About 139 minutes before the NBA’s free-agency period “officially” began, ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne brought word the Oklahoma City Thunder had flipped Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers for future Los Angeles Laker Paul George.
So, naturally, people were, and are, and will forever remain, pissed at the Boston Celtics and team president Danny Ainge. If they’re not angry, they’re confused. And if they’re not confused, they’re gleefully, shamelessly, unendingly lazing in the afterglow of Beantown’s latest empty-handed venture.
The Thunder won this trade. Hands down. Period. End of story. It doesn’t matter that George is liable to get a Lakers logo tattooed on his lower back at any moment.
If he leaves, they gave up the return they landed for Serge Ibaka—Oladipo’s cumbrous four-year deal and a solid, if unspectacular, lottery prospect in Sabonis—for one year’s worth of a top-20 player who shows their top-seven megahuman, Russell Westbrook, they won’t let Kevin Durant’s departure inveigle them into a complicit state of averageness.
The Thunder swung for the fences with Westbrook one year out from free agency (player option) and everything on the line, again, just like the summer of 2016. Except, this time, they’re pushing the bill rather than floating it. Both George and Westbrook can leave in 2018, and Oklahoma City would at least know it tried and damn near staved off the inevitable reset.
Now if George stays, then, well, wow. Surrounding him, Westbrook and Steven Adams with Andre Roberson (restricted) and enough shooters gives the Thunder a bona fide top-four team in the Western Conference. They won’t beat the Golden State Warriors, but they’ll be a Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs or Minnesota Timberwolves bad break away from monopolizing the territory just below the reigning champs. There is value in that pursuit, however ultimately futile, when you’re playing in a small market that cannot reasonably bottom out for more than a year, maybe two.
In this blatant victory for the Thunder lies the moral of the story: The Celtics failed. Any time another team wins a blockbuster trade for a superstar, they lose. They can peddle more assets to squads auctioning off a cornerstone than any other viable suitor.
This was true with the DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler deals. It remains valid with this George trade. It will (probably) still be accurate when the New Orleans Pelicans are inevitably forced to shop Anthony Davis a few years down the line.
To let another superstar go by, when the Celtics are the closest thing to a pseudo-rival the Cleveland Cavaliers have in the Eastern Conference and George was traded for 30 cents on the dollar, is basketball heresy. Anti-Ainge sentiments have been accordingly scathing—so caustic and commonplace it’s impossible to pluck out one, or 50, and dissect their demerit.
It’s easier, and more meaningful, to just point out the Celtics aren’t losers here. They’re not exactly winners; ducking a Paul George trade isn’t akin to dodging bullets. But they’re certainly not losers.
For starters, it appears they tried, multiple times, to acquire George from the Pacers. Ahead of February’s trade deadline, they dangled the eventual No. 1 pick, via the Brooklyn Nets, and three other first-rounders, according to the Boston Globe‘s Adam Himmelsbach—a deal also verified by ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe. Meanwhile, ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman said they offered three non-Nets/Lakers/Kings first-round picks, Jae Crowder and another starter on draft night.
These are, objectively, good deals—far superior returns than the Pacers accepted from the Thunder. Even if you want to dismiss the trade-deadline offer because Larry Bird was running the show in Indiana, newly installed team president Kevin Pritchard messed up by not taking the draft-night bait.
Hindsight is a fickle beast. There’s a chance we’re all willing stooges in the Celtics’ attempt to positively spin their unsuccessful involvement. But there’s a lot of noise here—too much for all of it to be part of some elaborate shell game.
Who knows, maybe Pritchard really is the king of pettiness and didn’t want to ship George somewhere in the East where he might potentially be happy. He called George’s desire to leave a “gut punch,” even though the writing has been on the wall long before he succeeded Bird, and he reportedly, per The Undefeated’s Mike Wise, nixed a three-team deal with the Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets that would have landed the Pacers Gary Harris, Trey Lyles and a protected first-round pick.
Lest we forget, by the way, Pritchard’s latest asking price from the Celtics was, according to the Boston Herald’s Mark Murphy, absolutely, positively, unfathomably ludicrous:
Source added that Pritchard’s last demand was for next year’s Nets and Lakers picks, plus starting player(s).
— Mark Murphy (@Murf56) June 29, 2017
Should a fraction of these juicy-tidbit dumps be true, it’s clear Pritchard was somewhat concerned with jettisoning George out of the conference—an irrational, albeit believable, intent borne from vengeance, frustration, spite, whatever.
It’s also possible Pritchard moved off his stance, ever so slightly, only to find out it was too late. That the Celtics diluted down all their previous packages to glorified filler. Their latest offering, per Lowe, “did not include any of the following: next year’s Nets pick, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, or the Lakers-Kings pick Boston picked up from Philly in exchange for sliding down two spots in the draft.”
He continued: “If the Celtics really offered three picks sometime in the last two weeks—and I believe they did—they came from some combination of Boston’s own stash and extra protected 2019 first-rounders acquired from Memphis and the Clippers. Boston also offered a combination of three starter-level players and two picks, according to sources familiar with the talks.”
These are, once more, sound packages for a player who amounts to a rental. Sure, the Pacers could fairly easily talk themselves into the Thunder’s package over Boston’s most recent proposals. Having semi-proven commodities in Oladipo and Sabonis under lock and key for the next three to four years might be more appealing than assuming responsibility for Avery Bradley’s and Marcus Smart’s raises, along with the inherent uncertainty attached to first-round picks projected to dip outside the lottery.
But let’s not pretend the Celtics did irreversible disservice to themselves by not parting with more. George is a superstar and, when engaged, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. His experience, and willingness, to work off the ball, in almost a tertiary capacity, makes him an easy fit.
George also wasn’t one of the six best forwards in the league this past year. His aversion to playing power forward is weird, in that it’s an antiquated allergy. He didn’t make one of the three All-NBA teams.
According to NBA Math’s total points added, George graded out as the 10th-most valuable forward last season, trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Otto Porter.
Would he have represented an upgrade if the Celtics were forfeiting two, or all three, of Bradley, Crowder and Smart, plus picks? Definitely. Maybe. We can’t be too sure.
Better yet: Does it matter?
The Lakers bugaboo doesn’t go away because George ends up in Boston. Teams think there is “at least a 75 percent chance George stays true to his L.A. plans,” according to Lowe. Flipping any kind of value for such a flagrant flight risk, let alone top-three prospects and picks, is an unnecessary gambit if you deem it so.
And the Celtics might not have quashed the notion altogether. They wanted to wait for Hayward’s free agency to unfold. That’s a sensible route by them. They have to ditch Kelly Olynyk (restricted) to afford Hayward’s $29.7 million max. (More collateral damage is necessary if Guerschon Yabusele, like Ante Zizic, comes stateside.) Acquiring George now would actually increase the money, and therefore talent, they needed to send out to continue that pursuit.
Why would Ainge do that? If waiting on a George trade spares Smart while you send out Bradley, Crowder and whatever pick(s) Indy wants after Hayward signs, you absolutely do it. Plus, Hayward is a crucial ingredient to securing George’s long-term interests. Playing with an extra All-Star is always more appealing. It makes perfect sense the Celtics didn’t want to go all-in on George first.
None of which is the Pacers’ problem. If they had pushed through a deal that netted Harris, Lyles and a pick, their decision to pounce is defensible. But the Oladipo-Sabonis package would have been there later, after the free-agency dust settled.
The Thunder wouldn’t care that they couldn’t plan their post-July 1 approach around George’s arrival. He’s Paul gosh darn George. General manager Sam Presti would have pulled the trigger on this deal at any time. So yes, the Pacers could have waited, perhaps extracting more out of the Celtics regardless of what happened with Hayward. Maybe their prolonged flirtation with everyone else even scares a little extra something out of the Lakers themselves. They’ll never know.
The Celtics, though? They’re fine. Worst-case scenario, they’ve missed out on Butler, George and Hayward. Big deal. They’ll run back a 53-win core that just added a top-three prospect in Tatum, is on track for another with the 2018 Nets pick and is perhaps on the verge of yet another top-five talent by 2019 at the latest with the Lakers-Kings commitment.
This is not a bad place to be—particularly after the mass exodus of talent to the West, and especially when many believe LeBron James will follow suit in 2018.
Yes, there are things to figure out. Bradley, Smart and Isaiah Thomas are all due new contracts after next season. There’s no way the Celtics keep all three, and whoever they do retain will no longer be on a below-market deal. But losing one or two of them, while footing raises for the other one or two, doesn’t compromise their ability to co-opt the line between contending now and three, four or five years down the road.
You know what would have?
Mortgaging the treasure chest for George without already having Hayward. He doesn’t get you past the Cavaliers on his own and, again, could leave.
Maintaining the status quo isn’t a bad thing when the constant is, realistically, 50-plus wins, a Conference Finals ceiling and the means to fork over the moon when the situation actually calls for it. The George trade didn’t. If Butler was the lone prize, his relocation didn’t either.
The next available star might. And if he does, the Celtics will still be ready, lurking in their same position of power that must no longer be confused with one of failure.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for NBA Math and Bleacher Report. Listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R’s Andrew Bailey.