Examining What Makes Paul George a Perfect Fit with the Oklahoma City Thunder
Paul George is in. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis are out. And now, everything has changed for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As NBA fans worldwide readied themselves for the start of free agency at midnight eastern on Saturday, July 1, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne dropped a bombshell:
Paul George has been traded to OKC, per sources
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) July 1, 2017
And then the terms were disclosed:
Hearing Oladipo and Sabonis going to Indy
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) July 1, 2017
Wait, that’s all it took to acquire four-time All-Star Paul George? Who was coming off a 23.7 point, 6.6 rebound, 3.3 assist per game season? Yes, a season after acquiring Sabonis and Oladipo in the Serge Ibaka deal, Thunder general manager Sam Presti was able to flip them for Paul George. Pretty good.
And after taking stock of his fit with the team, it looks even better.
George’s Fit in OKC
When considering George’s fit with the Thunder, there’s no better place to start than with reigning league MVP Russell Westbrook. Westbrook’s 2016-17 season was one for the record books, with averages of 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists and 1.6 steals. He had the highest usage rating in NBA history (41.7 percent) and, as we saw in the playoffs, was a one-man wrecking crew.
But it wasn’t enough. When Westbrook relented the attack, there was limited playmaking around him. Westbrook attempted 37.6 percent of the Thunder’s shots in the regular season, and just 18.8 percent of his made field goals were assisted on—a rate that dipped to 11.9 percent in the playoffs. For comparison, high-usage guards like James Harden (18.1 percent), John Wall (20.7 percent), Damian Lillard (31.9 percent) and Isaiah Thomas (43.5 percent) all saw more of their buckets come off assists.
In five playoff games, just seven of Westbrook’s 59 made field goals were assisted.
Add in George, and the Thunder now have two of the league’s top 15 players, and a pair of the most athletic, dynamic talents imaginable.
George gives Westbrook a running mate in transition; the point guard led the league in fast-break points and OKC ranked third, despite only Oladipo and Westbrook placing in the top 25. Westbrook was second in points off turnover per game (4.7), and George was eighth (4.2).
During his MVP campaign, Westbrook was fifth in drives per game, ninth in points off drives and second in assists off drives. But his field-goal percentage was just 48 percent on those plays and he averaged a full turnover on drives alone. The Thunder’s lack of outside shooting forged a congested paint, and Westbrook was left to either hoist up a wild shot or throw it away.
Last season, George was fourth in catch-and-shoot points per contest at 7.4 and posted a blistering 59.9 effective field-goal percentage, compared to his 46.2 percent on pull-up jumpers. If Westbrook and George can get the drive-and-kick game going, watch out.
George has a diverse attack on offense, making him one of the most unique scorers in the NBA. Not only does he rank in the 84th percentile on spot-ups at 1.14 points per possession (PPP), he also ranks in the 79th percentile on cuts (1.40 PPP), 77th on dribble handoffs (1.04 PPP), 73rd in isolation (0.94 PPP) and 68th off screens (1.0 PPP).
Most elite scorers put the ball in the basket in one or two ways, but George has a litany of weapons in his arsenal. This adaptability will be paramount in avoiding the predictability that plagued the Thunder offense last season.
If that wasn’t enough, George is an elite one-on-one defender, capable of locking down even the most determined scorers.
Staggering Westbrook and George’s minutes will be of utmost importance, as last season the Thunder struggled to keep their head above water without their lead floor general—especially in the playoffs.
The Thunder outscored their counterparts by 3.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season with Westbrook on the court and were outpaced by 8.9 points while he was on the bench. In five playoff games, they topped the Rockets by 4.9 points per 100 possessions with him in the game but were down by 51.3 points per 100 when he sat.
Spoiler alert: That’s not good.
A quick look at OKC’s most-used lineups (and Thunder Twitter), reveals head coach Billy Donovan sparingly staggered Westbrook and Oladipo’s minutes, rarely using Oladipo as the primary ball-handler with the bench unit and leaving Semaj Christon, Cameron Payne or Norris Cole to run the offense. It didn’t go well. For the Westbrook-George pairing to truly excel, Donovan has to hand the reins to the latter when his point guard needs a breather.
Yes, George’s desire to bolt for Los Angeles in 2018 is known, so this could very well turn out to be a one-year rental. But if the fit with Westbrook is seamless, and the Thunder finish in the top half of the West, why would George join Lonzo Ball and a bunch of young guns who might be able to have home-court advantage in the playoffs a few years down the road?
Plus, getting rid of the remaining four years and $84 million on Oladipo’s contract doesn’t hurt. The awkward fit with Westbrook, in a glorified spot-up-shooting role, made unloading him a win in itself. Here’s an NBA executive’s take on the matter, per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon:
NBA exec on Paul George deal: "World's smartest salary dump by OKC."
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) July 1, 2017
OKC also receives George’s Bird Rights, meaning they can exceed the salary cap a year from now to re-sign George to a max contract. Westbrook can ink an extension of his own this summer or wait to see what George does next summer. Most of the time it feels like the point guard will be a member of the Thunder for life, but as Thunder fans know, public proclamations don’t always endure.
Roughly one year ago, in the wake of a 3-1 collapse during the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder tried retooling the team to keep pace with the rest of the elites. Presti traded Serge Ibaka to the Magic for Oladipo, Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova, and All-Star forward Al Horford was “really, really interested” in joining their cause if Durant stuck around.
Only problem: Durant signed with the Warriors. And Horford never came.
The Thunder were left with Westbrook and a ragtag bunch of one-dimensional talents. From all-offense players in Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and Alex Abrines, to all-defense players in Roberson and Steven Adams, one star wasn’t enough. Role players were thrust into more prominent roles for which they weren’t suited, and Westbrook’s brilliance was only enough for a No. 6 seed.
But with George in the mix, the Thunder have a dimension they lacked in 2016-17. And the NBA better be ready.
Follow Michael on Twitter @mbrock03