Paul George left the door open, but Russell Westbrook and Thunder can keep him happy

When Paul George requested a trade from the Pacers, he named the Lakers as the team he would like to be traded to. This wasn’t simply a rumor — he pretty much told media before the Thunder’s matchup against L.A. that the Los Angeles was where he wanted to be.

“All that was said was that (was) a destination I would love to go to,” George said. “There wasn’t, you know, a ‘Hey, gunpoint to the head, send me here.’ I just stated somewhere that I wanted to go play. You ask 80, 70 percent of the guys in the league if they would love to go back home and play for their city, play for their home. That’s all I stated.

“I would have loved to go back home and play for my city. So, no regrets at all. No regrets at all. I thought this trade that went down was a win-win for both sides.”

Of course, a lot has changed since George’s request and now. The Thunder didn’t seem like a possible destination for George until happened and then Oklahoma City went out and added Carmelo Anthony. All of a sudden George went from a team that was barely making the playoffs to a supposed title contender. The beginning was rough, with OKC at .500 record on Dec. 18, but they’ve won seven of their last nine and entered 2018 with a dangerous look about them.

The Thunder know that with a group like this, they can’t just make the first round of the playoffs and exit. They need to prove the additions of Anthony and George make them a true contender. Not just because of expectations, but to prove to Anthony and George that it’s worth sticking around. They both have the option of being unrestricted free agents next summer and the assumption is they’ll make use of that option. (George stands to make a lot more money immediately, while Anthony can sure up his future at age 34.)

There are no set criteria to keeping George. It could be as simple as advancing in the playoffs, but Kevin Durant’s last Thunder team reached the Western Conference finals. For Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook the answer to keeping George is an easy one.

A championship certainly would make it easier for the Thunder to keep George, but how realistic is that goal? Well, most superteams don’t win a championship the first year they form. The 2007-08 Celtics broke that rule. Last season’s Warriors team was a group that had already won a title together and merely added Durant. The Thunder have one thing in common with those two teams: a great defense.

Oklahoma City’s one constant all season has been their defense. They rank third in the NBA in points allowed per possession, and even when the offense was faltering, that defense kept them in the top 10 in point differential. That offense is now all the way up to 12th, but the underlying issues still remain. No title team since the 2003-04 Pistons has ranked outside the top 11 in offensive rating.

The Thunder are not an efficient shooting team, ranking in the 20’s in both True Shooting (24th) and Effective Field Goal  (21st) percentages. Their offense has only recently climbed to above average league wide and even then they’ll have moments of stuttering. 

How does this effect George? Well, his role in the offense hasn’t always been glamorous. He’s at his most successful in catch-and-shoot situations, and there have been multiple games this season where the superstar wing has scored fewer than 10 points. Someone always has to give up more than expected in these team-ups, and for a while it looked like that was George.

However, since December 18, George has scored 20 points or more five times. He had a 24 point performance against the Lakers in Los Angeles. Slowly, the Thunder are figuring out how to get him involved.

Maybe, by the end of the season, this will be enough. As Westbrook said, a championship is a pitch that’s pretty hard to walk away from, but there are no guarantees with that. What the Thunder can do is get George involved on a team that’s winning a lot of games at the right time. If he feels confident there’s a future in OKC and the Lakers continue to sputter, then re-signing him wouldn’t be out of realm of possibility. He even told ESPN a team on the rise is what he’s truly looking for.

“I’ve got a lot to think about. … This summer will be huge. I’ve got a lot to think about. If we’re trending, if we’re going in the right direction, if I feel there is something that we’re building, and there’s a foundation — it would be kind of clueless, just stupid on my behalf to up and leave.”

There’s still a lot of basketball to be played, but right now the Thunder are going in the right direction. They’ve made massive strides since their early season struggles. All OKC can do is keep winning games and hope that’s enough for George.