The Thunder were not pleased. They had greeted free agency with guarded optimism, strapped as they were by the repeater tax and yet bent on coming up with solid deals to enhance their competitiveness moving forward. Despite already having the most expensive payroll in the National Basketball Association, they remained committed to investing in talent. And they did, entering into handshake deals with Alex Burks and Mike Muscala. Unfortunately, their plans were overtaken by the prospect of top scorer and erstwhile Most Valuable Player candidate Paul George leaving them. For some reason, he asked to be traded, and specifically to the Clippers.
The Thunder would know why soon enough. Apparently, George was convinced by free agent Kawhi Leonard to pressure them into coming to terms with the Clippers so the two could play together in native California. That he did so shocked them. First, he remained under contract, the terms of which he only too happily agreed to last year. In affixing his Hancock on a three-plus-one deal, he proudly pronounced that he had “unfinished business.” He could have gone for one with a shorter length, or taken meetings with other suitors as a free agent. Instead, he shunned any and all alternatives, proclaiming that “I’m here to stay.”
How George changed his mind was clear; he met with Leonard in secret and hatched the plan to force the Thunder’s hand. Why he change his mind wasn’t. Perhaps he had buyer’s remorse fresh off a second straight one-and-done stint in the playoffs, not to mention in the face of an obvious decline in the performance of fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook. All the same, his desire to leave them forced their hand. Even as they didn’t want to part ways with him, they knew they had no choice. They saw in the immediate past experience of the Pelicans with Anthony Davis just how a marquee name bent on changing addresses could disrupt chemistry. And so they engaged in negotiations with the Clippers.
Fortunately for the Thunder, general manager Sam Presti is as good as they come. He sized up the three finalists for Leonard’s services and promptly played off two against each other. The Lakers were the third and, having already broken the bank for Davis, did not have the assets to welcome George into the fold. After dangling the threat of the Raptors swooping in, they came to an agreement with the Clippers for the most sizable haul in pro hoops annals; former Italian League MVP Danilo Gallinari, future All-Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, four unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick, and two first-round pick swaps.
In other words, the Thunder managed to move from potentially improving their position and yet remaining hard-pressed to keep pace in the ultra-crowded West to rebuilding with prime pieces already in place. In the process, they were also able to prune down their humongous tax bill. In line with their new mandate, they afforded Muscala and Burks the luxury of backing out of verbal agreements. And after the latter did so, they dealt vital cog Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for yet another first-round pick. Moving forward, the departure of Westbrook is all that‘s left for them to complete their pivot.
Outwardly, the Thunder will insist that they’re no fans of how things played out. Among themselves, though, they can’t but be pleased that the turn of events, however shocking, has allowed them to jump-start a much-needed reboot. The treasure trove of assets they received for George, who has had surgeries on both shoulders and right leg and who figures to miss the start of the 2019-20 season while in recovery, is unprecedented and should quicken the pace of their progress. Meanwhile, they’re working with Westbrook to find him a desirable landing spot; in line is yet another windfall of draft picks.
For a glimpse of the Thunder’s real sentiments on the matter, pundits need only note that they, too, kept negotiations out of the limelight. Were they truly bent on keeping the status quo, all they had to do was authorize or cause a well-placed leak and then use the ensuing ruckus as reason to keep George. Instead, they worked within Leonard’s timetable, knowing full well that the Clippers would just about hand everything over, the kitchen sink included. And, in the end, they got what they wanted — with public sympathy as a decided bonus.
If developments triggered by Leonard’s grand design wounded any quarter, it’s Westbrook. After news of the Clippers’ coup sent the NBA in a frenzy early Saturday morning, George was caught on video sporting a wide grin and declaring “We comin’ home!” In separate postings on social media, he would thank the Thunder and their fans as well as vow to oppose any position casting aspersions on the character of his former teammate. Nonetheless, there can be no discounting the fact that he made a choice, and the choice involved partnering with another All-Star.
Whether the contention that no transcendent talent wants to play alongside Westbrook is true or not depends on perspective. In any case, the answer has become irrelevant for the Thunder. They, too, are angling to part ways with him, and he with them. And if there’s anything their inevitable split will prove, it’s that loyalty has value only if assessed in support of the bottom line. He may know the business of basketball, but they’re compelled to view basketball as a business. Leonard did. George did. And they’re doing so — with no small measure of relief.
(Tomorrow: The NBA, finally boasting of parity, but for how long?)
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.