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The Oklahoma City Thunder Are One Move Away From A Perfect Offseason

Andy Lyons – Getty Images

Sam Presti’s summer of redemption has been better than anyone imagined, and he isn’t finished yet.

It feels like ancient history now, but flash back a year ago and many in the NBA world were imploring Sam Presti, general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, to trade Russell Westbrook. Presti, you see, had just lost the best player in franchise history to his team’s most intimidating rival, and Westbrook would enter free agency the next summer – this summer.

For a brief moment, Presti was looking at the possibility of having let Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka slip through his fingers. Westbrook eventually signed an extension with the Thunder, of course, meaning no trade occurred. The damage was done, though. In Durant, the Thunder lost a transcendent player and a chance at a title. Add in two damn-near untradeable contract extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo, and Oklahoma City’s 2016 summer became one big tragedy. 

Ironically, it’s that same cringe-worthy $84 million Oladipo extension that made this summer a wild success. Presti stunned the league by flipping Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers for Paul George in a trade that gets more confusing by the day. Essentially, the Thunder upgraded from Oladipo to George on the wing, simultaneously improving their team and reducing their payroll.

George is a phenomenal player – a laboratory-constructed wing and a top-15 kind of talent. He shot 41.8 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season while posting a sub-30 usage percentage, making him an ideal floor-spacing teammate for the ball-dominant (and just regular dominant) Westbrook. If Durant meshed with Westbrook, so too should George. 

Westbrook will also benefit from the shrewd three-year, $16.4 million signing of Patrick Patterson. The former Raptors forward is a much better shooter than Taj Gibson, who he’ll replace in Oklahoma City’s starting lineup. In his three-plus years with Toronto, Patterson shot 37.3 percent on threes, which made up over half of his overall field goal attempts. He’s a low-maintenance player who helps everyone on the floor and, alongside George, improves the Thunder’s cramped spacing.

That’s exactly what Russ needs. The dude is the archetypal spread pick-and-roll point guard. With his athleticism, passing ability, and stop-on-a-dime midrange jumper, he’s virtually unstoppable coming downhill in space. Instead of seeing quadruple-teams – as he does in the video above – Westbrook will now see double-teams. Even then, George is around to make teams pay when they over-commit on Westbrook-centric actions. 

George’s greatest impact, however, will come with Westbrook on the bench. With Thunder coach Billy Donovan likely to stagger his two superstars’ minutes, George can turn into the main creator alongside the Thunder’s bench guys. When Westbrook sat last season, the Thunder’s offense collapsed, which effectively cemented their first-round playoff loss against the Rockets. Now, Oklahoma City can hang around without their energizer bunny.

Russell Westbrook 2016-17 On-Off Stats

Offensive RatingDefensive RatingNet Rating
On Court107.9104.6+3.3
Off Court97.4106.4-8.9 

While the offense should be good, both with and without Westbrook, the defense could be even better. In another strong move, Presti cheaply retained All-Defensive second teamer Andre Roberson, who established himself last season as one of the peskiest and most versatile stoppers in the league. The contract, a fair $30 million over three years, becomes a bargain if he can ever add value on offense. 

Roberson and George form a devastating defensive combo on the wings. At 6’7” and 6’9,” respectively, the two are both long, slithery athletes capable of guarding three or four positions. Against teams with two perimeter stars, the Thunder can throw an ace defender on each and hide Westbrook on a less threatening guy. 

Westbrook, of course, already does nothing on defense. With the defenders around him ranging from good (Adams and Patterson) to top-flight (Roberson), it doesn’t matter. This defense should be elite. Only the Spurs and Warriors boast the same defensive flexibility on the wings, and those two teams paced the league in defensive efficiency last season. 

Overall, the Thunder will be very, very good. Westbrook’s efficiency will tick up with the added spacing and lighter burden . Meanwhile, George adds the kind of second superstar worth five to ten wins. Even in a loaded Western Conference, the pair should lead Oklahoma City to a top-four playoff spot. If they avoid the four seed, they have a legitimate shot at meeting the Warriors in the Western Finals. 

It’s easy to downplay Presti’s summer of redemption. In the end, he was merely the beneficiary of Indiana’s drastic mistake. But over the least three years, haven’t we been praising Danny Ainge and the Celtics for the exact same thing? Sweet-talking a bad trade into fruition is a skill, and it’s a skill that can make the difference between a .500 team and a contender. Even though the Thunder are a long-shot for a championship, they’re at least giving themselves a slim chance. The other option – tanking while Russell Westbrook is on the team – is unthinkable. 

Nevertheless, the summer is still incomplete, because although Westbrook is on the team now, he’ll likely exercise his player option next summer to become a free agent. The reigning MVP is eligible for a mammoth five-year, $200-plus ”supermax” extension. If the two sides can’t work out a deal by the start of the season, though, Westbrook will have to wait until next summer to re-sign. 

George is also a free agent in 2018, and he’s gone if Westbrook either signs elsewhere or takes too long to make a decision after July 1. But even if George is certain to leave, Presti must retain Westbrook long-term. Russ is a top-eight player in the league who just carried a shallow, poorly-built team to 45 wins. And it’s not like the Thunder can just go out and sign another MVP. Without any notable trade assets, the only way to gather talent in such a small market is to draft well or lose so many games that a top draft pick is guaranteed (That’s called tanking, by the way.) 

Having played in Oklahoma City for his entire professional career, Westbrook is one of those draft picks. His extension last summer showed loyalty; an extension this summer would be heroic. Presti has done everything in his power to help Russ and the Thunder organization this offseason – shedding a poor contract, adding a superstar, signing good role players to good contracts. After a brutal summer in 2016, Presti is now an early favorite for Executive of Year. But he still has one task to go – one $200 million task – and the clock is ticking.

Edited by Julian Boireau, Vincent Choy.

How many All-Star appearances does Paul George have
Created 7/28/17
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