Thunder blindsided but focused on rebuild

It was only a little more than a year ago that Paul George stood on a stage in Arcadia, Oklahoma, with Russell Westbrook, champagne bottles popped, a cigar in one hand and a microphone in the other, and announced he was returning to Oklahoma City. "If y'all didn't quite get it, let me say it again: I'm here to stay," he said.

Some time in the past few days, George's agent, Aaron Mintz, called Thunder general manager Sam Presti and requested that George be traded. It was a complete and total shock to the Thunder, but it happened because Kawhi Leonard had been working to recruit George to join him with the LA Clippers. In the end, despite George signing a four-year deal with the Thunder last summer, he remained a free agent.

The Thunder opened free agency by signing Mike Muscala and Alec Burks, and re-signing Nerlens Noel. All low-level, but necessary moves made to try to retool and add to a cash-strapped team operating well over the salary cap. The kind of moves you don't make if you think you might be trading one of your franchise cornerstones less than a week later.

But after George's request, the Thunder had to face the hard look at a reset. He had two guaranteed years left on his contract and a player option for the year after that, so they could've played it out and tried to win him over again. Two disappointing first-round playoff exits didn't help their case, and with George not all in, and the Thunder leery of facing an Anthony Davis situation should the request have been made public, they pulled the plug now.

The Thunder's haul for George is massive, made bigger by the fact that Leonard is part of the package. For the Clippers to secure Leonard, they had to have George. So it lands the Thunder three unprotected first-round picks (2022, 2024 and 2026), two first-rounders rerouted via Miami (2021 unprotected and 2023 lottery protected), the rights to swap picks with the Clippers in 2023 and 2025 (unprotected), plus Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It's more than the Pelicans got for Anthony Davis, the previous precedent set for return on the value of a superstar.

Now, like after Kevin Durant's departure in 2016, all eyes are on Russell Westbrook, though this time, circumstances are different. The Thunder are comfortable embarking on a rebuild rather than trying to retool. But they will evaluate their options going forward, which include seeing what this team looks like with Westbrook leading the charge alongside Gallinari and Steven Adams, trading current pieces to try to add to the roster, or hitting reboot on the roster completely and trading Westbrook. The last option appears to be the most likely scenario.

Westbrook and George's relationship was strong throughout, and there was no falling out that precluded the trade request, according to sources. George played the best basketball of his career last season, blossoming into a dual candidate for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. His season, and the Thunder's, changed when he injured both shoulders after the All-Star break. He played through the injuries but had surgery on both shoulders after the season (rotator cuff on one side, labrum on the other). He doesn't have an official timetable yet to return to play, but the Thunder were preparing for him to possibly miss the start of next season.

The Thunder entered this offseason in a precarious position, over the cap and deep into the luxury tax. They were actively looking at cost-cutting measures, including trading higher-salaried players to reduce the burden of another hefty looming tax bill. The plan, though, was to remain a contender and maintain a high-caliber roster, if not even improve it. George's request changed that, and with the Thunder still nearly $15 million over the tax threshold and facing a current $43 million luxury tax payment, more change is certainly coming to the roster. The only question is how big that change will be. And at this point, the answer seems to be pretty obvious.