Five days ago, Paul George shocked the hoops world by making a decision few foresaw. It wasn’t that he chose to re-up with the Thunder; it was that he did so under startling circumstances. First, he announced his choice well before any other big-name commitment — particularly LeBron James’ — had been finalized. Second, he made up his mind before taking meetings with potential suitors, among them the very Lakers he said he would be joining when he spurned the Pacers last year. And, third, he signed on the dotted line of a contract that binds him for four years, eschewing a shorter deal that would have netted him more options, not to mention an even bigger paycheck, moving forward.
How George moved from secure-footing Point A to even-more-secure-footing Point B is a testament to the Thunder’s culture and capacity to sustain a season-long courtship starring resident top dog Russell Westbrook. And so intent were they of getting him back to the fold that they thought nothing of absorbing a luxury-tax bill not hitherto seen in National Basketball Association annals. Imagine that. Just six years ago, they were so afraid of going over the salary cap that they readily broke up the core responsible for their immediate past Finals berth.
Not that the Thunder had any viable alternatives. In order to protect their identity and keep their fan base engaged, they simply had to pull out all the stops for George. It didn’t matter that Carmelo Anthony, the least of their so-called Big Three, had already exercised the player option on his albatross of a contract. Or that they failed to reach the second round of the 2018 playoffs with largely the same principal cast of characters. Continuity was critical, especially after the devastating departure of supposed lifer Kevin Durant two years ago.
Still, the Thunder will have a hard 2018-2019 campaign. Competition in the West has become tougher, what with James heading to the Lakers. Meanwhile, their payroll has ballooned past $300 million, an unsustainable number given their small market and their modest postseason projections. Which is why their work has just begun. The recovery of Andre Roberson from injury should help, as will the stretching of Anthony’s salary, assuming, of course, that they decide to do so at his embarrassment. Sam Presti is an outstanding general manager and Clay Bennett has become a lavish spender, but they’re also realists. And they’re bound to disappoint one way or the other.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.