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Saturday, July 08, 2017

Paul George Acquisition Lifts Thunder Back to Contender Status

The Oklahoma City Thunder took a major step toward contender status by acquiring Paul George from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for shooting guard Victor Oladipo and power forward Domantas Sabonis. This means that Russell Westbrook is no longer a one man show; now he has a running mate who can take pressure off of him when they are on the court together and who can hold down the fort when Westbrook rests.

George, a four-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA Third Team selection, forced the Pacers' hand by making it clear that he would leave after next season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He has averaged 18.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 3.2 apg during his seven season career; last season, he scored a career-high 23.7 ppg while also posting career-highs in field goal percentage (.461) and free throw percentage (.898, fifth in the NBA).

George does not appear to be the caliber of player or leader who can carry a team to a championship as the number one option, as evidenced by his performance and demeanor during the first round of the 2017 playoffs as the Cavaliers swept his Pacers. That moment and that role as the number one guy were just a little too big for George--and that's OK: not everyone is built for that moment or that role. Westbrook is built for that moment and that role, so if George understands and accepts his place in the pecking order then the Thunder can be a very dangerous team. George has the ability to be a lockdown defender, he is a scorer who also is a shooter (two different skill sets), he is a decent rebounder and he can be the primary playmaker for stretches.

Ideally, George's talents and contributions will enable Westbrook to have better shot selection, to exert more energy on defense and to be able to rest without the entire team falling apart. The Thunder are not yet good enough to beat a fully healthy Warriors team but--if everything breaks right in terms of health and team chemistry--the Thunder could emerge as the second best team in the West. I am not predicting that just yet, mind you, but that is the potential ceiling for this group; I will wait to make my predictions until all of the free agency dominoes fall into place.

The Thunder also re-signed Andre Roberson and acquired free agent power forward Patrick Patterson, which means that their new projected starting lineup is Westbrook, Roberson, George, Patterson and Steven Adams. That quintet is a significant upgrade over the Thunder's primary starting five last season: Westbrook, Roberson, Victor Oladipo, Sabonis, Adams. George and Patterson provide better shooting/floor spacing, better rebounding and better defense than Oladipo and Sabonis did.

While the benefits for the Thunder are immediate and obvious, this transaction is obviously a huge setback for the Pacers, who barely made the playoffs last season even with George playing at a high level. Now the Pacers must hope that Myles Turner continues to develop and that Kevin Pritchard--who has replaced Larry Bird as the President of Basketball Operations--is able to rebuild a very flawed and limited roster.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:56 PM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Monday, July 10, 2017 12:29:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Assuming average (or better) health, OKC doesn't have much of an excuse for finishing anything worse than 2nd or 3rd in the West. RWB just won the MVP, Paul George is at worst the 7th best guy at his position (though I have him 5th behind LBJ, KD, Kawhi, and Giannis), Patterson and Adams are both above-average two-way players (and Adams is probably a top 7 center himself in a league mostly devoid of great centers), and Roberson, though offensively limited, is an All-D caliber defender and a great rebounder for his position. Felton is a real live grownup backup PG, McDermott is a solid shooter, and Kanter is a capable scorer and rebounder (albeit a terrible defender).

That said, I've always been skeptical of this franchise (and, sure, I don't like 'em, either), and I suspect they'll find a way to muck this up. George may not give a crap with his eyes on LA, RWB may play exactly like he did last year (that is to say, racking up stats on one end and napping on the other), and Billy Donovan may continue to be completely incapable of getting any offensive production out of his supporting players.

RWB is great, and I listed him as my MVP last year for the herculean stats he put up and for dragging a dubious cast to 47 wins, but he has yet to prove himself as either a two-way player or as a guy who can be the best player* on a true contender. This year is his chance- and possibly his last, if George leaves and he stays- to do both, and the "he doesn't have enough help" excuse he got last year doesn't apply to either anymore.

*If you're one of the ones who thinks he was better than Durant in '16, then let's change that to "unquestioned best player," but also know that I disagree with you and think you're silly.

 
At Monday, July 10, 2017 2:32:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

I never believed in the "he doesn't have any help" for the very greatest players of the game, unless they run into a historic team.

If you're a great player, your team should make the playoffs, period. That's why I don't consider Kevin Garnett on the level of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or his contemporary, Tim Duncan. Even Hakeem Olajuwon made the playoffs with a shit-sandwich of a team.

If you're an all-time great player, your team should be automatic championship contender, if not necessarily champs. That's why I don't consider players like Barkley or Malone all-time great players, they're on the next tier, below Duncan or LBJ.

Paul George isn't the best player at his position, but even the best player at that position managed only one finals trip in what, 9 years with Russell Westbrook?

Westbrook had been channeling 2006 Kobe Bryant - but with the same results. First round elimination. Let's see if he's mature enough to sublimate his game for team success, given that the team has upgraded from 2017. Where they end up depends on exactly how much stronger the Western Conference seemed to improve this summer.

 
At Monday, July 10, 2017 5:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So Awet, you're saying Kobe wasn't even one of the top players in the league at the time from 2005-07?

And that Oscar wasn't an all-time great since he only played 5 playoffs in 10 years in CIN? I certainly don't consider as great as most do, but still consider him an all-time great. But, based on what you're saying, he has no business even being mentioned amongst the all-time greats.

I don't completely disagree with your comments, but they seem pretty extreme to me. There's going to be anywhere from 4-6 ridiculously good West teams next season, making it to the 2nd round would be a huge accomplishment. And anyone beating GS would be even harder to see.

And for the record, Hakeem only managed 5 50-win seasons in 17 years in HOU. And only 8 seasons reaching 47 wins. If you think his casts were bad, did you watch OKC play any last year?

 
At Tuesday, July 11, 2017 2:22:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

So, Anonymous, I'm saying Kobe wasn't good enough to contend for a title despite performing at an all-time level. Go back to Michael Jordan in 1988, or to Chamberlain in 1962, and you'll see the same results. Jordan and Chamberlain made the second round, while Bryant and Westbrook were eliminated in the first round in a deeper league.

Robertson was a great player, but he should belong in the second tier with West and Baylor, as well as Barkley and Malone. He was not a great leader or a teammate - too much of a perfectionist. Only Russell and Chamberlain from his era belong to the higher tier.

While Hakeem Olajuwon was my all-time favorite player to watch, he did not learn the secret of basketball until around 1993. Some learn this secret very early on like Johnson and Bird, some late like Bryant and LBJ, and some never like Barkley.

 
At Tuesday, July 11, 2017 11:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a very bizarre line of thinking. I'm very confused by it. So, Wilt averaging 50 and 25 wasn't good enough to contend for a title? His team lost 4-3 in the 1962 ECF to a BOS team that Russell led with much superior teammates/coach, which only won by 2 points in a home game in game 7.

Inserting Kobe into your argument doesn't really work either, since he actually learned this 'secret' of winning titles at an early age. Sure, Shaq was the better overall player in their 2000-02 title runs, but Kobe actually had several better series than Shaq during their run and was the main crunch-time performer for LAL. Kobe actually led LAL to the 2004 Finals with a very old/depleted/injured cast, too. You really think he suddenly forgot how to win and/or became a much worse player from 2005-07? And then suddenly became great again once his cast became even remotely competent? You do realize Smush, Kwame, and Walton were starters for those mid-2000s LAL teams, right? I don't think RW's cast last year was as bad as many claim and certainly much better than some of those mid-2000s LAL teams, but there isn't a player who ever lived that would've had any chance of seriously competing for a title with RW's cast. Same principle kind of applies to RW as it did Kobe. OKC is contenders for years when RW/KD are both healthy with RW sometimes outplaying KD and/or very close to KD in performance, and then suddenly he becomes a much lesser player the following year despite averaging triple-double?

And by applying your logic in your first comment, Oscar should have no business being mentioned amongst the greats. He's often 'not great' since he missed the playoffs 4x in 10 years, according to what you said. And he's not an all-time great, according to you, because his teams were rarely contenders, and obviously never champs, until he won one title teaming up with Kareem. His CIN teams only won over 48 games 1x. Though I agree he's not quite top tier with guys like Wilt if that's what you truly believe, but I think he's close.

Magic was lucky to be able to join Kareem along with other good players right away. I guess he found this 'secret' right away supposedly. But, then he quickly lost it becoming 'Tragic Magic' for awhile, before finding it again. We know Kobe is certainly an all-time great, and he only managed 4 playoff game wins over a 3-year span in the middle of his prime.

 
At Wednesday, July 12, 2017 10:06:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

My line of thinking is real simple. It's based on reality, not on excuses.

Was the great player successful? Then he deserved the majority of credit for the team's success. If he wasn't, then he deserves the majority of blame for the team's failures. Unlike football or baseball or football, the great basketball player has a larger impact on the game.

Shaq learned the secret in 1999-00 when Phil Jackson challenged him. Kobe did play well in those series you mentioned - but he was always the beneficiary. Never the first option. Opposing playoff teams game-planned for Shaq first. And in the 2004 Finals, the Pistons actually figured out how to fool Kobe into sabotaging his own team. So I submit that he didn't learn the secret until 2008.

Oscar Robertson played with a solid cast in Jack Twyman, Wayne Embry, Jerry Lucas, etc in his MVP season, won 55 games. Even Magic Johnson knew enough to win 60 with a smoke-and-mirrors team in 1990.

The simplicity of this refutes dogmatism or favoritism or homer-logic of nearly the majority of fans and apologists out there. That you mislike this reality-based argument is not my problem.

 
At Wednesday, July 12, 2017 9:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nobody is making excuses for certain players' failures to win titles with weak/weakish casts, just stating the facts-reality-like you're talking about. I'm confused why you think or expect 2006 Kobe or 2016 RW to actually make their teams legit contenders, let alone champs, with the casts they had.

When you claim players, even MVP-type players like Kobe/RW who miss the playoffs and/or lose in the 1st round as not having this so-called special recipe 'secret', this part is actually not reality, but your opinion.

Shaq didn't suddenly learn some secret starting in 2000. He was great for awhile, but you're right, Phil certainly did help, coupled with Kobe becoming well, Kobe, in 2000, that's when LAL really took off. Kobe played at an MVP level for most of LAL's 3-peat. He was a better overall player then than Magic was when Magic was joined the NBA. Magic, even Jordan, would've been #2 option behind Shaq. If Magic was in Kobe's shoes in 2000-02, would you be saying he hadn't found this 'secret' yet? The fact you think Kobe 'sabotaged' his team is more than slightly misinformed, you must be listening to Nick too much.

Oscar missed the playoffs several times and only led maybe 2 teams that were contenders. From what you're saying about these 2 things, he shouldn't be considered a great player, let alone an all-time great player. He had a great cast in 1964, but still not to the extent like Russell did.

 
At Thursday, July 13, 2017 10:44:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

Should be noted that Oscar took Russell and the Celtics to a full 7 games in 1963 in the Division/Conference Finals with a 42 win team.

 
At Monday, July 17, 2017 3:28:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

I think part of the secret Awet is talking about is positioning yourself to lead a good team. Which is whole different skillset, one that has nothing to do with basketball game per se.

 
At Tuesday, July 18, 2017 4:52:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Beep has the right idea, more or less. Isaiah Thomas was the first to coin the phrase about the "secret," that "The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball." In other words, the guys who have the best numbers don’t always make the best team.

From Bill Simmons' Book of Basketball:
"Maybe Dantley was a better player than Aguirre, but Aguirre was a better fit for the 1989 Pistons. If they didn’t make that deal, they wouldn’t have won the championship. It was a people trade, not a basketball trade.And that’s what Isiah learned while following those Lakers and Celtics teams around: it wasn’t about basketball.Those teams were loaded with talented players, yes, but that’s not the only reason they won. They won because they liked each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics, and valued winning over everything else."

"Fans overlook The Secret completely. Nobody writes about The Secret because of a general lack of sophistication about basketball; even the latest ‘revolution’ of basketball statistics centers more around evaluating players against one another over capturing their effect on a team.Numbers help, but only to a certain degree. You still have to watch the games.The fans don’t get it. Actually, it goes deeper than that—I’m not sure who gets it. We measure players by numbers, only the playoffs roll around and teams that play together, kill themselves defensively, sacrifice personal success and ignore statistics invariably win the title. We have trouble processing the ‘teamwork over talent’ thing. But how do you keep stats for ‘best chemistry’ and ‘most unselfish’ or even ‘most tangible and consistent effect on a group of teammates’? It’s impossible. That’s why we struggle to comprehend professional basketball."


Also:
"I always thought that the most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I made my teammates play." - Bill Russell

 
At Saturday, September 23, 2017 11:06:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

David, will you be discussing the OKC Thunder's newest acquisition?

 
At Sunday, September 24, 2017 7:36:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

Yes. I just posted an article about the new look Thunder. I will also address the subject in my upcoming Western Conference preview, which will be posted in a couple weeks.

 

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