You know a trade is good when even the downside has upside. Consider this scenario: Russell Westbrook, basking in the Paul George hoopla, agrees to a five-year supermax extension to stay in Oklahoma City, George bolts for L.A., and the Thunder rebuild again with only Westbrook and Steven Adams tied to big-money long-term contracts.
You might quibble with how nice that upside is. There is risk in ponying up 40 percent of the cap to Westbrook as he passes 30; he's a so-so shooter who relies on athleticism, with knee surgery in the rearview. That is not the profile of a player who typically ages well. How exactly the Thunder would lure surrounding talent for Westbrook and Adams is unclear.
But for this team, in this market, that path is better than losing Westbrook outright this summer or next. The Thunder in Oklahoma City have been either cute-bad, contender-level good, or a mesmerizing show of howling Westbrook triple-doubles. They have never been just plain bad. What would that look like?
They could still end up there. George wants to go to L.A., and the team in the NBA city that is basically the complete opposite of L.A. just took a flier on him in the last year of his contract. If Westbrook has no faith George will stay, he may think twice about that supermax. There is a reason Sam Presti, the Thunder's unflappable GM, led the fight against lottery reform three years ago.
If you might face that unpleasant reality eventually, you might as well take a pit stop with a George-Westbrook duo. The Thunder can always hold their own George auction if need be. They essentially traded Serge Ibaka, on an expiring deal, for Paul George. The Magic traded Ibaka for Terrence Ross and a pick (since traded) in the 20s. Yeesh.
This is almost a risk-free gamble for the Thunder. Victor Oladipo is a nice player, but he's 25, and still hasn't developed into the two-way wing monster some projected. He's an average 3-point shooter whom opponents leave open, an erratic drive-and-kick guy, and a so-so defender with inconsistent habits. He's coming off the worst season of his career by most measures, although playing alongside Westbrook in the highest-usage season in recorded NBA history deflated everyone's numbers. Still: The fit was awkward.
Oladipo is fine. He's also making $21 million per year, a price point at which you hope to get better than fine. Domantas Sabonis, also headed to Indiana, is a mildly intriguing prospect who might turn into a playmaking power forward with some 3-point range. He flamed out after a promising start -- not unusual for rookies -- and attempted 67 free throws all season. You give up that stuff in a second for Paul freaking George. Paul George is a boss. In the worst case, he and Westbrook leave, and you start a new tanking scheme. (Whether Presti would stick around to guide it is an interesting hypothetical.)
If you drew up the ideal second banana for Westbrook, it would look a lot like George (or Anthony Davis, if you prefer bigs). He's comfortable working off the ball as a spot-up guy, and slithering around screens for catch-and-shoot jumpers -- or catch-and-drive attacks in the middle of the floor. He has hit better than 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s over the past three seasons combined, per SportVU data.
The Thunder are unstoppable when they run a Westbrook-Adams high pick-and-roll, and surround them with two or (preferably) three shooters. When Durant was still around, Adams had so much space to rumble to the rim, he started feasting on Tyson Chandler-style lob dunks. Those plays vanished with the franchise's founding father. "They took away the lobs," Adams told me after a Thunder practice in November.
George is a solid ball-handler who can run the offense when Westbrook rests and soak up some of the creative burden when the two share the floor. That is the perfect role for George. He's not quite good enough with the ball to run a top-10 offense. He is an apex second option. Taking one step down in the hierarchy will reinvigorate his defense, which is among the very best when George is dialed in.
Westbrook will have to change the way he plays to accommodate George -- and show the league's other stars they might get to do actual basketball activities if they team up with him. Last year was fun. The Thunder needed an extreme ball-dominant player to carry grinders intended to fit with two superstars. Westbrook took things an extra step, won the MVP, and notched triple-doubles. He can't play quite that way again and expect George to abandon L.A. dreams.
Given what else was out there, this is a disappointing return for Indiana and new president Kevin Pritchard, even with the Pacers negotiating from a position of weakness. Every team, even George's suitors in Boston and Cleveland, thinks there is at least a 75 percent chance George stays true to his L.A. plans. The Lakers certainly think that. It is unclear if they even engaged the Pacers Friday night. They didn't yield on either Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball, and if they are sure George is heading their way, they were right not to. The Pacers do not appear to have been interested in D'Angelo Russell. Time will tell on the L.A. front.
In what is now a time-honored tradition, reports quickly emanated from Boston last night about all the goodies the Celtics had offered: two starters (some combination of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart) and three draft picks in the most recent round of talks, and a mega-package at the trade deadline, per our Jeff Goodman and Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald, that included what became the No. 1 pick in the draft. (League sources verified that tidbit to ESPN.com.)
As I reported Friday morning, Boston's most recent offer, whenever it was on the table, 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. If the Celtics really offered three picks sometime in the past 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.
All of those picks could end up in the 20s. The Pacers were open about their desire for a top-10 pick, or some equivalent talent. Boston's package would not have met that requirement. Bradley may earn as much as Oladipo in two seasons. Smart's next deal will also kick in then. It is not some killer, irresistible package.
It's still better than what the Pacers got. Picks are liquid trade assets, even if they are projected to land in the 20s. Just a week ago, Portland turned two sub-lottery picks into the No. 10 pick. Indiana might even have taken that Boston deal had it been clearly on the table last night, according to sources familiar with the talks. It may not have been, even if Boston had offered it days before.
Timing and human dynamics play a role in high-pressure negotiations. The Celtics, Cavs, Nuggets, and Pacers have been talking off and on for weeks in what insiders described as an ongoing auction-style negotiation with shifting deadlines set by the Pacers. Boston and Indiana couldn't agree on a deal before Friday, and with free agency looming, the Celtics had to turn their attention to Gordon Hayward. They wanted to sort that out first, and maintain space for Hayward, before sending away rotation players and picks for George. The lowered salary cap made any deal struck before free agency even trickier.
If you send out two starters for a rental and whiff on Hayward, how much have you narrowed the gap with LeBron and the Warriors?
The Pacers, for whatever reason, decided they didn't want to wait any longer. They wouldn't act on Boston's timeline. They like Oladipo as a worker who will help set the culture for a painful rebuild. They may have worried Boston would pull back entirely if Hayward signed elsewhere.
But the Thunder's deal would surely have been available to Indiana in 72 hours. The Thunder have no other pressing business. Indiana could have waited for the Hayward situation to resolve, and gone back to Boston -- and everyone else.
The Pacers, Cavs, and Nuggets on Friday resuscitated a three-way deal that would have sent George to Cleveland and Kevin Love to Denver, according to several league sources. The Pacers could have had a package centered around Gary Harris, Trey Lyles, and a protected first-round pick, sources say. The Cavs, Nuggets, and Celtics were stunned when news of the trade broke on Twitter.
Harris is about two-and-half years younger than Oladipo, and shot 42 percent from 3 last season. He is a more intriguing player than Oladipo.
Portland offered multiple picks and at least one player at the draft, sources say. The Pacers said no.
Unless you love Oladipo the way Vivek Ranadive loves Buddy Hield, it's hard to believe the Pacers couldn't have managed better by acting earlier or later. If getting George out of the East was a top priority, well, that's silly. George might walk himself out of the East in a year.
It's easy to say the Pacers were foolish to turn down an offer that included the 2017 Nets pick at the trade deadline -- or to credit Boston's boldness in dangling it. History will say that the Pacers blundered. They could have jump-started their rebuild with Markelle Fultz. (They also turned down four first-round picks from the Hawks, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst, although all four could have landed outside the lottery.)
It's also not super relevant. Larry Bird was running the Pacers then. He wasn't trading George for anything but an unobtainable mother lode, according to several teams that talked to Indiana before the trade deadline -- including teams other than Boston, Cleveland, Denver, and the other usual suspects. It almost didn't even matter what was offered.
It's also fair to wonder: If Danny Ainge was willing to trade the 2017 Nets pick in February, why wasn't he willing to deal the 2018 Brooklyn pick -- or the Lakers/Kings pick -- to get over the goal line now?
Let's rewind: Boston had enough expiring salary flotsam -- Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller -- that it could send out its very best picks in February without compromising its playing rotation. That is no longer the case. Boston would have had to flip important players and picks for George this week; if Boston had to slide better players into the deal, it was apparently determined to yank back its best picks.
Dealing in February would have given George two playoff runs in Boston, enough time for Ainge, Brad Stevens, and their core players to sell him on a long-term future there. Moving now, before any potential Hayward signing, risked gutting the rotation and coming up empty in free agency. Simmer down from your Ainge pick-hoarding induced rage, and you can understand Boston's reluctance: Why pay a hefty price to rent Paul George, miss on Hayward, lose to Cleveland, and watch George disappear in a year?
Even so: Some of those core players are goners anyway -- either to free space now for Hayward, or next summer via lucrative new deals in free agency. It is very unlikely Boston retains all three of Isaiah Thomas, Smart, and Bradley next summer. Tatum and Brown are locked in, along with two well-regarded imports in Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele. The whole point of trading down for an extra top-5-level pick is to act aggressively when the opportunity is there. Other stars will become available over the next couple of years, but at some point, you have to throw in a little.
Critics pretend these are easy choices. They aren't. Evidence suggests Boston is playing for 2020, not 2018.
Still: If Boston nabs Hayward in two days, this will prove to be a huge missed chance. On the flip side, the Pacers will never know if Boston, with Hayward in the fold, might have forked over one of those two juicy picks.
Boston is still very much in the mix for Hayward, but Utah made up ground with its buzzer-beating addition of Ricky Rubio. George Hill's future in Utah had grown uncertain. He turned down a huge extension last season, according to league sources and prior reports, and his toe issues linger. Rubio stabilizes a position of need. He is a signal to Hayward: We are trying.
Minnesota fans are up in arms about effectively flipping Rubio for Jeff Teague, and then paying Teague about $3 million more per season than Rubio. I get it. Rubio is a beloved player -- their player. He plays with a totally unique panache. His limitations are obvious, but something about what he does -- the timing of his passes, the range of possible angles for them, his accuracy and derring-do -- makes the players around him better.
But his shaky shooting from all over the floor would have been a problem alongside two big men and two wings -- Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins -- who do their best work inside the arc. Rubio surged from outside late last season, but we've seen blips of that before. He also shot a hideous 48 percent from the restricted area, per Basketball-Reference, the fifth time in six seasons Rubio failed to crack 50 percent from there.
Teague isn't a great shooter, but he's more accurate than Rubio, and he'll get more catch-and-shoot looks than he did in Atlanta or Indiana. He should be a better fit for the revamped Wolves, even if the boost isn't huge. To get that, plus an extra first-round pick, is decent-enough work.
The pick comes via Oklahoma City, and the Wolves will get it next year if the Thunder make the playoffs. They damn well should now with George. The Thunder have about $110 million in 2017-18 salary committed to 10 or 11 players, depending on what they do with Semaj Christon's non-guaranteed deal.
That includes nothing for Andre Roberson or Taj Gibson. The tax luxury tax is set at $119.3 million. If Gibson leaves, the Thunder will have a hole at power forward unless they think Jerami Grant is ready to start there. (He's not.) They could try Roberson as a small-ball power forward, and use their midlevel on a shooter -- though spending the full version, valued around $8.4 million, would trigger a hard cap just above the tax. Side note: I'm fascinated to see if any team bids above the midlevel for C.J. Miles.
It will be very hard for a franchise that wouldn't go into the tax for James Harden to avoid it now. If they re-sign Roberson or Gibson and use either version of the midlevel exception, they could dip well into it. Waiving Kyle Singler -- and Kyle Singler's hair -- with the stretch provision would soften the blow, but likely not take them all the way under. Trading Enes Kanter would do it. Good luck with that.
George is worth all of this to the Thunder, even if the experiment fails. They should be really good next season -- perhaps a No. 4 seed in the West. This is a rabbit-out-the-hat job from Presti. The rest of the league is reeling and confused. The Thunder are back in business -- for now.