Around 500 partygoers rejoiced when Paul George confirmed what Thunder insiders already knew: He would be staying with the blue and yellow. The announcement was made at the height of a by-invitation-only get-together hosted by former Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook over the weekend, and word of the decision immediately spread. And, in stark contrast to the fervor with which it was greeted onsite, shock met it most everywhere else. He was, after all, the same player who, just a year before, said no to a certain big-bucks contract-extension offer from the Pacers while declaring his desire to head to the Lakers after the 2017-2018 season.
Needless to say, the development is a coup for the Thunder, who were under the gun as soon as they welcomed George this day last year. They knew his intentions, and yet they were willing to risk claiming him as a one-year rental — as much a sign of their desperation to get Westbrook All-Star-caliber help as of their confidence in the way they do business. They began their wooing from the moment he arrived at Oklahoma City airport, where a throng of fans braved the July heat to greet him, and to the point where he said yes to another four years with them.
Parenthetically, George’s retention and the swiftness with which he agreed to it serve to validate the strength of the Thunder’s culture and the all-out effort they give in showing the players’ value to them. So convinced was he of his best interests dovetailing with theirs that he didn’t even take a meeting with his hometown Lakers. And having been spurned by supposed lifer Kevin Durant in 2016, they now bask in their triumph, enough to accept the prospect of a $130-million luxury-tax bill, the most punitive in league history.
And that’s not all: The duration of George’s new contract underscores just how much his relationship with the Thunder has developed in so short a time. He could have affixed his Hancock on a one- or two-plus-one deal, thus setting himself up for a bonanza triggered by his 10-season tenure in the National Basketball Association. Instead, he ended up giving back as much love as he received by ensuring his commitment through 2021, and another year should he exercise his player option.
Nope, the Thunder aren’t close to keeping pace with the acknowledged elite even with George returning (and top defender Andre Roberson slated to be back from surgery on a ruptured left patellar tendon). Then again, losing him would have been devastating. At least they have solid blocks to build around. At least they have a bright future. At least they proved that they’re worth playing for and that headliner Westbrook is worth playing with. It’s a start and, more importantly, a means to an end they’re constantly working to ensure.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.