fault. This left Westbrook, an average at best shooter, on the perimeter, largely wasted. With George new to OKC, where Westbrook is the reigning MVP and undisputed team leader, the Thunder should be able to default to more sensible sets in crucial moments, with the ball in Westbrook’s hands but George actively involved.

That said, George’s ability to get his own shot should also be key for the Thunder. In the team’s first-round loss to the Houston Rockets, the bench units led by Oladipo were overwhelmed, often unable even to get a shot without their star. In Game 5 of that series, Westbrook played 42 minutes, scored 47 points and had a plus-minus of +12. The Thunder lost by six. George can be streaky, but his ability to carry an offense means the Thunder can survive spells without Westbrook.

But it’s George’s defensive ability and versatility that may unlock the Thunder’s potential. Oklahoma City had been constructed with a lopsided allotment of talents. They had more than enough rebounders and interior defenders, but few perimeter scorers or players who could perform the basic three-and-D role so crucial to successful teams. George is one of the best three-and-D players in the league, good enough to compensate for limited defensive players around him when the Thunder need offense.

Lineups featuring both George and Andre Roberson — a converted power forward who plays shooting guard for the Thunder despite being one of the worst shooters in the league — would seem to not only cover Westbrook’s defensive shortcomings, but possibly those of other players, such as Abrines or Kanter. Roberson is restricted free agent and reportedly declined a four-year, $48 million extension last fall, so he may be too expensive to re-sign, but given the Thunder’s lack of depth they may not have much choice. (And in a twist, George actually earns less than Oladipo this season, giving the Thunder a little extra breathing room under the luxury tax.) Giving Roberson’s projected minutes to Abrines results in the team’s CARMELO rating dropping from 51 wins to 47.

The Thunder were a deeply but narrowly flawed team last season. That happens when a Kevin Durant-sized hole is left in the depth chart. Paul George may not fill the whole thing, and he may not do it for very long, but for as long as he and Westbrook are in town, the Thunder are back.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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