This is really exciting.
Gambling usually is.
Make no mistake—that’s what the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder are doing.
With their stunning reported trade, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, that sends Paul George to join 2016-17 NBA MVP Russell Westbrook in OKC—with one season to mesh and prove they should stay together—the Thunder are going all-in.
The desperate Pacers, meanwhile, are putting a strange amount of faith in how strong the local pull will be to get the most out of Victor Oladipo, who played at Indiana University, along with prospect Domantas Sabonis.
In both ways, this is affirmation that even after the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, which includes a severely escalating luxury tax, disadvantages smaller markets. Never mind that revenue sharing has been in place for years now (although the Thunder have paid into it rather than reaped its benefits in the past).
Neither OKC nor Indiana can reasonably expect to recruit star free agents, so the Thunder and Pacers have to maximize the opportunities they get.
The situation had already become a failed, lost cause for Indiana with George, and Oklahoma City is determined to avoid the same fate with Westbrook after losing Kevin Durant for nothing last offseason. Now the Pacers are validating precisely what George concluded: you can’t recruit stars to Indiana, so you trade for potential. Enter Victor Oladipo.
For the Thunder, the math doesn’t put them over any desired benchmark: George and Westbrook are not a better pair than Durant and Westbrook, and no player on OKC’s roster equates to prime Serge Ibaka. But Thunder general manager Sam Presti has no choice but to ignore the comparisons.
Presti can rest assured the math is not so fuzzy to a driven Westbrook: he can now at least talk himself into thinking he has a chance to topple Durant’s defending champion Golden State Warriors. Westbrook already “liked” a Bleacher Report image on Instagram of George in a Thunder uniform next to him.
In any case, this move signals to Westbrook that the Thunder are fighting for him. That is the one and only selling point: this front office will do whatever it takes to keep him in OKC.
Positioned to make a run at home-court advantage in the playoffs, the Thunder share with Westbrook the challenge of convincing George to stay. But the idea that George and Westbrook will both want to stay in Oklahoma City is still a long shot given George’s stated intention to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in 2018.
It’s more likely the two will agree it’s easier to sell a star teammate on LA than small-market America. David West was the best free agent the Pacers could attract to join George.
That’s why George wants to be a Laker: Location, location, location.
One of the under-the-radar items on the agenda of new Lakers executives Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, longtime agent and dear friend of Kobe Bryant, is to show the players in real terms what superstar benefits are available as a Laker.
Their new program will include networking with titans of the entertainment industry, a new wrinkle in Jerry Buss’ initial formula to leverage celebrities’ connection with the Lakers as a lynchpin of their allure.
As has been stated often, this is a new information age where a star basketball player can be a global icon no matter the city he plays his home games.
But it’s also an age where every star basketball player has his own brand to sell. The Lakers, under Johnson and Pelinka, have already conveyed to George behind the scenes how he can be the first to experience what they will do—and George wants in.
For his part, Westbrook has thrived as a fashion-forward ball of fire, withstanding Durant’s departure in a place they refer to as Tornado Alley.
As much as the Lakers understand LeBron James or Westbrook could come with George as a two-pronged free-agent power socket in 2018, multiple league sources pegged it as more likely than not that Westbrook would stay in OKC, where they’re figuring out how much they’ll pay in luxury tax as opposed to if they will.
The small-market Pacers have been on record in the past about not going into the luxury tax whatsoever, no matter the circumstances, so that’s something unto itself.
Retaining George with Westbrook is a long shot, but at least it’s a shot for the Thunder.
On a day when Blake Griffin, who was born in OKC and played at the University of Oklahoma, committed to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers in part because of his interest in the entertainment industry, the Thunder at least gave Westbrook a reason to have faith in them and their small town.
That doesn’t change the fact that the Lakers are still at the table with chips in hand.
And if George and Westbrook really hit it off this season and want to keep playing together, the Lakers will have that max salary-cap space for two stars a year from now and try to collect the big pot.
Not going to a team in the Eastern Conference and having a clearer path to the NBA Finals with the temptation of contending works in the Lakers’ favor. They can safely assume George will follow through in coming to them.
It’s not a sure thing, as recent years of free agency have shown.
But it’s something that most clubs don’t have in their favor. It’s why a team such as the Thunder have no choice but to live for today and make the most of Westbrook’s window.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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