A year later, the Pacers won the Paul George Trade
The NBA’s media and fans were up in arms the day that Pacers General Manager and newly instated President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard traded All-Star forward Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
“This is some rabbit-out-of-a-hat stuff from Presti. Holy crap,” said ESPN’s NBA insider Zach Lowe via Twitter, referring to OKC’s General Manager Sam Presti.
George was coming off an individually impressive season in which he led his Pacers to the playoffs, only to be swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Following the loss, George announced to his team that he was demanding a trade and would not play for the Pacers the following season. This gave Indiana very little leverage in terms of trade discussions. Teams knew that Indy had to get rid of George. Combine this with the fact that he only had one year left on his contract and could leave whichever team he was traded to after the 2018 season, and the Pacers’ pickings became very slim. And yet, the package Indiana received from OKC was still deemed an absolute failure.
Victor Oladipo was coming off of a disappointing year in which he was unable to reduce Russell Westbrook’s offensive burden. Domantas Sabonis, while only a rookie, failed to slide in as the stretch-4 to replace Serge Ibaka. Oklahoma City had also given Oladipo a 4 year, $84 million extension that would kick in the following season. This meant that Oladipo would actually be making more money than George in the 2017–18 season. In addition to feeling abandoned by George, many Pacers fans felt they were robbed of any compensation for his departure.
Flash forward a year, and Pritchard looks like an evil genius. Victor Oladipo has transformed himself into an all-star and potential All-NBA and All-Defense player. He’s led his Pacers, who many assumed would be tanking before the start of the season, to a 48–34 record (six more wins than the previous year with George) and the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference. Oladipo exceeded everyone’s expectations, averaging an impressive 23 points per game on nearly 58% true shooting, per NBA.com. He has succeeded as the absolute first option. Head coach Nate McMillan designs his schemes around Oladipo, allowing him to handle the ball and create off the dribble for himself and others. He has suddenly become a master of the pull-up 3, and the threat of this shot allows him to blow by defenders and get to the rim. Sabonis has also improved, turning himself into an affective back-up center and an intelligent passer, like his father Arvydas. Although the Pacers just lost a hard fought seven game series to LeBron James’ Cavaliers, their season has to be viewed as a success based on their preseason outlook.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, Paul George is still Paul George. He still plays lockdown defense and shoots 40% from beyond the 3 point arc. He’s everything you could ask for from a modern NBA wing. But the Thunder fell short of expectations. They won 48 games this season, just one more than last year when many believed their talent to be below league average other than Russell Westbrook. With the offseason additions of George and Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder were heralded as a contender in the Western Conference and a new rival for Golden State. Instead, the Thunder stumbled into the post season and lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round. OKC looked real at times, but never quite became what everyone thought they would. So it bares asking, was everyone wrong about the trade? And if so, how wrong exactly?
It should be noted that no one, maybe not even Pritchard himself, could have predicted that Oladipo could be this good. Though he was forced to live in Russell Westbrook’s shadow last year (and thus spend a lot of his time off the ball) Oladipo never showed flashes of superstardom. So it isn’t exactly fair to call Presti a fool. But he did know the risks.
George had one year left on his contract when he arrived in Oklahoma City. He will now be an unrestricted free agent and will likely demand a max contract from any team he chooses. Rumors of George wishing to be in Los Angeles had been swirling for months. Presti was aware of this, and decided that if the Thunder could succeed enough (this success is arbitrary; second round? Conference Finals?), George would be persuaded to stay in OKC long term. At the time, this risk seemed like a no-brainer. Best case scenario: George stays and signs a 5 year, $175.7 million contract with the Thunder. Worst case scenario: George leaves and the Thunder still get off of Oladipo’s large contract that he hadn’t lived up to (yet).
Flash forward once again, and that 4 year, $84 million contract looks like a bargain. The Pacers have a max player making less than a max contract for the next three years, and he’s only 25.
Let’s give OKC the benefit of the doubt and assume George resigns. One could argue that, in a vacuum, the Thunder still wound up with the better player. And this is probably true. George is a better, longer defender that can guard more positions than Oladipo. He doesn’t require the ball to be affective, which is crucial when playing alongside a ball dominant guard like Russell Westbrook. In the modern NBA, George’s skill set might be slightly more valuable than Oladipo’s.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, players do not exist in Vacuums. They come with contracts, and these contracts determine how much flexibility a team has to build around said players. It is crucial when evaluating a trade that one weigh the value of the player against the value of his contract. Is Paul George at $30 million a year more valuable than Victor Oladipo at $21 million? As of today, the answer is a definitive no. The talent level of these players is too close and the dollars are too far apart. The Pacers will have plenty of cap space to sign potential free agents this offseason to pare with Oladipo, thanks to said contract. The Thunder, on the other hand, would be paying the luxury tax in order to keep George, and will only be able to add players on minimum deals.
Now let’s remove that benefit of the doubt. If George leaves in free agency, the Thunder will be in no man’s land. They’ll still be strapped for cash as long as Carmelo Anthony ops into the last year of his contract (get your money, Melo), and will be forced to run back the same team minus George.
A definitive winner of this trade cannot be decided until George makes his decision on July 1st. Regardless, the Pacers ended up trading one superstar for another and saved money in the process. It seems, after all the criticism, that Kevin Pritchard was actually the one to pull the rabbit out of a hat.