The Thunder knew the risks when they traded for Paul George to build a super-team. Now they have to wait for George's free agency decision to see if they can continue to build after a disappointing year.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Paul George last summer, knowing it could possibly be a one-year rental.
- After the Thunder lost in the first round of the playoffs on Friday, George's free agency this summer becomes a major question for the team.
- The Thunder's core is essentially locked in and they won't have salary-cap space to improve if George leaves.
- The best the Thunder can hope for is that George takes another swing at building a contender in Oklahoma City after they failed to get off the ground in Year 1.
The Oklahoma City Thunder knew the stakes when they pulled off trades for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to join Russell Westbrook and form the NBA's newest super-team.
It was essentially a one-year experiment, with George set to hit free agency at the end of the season.
That raised the stake on the season. Winning became a huge priority to entice George to stay in Oklahoma City and continue a partnership with Westbrook vs. fleeing elsewhere in free agency, like, say, the Los Angeles Lakers.
The one-year experiment flopped on Friday as the Utah Jazz eliminated the Thunder from the playoffs with a Game 6 win, sending the Thunder into an offseason with one giant question — what will George do?
As ESPN's Royce Young put it, the entire year was a recruiting mission for the Thunder to win George over on the future of the team and the culture of the organization. As Young noted, George has referred to this season as "Year 1," stressing patience in building the team. He has flat-out said he'd like to remain with the Thunder and that winning it all wasn't necessarily a top priority. Of course, George may have been forced into such quotes — saying the opposite would cause a firestorm as people debated where George would land if he already indicated he was out.
The triumvirate of Westbrook, George, and Anthony left a lot to be desired, as the Thunder never completely clicked. As they gained momentum in the regular season, forward Andre Roberson suffered a season-ending knee injury that robbed the team of its top defender and glue guy. Their depth was already scrapped after making two 2-for-1 trades to acquire George and Anthony in the previous offseason.
Together, Westbrook and George each showed their individual brilliance at times (Anthony struggled through much of the season, especially in the playoffs), but a 48-34 regular season record and six-game playoff ouster isn't the outcome the Thunder hoped for. Their playoff performance wasn't inspiring and left major questions about each player's individual approach to winning.
If the Thunder accomplished one thing this season, it would be Westbrook's five-year, $205 million extension, signed shortly after the George and Anthony trades. The Thunder have one superstar locked in for the foreseeable future, an outcome any franchise would envy. Is it worth it to also ink George to a max contract this season, essentially locking in a core that failed to impress this year? Again, it's better than the alternative in which George leaves and the capped-out Thunder have to tinker with the edges to find ways to improve. Two superstars is better than one.
Anthony's future also suddenly weighs heavily on the team. He has a $28 million player option for next season and seems almost certain to pick it up. Anthony, at 34, was up-and-down in the regular season, but some thought his elite scoring could provide a boost to the Thunder in the playoffs. Perhaps he, too, had a switch to flip on the biggest stage.
The answer was a resounding "no." Anthony shot 37% from the field, 21% from three, averaging just 11.8 points per game against the Jazz. The Thunder were outscored by 58 points with Anthony on the floor, an alarming number considering they outscored the Jazz by 32 with Anthony on the bench.
In an awkward moment, Anthony could be seen asking Thunder coaches to let him back into the game in Game 5, as the Thunder mounted a 25-point comeback to keep their season alive. Head coach Billy Donovan at first said no, before relenting.
Anthony's deal isn't particularly cumbersome on the Thunder's long-term future, but it doesn't help, either. A player the team may be better off without will be the second-highest-paid player on the roster if George does not return.
The Thunder's core is largely locked in, and after making two big trades this past summer and robbing themselves of some depth and assets, it seems unlikely they could pull more tricks out of the hat this offseason.
In essence, the summer rests on George. He couldn't be blamed for taking his future into his own hands and choosing another team. What the Thunder offer, however, is another star to team up with, and the chance to build on a season that never quite got off the ground.