The most painful question in the NBA is what if.
What if the Thunder were able to close out Golden State in 2016? What if Kevin Durant never leaves, and the Thunder land Al Horford and Victor Oladipo that same summer of free agency? What if Damian Lillard never makes that 30 foot step back in Game 5?
Maybe in an alternate universe each of these questions has its respective answer. However, in this reality they exist only in a thought bubble, solely to torment Thunder fans for a lifetime.
That reality doesn’t stop me from dwelling on one of the biggest surprises of last offseason: when Paul George was traded, under the cover of night, to the conference rival LA Clippers.
Hindsight provides Thunder fans the realization of this needed venture. The team was capped out, and the chasm that existed between expectations and reality couldn’t be bridged after a third straight first-round postseason exit. The franchise needed a breath of fresh air.
It still leaves me wondering, if Sam Presti does not trade George in the summer of 2019, what does this season look like now?
So for a moment in time, let’s dive into this alternate universe where Paul George doesn’t go anywhere.
I’m sorry Clippers fans, but if Paul George doesn’t come to LA, neither does The Claw.
Doc Rivers detailed the Clippers’ meeting with Kawhi Leonard for Arash Markazi. Leonard said he wanted to come, but only if Paul George was coming as well. Other reports have validated that Kawhi wanted a second star, and none of the other options had materialized.
So in this alternate universe Kawhi signs a 1-and-1 contract with the Raptors to defend Toronto’s NBA title.
The Raptors courted him all year, showing that he could practice load management while still being ready to go for the start of the NBA Playoffs. He knew what he was getting in staying with Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, and he was primed to defend the title Toronto had sought after for years.
Shaking up the West
With the Clippers swinging and missing on Kawhi, the Western Conference is even more wide open.
The Clippers choose to stick with their fun group of guys, believing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will make a leap between his rookie and sophomore seasons. The Lakers are the undisputed favorites. Although they miss out on signing Danny Green, who returns to Toronto to play with Kawhi. Instead, the Lakers land Jeremy Lamb to replace the vacant wing spot on the roster.
We know how this hypothetical offseason wraps up for the Thunder, because Oklahoma City made free agency decisions before the George trade request surprised them. OKC locks down its own acquisitions in Alec Burks and Mike Muscala. Burks adds much needed scoring off the bench for OKC, and Muscala adds floor spacing that has been sorely needed since Durant left.
With Paul George still in the mix in Oklahoma City, the Thunder never trade its franchise guy Russell Westbrook. Which means that in Houston, things stay relatively the same. The Thunder also manage to keep Jerami Grant, as there is now no need to trade him to Denver. The Thunder double down on their roster, but they choose to make it known that if this season doesn’t end in a deep playoff run, things are going to drastically change.
The pressure is on.
Each contending team feels as though they have a chance at NBA immortality this season. The Warriors are out of the mix, and LeBron James is aging. In their minds anything is possible.
The Thunder season begins
This Thunder team is known for slow starts.
In the offseason, Westbrook and George both had surgery. In the current timeline, George missed the first month of the regular season, so in our fictitious endeavor the same is due.
So much of Billy Donovan’s offense is predicated on the floor spacing George creates for Westbrook. Without him there, things begin to look bleek. The offense falls deeper into its stagnant nature, resulting in reckless Westbrooks drives to the basket and ill-advised, inefficient mid range jumpers.
The team sits at 6-6 after the first four weeks.
One shining light in this stretch is the continuation of Grant’s development as an athletic front court player who is very capable on both ends of the floor. He picks up where he left off last season in Donovan’s system. He’s shooting 40 percent from three and helping out on defense with 1.5 blocks per game. Since George is out, Grant is featured in the offense more, and a scoring boost comes with that. Off of sweet dimes from Westbrook, Grant is slashing, shooting and dunking his way to 15 points and 7 rebounds per game.
Another wing benefiting from George’s absence is Terrance Ferguson. His sophomore season was a mixed bag. He went through stretches where he couldn’t miss (i.e. the spurs game in San Antonio), and then stretches where he couldn’t throw a golf ball into the ocean. With the benefits of Westbrook’s drive and kicks, and the need of his offensive production; Ferguson is nailing enough corner threes to be averaging 8-points per game on a 37 percent 3-point shooting clip.
Thunder hopefuls have seen a little bit of Darius Bazley, but not enough for him to get minutes on a team hoping to make a deep playoff run.
Dennis Schröder is still enjoying a sixth-man of the year season. He and Alec Burks man the second unit, one that kills opposing bench lineups behind the electric play of its fiery point guard.
This team has the pieces, they just need their second star back to right the ship.
With Paul George
Paul George’s return from shoulder surgery comes on Nov. 18, against–you guessed it–the Clippers.
He notches a 37 point night in a Thunder win, and fans everywhere get a glimpse of what year three looks like for George and Westbrook.
With the two-headed tandem back the Thunder begins to put things together for the mid season stretch. Over the next 10 games they log a 7-3 record, and the team is beginning to mirror last season’s pre-All Star break Thunder.
Overall they sit at 14-9, tied for the sixth spot in the conference standings.
For the sake of time, and my own sanity, we are going to skip ahead to the next major regular season marker.
At the break in the season the Thunder sit fourth in the West with a 36-18 record. The play of Paul George has been sporadic, but enough to reel off consecutive wins when needed.
The duo find themselves in the All-Star game again as they prime themselves for the late season push.
The Lakers are leading the way in the West, and the Bucks have the best record in the league. Kawhi’s Raptors are fiesty, but NBA media pundits aren’t clamoring to take them over the Bucks coming out of the east.
The final stretch is heating up, and the Thunder are knocking on the doorstep of that coveted deep playoff push.
The capped-out Thunder are unable to add any players from the buyout market, and have to suffer from the dreaded repeater-tax.
With the regular season behind the Thunder and its fans, the 2020 postseason is here to test the will of the storied franchise.
The standings ended up as such:
|(1) Lakers 63-19
|(1) Bucks 65-17
|(2) Rockets 58-24
|(2) Raptors 57-25
|(3) Nuggets 53-29
|(3) Celtics 56-26
|(4) Thunder 52-30
|(4) Heat 51-31
|(5) Jazz 51-31
|(5) 76ers 51-31
|(6) Mavericks 48-34
|(6) Pacers 48-34
|(7) Clippers 40-42
|(7) Magic 39-43
|(8) Grizzlies 39-43
|(8) Nets 36-46
The Thunder drew the Jazz for the second time in three years. The rivalry is a heated one, but the Thunder have a debt to avenge.
The Thunder choose to go small, playing Grant at the five often to pull Rudy Gobert away from the basket. This creates a launching pad for Westbrook to attack (not unlike the microball approach in Houston has).
Westbrook seeks retribution, and attacks the Utah perimeter ruthlessly in pursuit of it. In the first round series, Wesbrook’s averages that rival his 2016 MVP run: 29 points per game, 9.5 assists and 8 rebounds.
To go along with Westbrook, Thunder can’t miss. Schröder plays well off the bench attacking second-unit guys. George turns into Playoff P, and guys like Burks and Muscala hit timely shots down the stretch.
The Thunder win in five.
A first-round series victory, to Thunder fans, is a cause for celebration. A team that hadn’t reached the second round in three years finally has a shot to play until late May.
The celebration wasn’t long lasting, OKC draws the Lakers in round two.
The Lakers vs. Thunder
The Los Angeles Lakers: the bullies of the NBA. They boast star power and cachet demeanor, attracting celebrities of all walks of life to parade the sidelines as Anthony Davis and LeBron James put on a show worth the price of admission.
James finished the season with an MVP worthy campaign, and is known to turn it on in the postseason. He’s on a mission of, as he puts it, “chasing the ghost in Chicago.” Proving he is the best player of all time has been LeBron’s mantra as he rides into his post prime playing career. That gives him just enough juice to pull out herculean efforts nightly, wowing all of NBA social media in the process.
Beating this team for OKC seems impossible. They lost the season series, and in each game it wasn’t close.
Though George has the size and length to contend with LeBron, he lacks the physical strength to keep him out of the paint. And the Thunder can’t go small because the Lakers’ athletic front court, composed of Anthony Davis, Javael McGee and Dwight Howard, punishes anyone who dares to contest them on the boards.
The series ends up being a blip on the Lakers radar. OKC makes them sweat in games three and four at home. But The King and his crew win two straight. The Thunder’s dream season closes out in six.
The Lakers go on to win the NBA Championship against the Bucks, as Giannis Antentakoupo doesn’t have enough offensive help to keep up with the dynamic duo found in America’s entertainment capital. James hoists his fourth Larry O’Brian trophy, becoming one of three players to win champions for three different franchises. He also collects his fourth finals MVP, putting him second only to Michael Jordan.
Was it worth it?
In the end, the alternate universe still doesn’t see OKC with a championship. In fact, it has the Thunder in a worse position with aging stars and a capped out roster.
Thunder fans can take solace in knowing that Paul George did us a favor. He allowed us to see the need for hitting the reset button before it was too late. Along the way, George’s push out helped the team replenish its treasure chest with a young star in SGA and a bevy of draft picks.
I’d say the Thunder universe we are living in right now is pretty perfect.