The move came as a surprise to many around the NBA. George had been linked to a number of contenders since the end of the 2017 NBA Finals, namely the Celtics, Cavaliers and Rockets. The Cavaliers and Rockets didn’t have nearly as many future assets to offer the Pacers as the Celtics did, but it’s hard to believe they — or any other team in the league for that matter — couldn’t beat an offer of Oladipo and Sabonis with no future draft picks involved. The trade even lowered the Thunder’s payroll for next season, as The Step Back’s Jared Dubin noted, giving them the cap relief they need to re-sign either Andre Roberson or Taj Gibson this offseason.
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That’s not to say there isn’t any risk involved in the deal. George is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, and it’s believed he’ll join his hometown Lakers. A successful season with the Thunder could convince him to stay in Oklahoma City long-term, but he can’t sign an extension until January at the earliest.
A lot can change between now and then, both in ways that could benefit the Thunder and hurt them when it comes to retaining George. Westbrook also has the option of being a free agent in the summer of 2018 if he declines the final year of his contract, which he almost certainly will given the financial implications involved.
Put that all together, and the Thunder have a lot riding on how Westbrook and George will fit together next season. Fail to mesh, and George will likely leave them a year from now for absolutely nothing. Become one of the best 1-2 punches in the league, however, and the Thunder could be on their way to building a Western Conference powerhouse once again.
The good news for the Thunder is George shouldn’t have any problems playing alongside Westbrook. He has all the tools to be a glorified 3-and-D wing in today’s NBA, which makes him an ideal candidate to play with someone who led the league in usage rating last season.
As we recently explained when the Cavaliers were rumored to be interested in him, George is a scoring threat without the ball in his hands (51.2 percent of his baskets were assisted last season), and he checks out as one of the best all-around shooters in the NBA. Beyond ranking in the 84.1 percentile with 1.14 points per spot-up possession, 32.3 percent of his offense came from catch-and-shoot attempts last season, and he knocked down 41.8 percent of his 3-point opportunities in those situations.
Seeing as the Thunder were among the worst 3-point shooting teams in the league last season, George will space the floor for Westbrook in ways Oladipo and Sabonis couldn’t with consistency. His ability to hit 45.3 percent of his midrange pull-ups also means defenders can’t simply run him off the line on closeouts, and he’ll prevent teams from loading up on Westbrook in the half court as one of the best shooters off screens in the league. Doing so should help Westbrook be a much more efficient scorer and playmaker across the board.
On the other hand, George can take over as the primary ball handler when Westbrook isn’t on the court. According to NBA.com, the Thunder went from averaging 107.9 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the court last season to 97.4 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the bench. The former would’ve put them just outside the top-10 in offensive efficiency, whereas the latter would’ve been the worst mark in the NBA.
There was an even greater disparity in the playoffs: 107.3 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the court compared to 90.4 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the bench. In the 46 minutes he wasn’t on the court against the Rockets, the Thunder were outscored by a total of 58 points.
George isn’t the same type of go-to scorer as Westbrook, James Harden or LeBron James — he lacks the ball handling and decision making they have to command an elite offense all by himself — but he’s more than capable of creating for himself in both the pick-and-roll and isolation. He ranked in the 92.3 percentile with 1.01 points per pick-and-roll possession and the 72.5 percentile with 0.94 points per isolation possession last season. It gives him all the tools he needs to make Westbrook’s life easier when he’s on the court by being a versatile shooter and keep the Thunder afloat when he’s off the court by taking over as the primary creator.
How Westbrook adjusts to playing alongside someone who can create for himself in volume again remains to be seen. George is simply too good to become another shooter for the Thunder, and Westbrook generates very little of his offense from spot-ups. Nonetheless, plugging a perimeter player who can play with and without the ball in his hands and do so at a high level solves a lot of the Thunder’s problems on paper.
George will also make an already good defensive team much better. Andre Roberson proved to be an elite wing defender in the NBA last season, and George has long been dominant in that regard. They can both match up with the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Harden in the playoffs and switch onto bigger or smaller players in a pinch, which gives the Thunder the type of two-headed monster in the backcourt they need to make a deep playoff run.
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With Steven Adams protecting the rim behind them, there’s no reason why the Thunder can’t go from being the 10th-best defense they were last season to perhaps the fifth- or sixth-best defensive team next season. Assuming George fits in as well as he is expected to offensively, the trade could help the Thunder become one of the most feared teams in the league with a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense. They’ll have the versatility to switch at least four positions and the offensive firepower to pick teams apart on the other end of the court.
Time will tell if the risk of trading two assets for possibly one year of George will pay off for the Thunder in the long run, but it’s a risk worth taking for OKC general manager Sam Presti. After losing Kevin Durant for nothing in 2017, the Thunder can’t afford to do the same with Westbrook in 2018.
While trading for George doesn’t necessarily put them in the same conversation as the Warriors when it comes to favorites to win the NBA title next season, it does signal to Westbrook that they’re willing to do everything they possibly can to surround him with the talent he needs. With George on board, they now have the potential to fight for home-court advantage in the Western Conference next season, and an appearance in the Western Conference finals isn’t off the table if everything breaks right for them.
If that’s the case, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t both want to run it back together. We already know how good the Thunder were when Westbrook and Durant were on the same team, and George is similar to Durant in many ways as a knockdown shooter who is a terrifying option as a secondary ball handler. George is obviously nowhere near as good as Durant in totality, but his game might make him a more natural fit with Westbrook.