OKLAHOMA CITY – Sunset is still a few hours away in this gated neighborhood 20 minutes north of downtown Oklahoma City, and resident fisherman Paul George is already angling for his second trip of the day.
All around him there’s nonstop debate about his basketball future, about the Oklahoma City Thunder and whether they’ll be able to set the hook on this would-be Laker next summer and earn a second chance in the post-Kevin Durant era. And the 27-year-old George, this four-time All-Star and gold medalist who came via trade from the Indiana Pacers on June 30, is more worried about whether the Cinderella-themed pole that belongs to his three-year-old daughter, Olivia, is properly strung.
Just hours before on a sleepy Saturday morning, right about the time George and Olivia were working their way around the local lakes, the Thunder pulled off a blockbuster trade by landing 10-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony and surely upped their odds of retaining George and fellow co-star/Southern California native Russell Westbrook in the process. Yet in the George household, a three-story beauty where poles and tackle are strewn about the living room and his closest family and friends are visiting in the kitchen, George is too focused on fishing to worry about free agency just yet.
“I love it, man; I love it,” George, who would spend the following day fishing with his teammates and their families at a team picnic, says with a smile of his second-favorite pastime. “I’ve already got a couple places mapped out as far as lakes and ponds, and now I carry a fishing pole in the back of my car…There’s just so many bodies of water out here that I can explore and fish in, that I’ll be happy. I’ll be content. That’s what brings joy to me. It’s so much fun.”
The Thunder, whose pivot from the loss of a superstar has been as impressive as the league has ever seen, can only hope George is still biting when July rolls around.
As free agency storylines go, George’s has the kind of nuanced context that makes it hard to gauge where it will go. Just a few months ago, George, through his agent, Aaron Mintz, informed the Indiana Pacers that he had already decided not to re-sign with the only NBA team he had ever known. It was widely known that his hometown Lakers sat atop his list of preferred destinations. But then came the trade to the Thunder on June 30, and with it the kind of chance for George to contend for a championship that he has always wanted.
The months that followed, with George and Westbrook growing closer and the fit seeming more tailor-made by the day, have been nothing short of utopian for all involved. And now, as George made clear during a lengthy visit with USA TODAY Sports, the chance to contend is the only factor that matters.
“Honestly, I’m happy,” he said. “The only thing I wanted out of Indiana was a chance to win my whole career there…That’s really what I want out of this, out of the league. I’m not looking for money. I’m not looking for stats. I want to win, and (to) be able to win at a high level.
“It’s Year One, and (the Thunder have) proven – and I haven’t even gone through a season yet – and they’ve already proven everything on my check list (that) I can check off. That’s what feels good. That’s what makes me feel like, ‘Hey, this can be a landing spot for me, and somewhere I can call home for years.’”
There are questions that he can’t answer, like whether Westbrook will sign the five-year, $207 million extension he has been offered before the Oct. 16 deadline or perhaps ponder his own exit next summer. Anthony, a 10-time All-Star who waived his no-trade clause, has two seasons left on his deal and an early termination option that could allow him to also be a free agent. There are other stars who could factor in, too. LeBron James, for example, is widely believed to be seriously pondering playing for the Lakers. But for George’s part – the only part he can control – he’s ecstatic in Oklahoma City so far.
He’s a big believer in Anthony, the 33-year-old with whom he won gold in the 2016 Rio Olympics and who has never had this good a chance at contending for the crown. He sees a kindred spirit in Westbrook, the reigning MVP whose relentless 2016-17 campaign put him in the history books as the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double.
“I’m not going into this situation thinking, you know, Year One, or this year, playing with Russ and now playing with Melo, we’re going to win the championship,” George said. “I’m thinking we have a chance to win a championship. I know it’s not going to be easy, and I’m not speaking on it being an easy road to a championship. We’re going to have to fight for it, but I like the guys I’m going to battle with. I like, you know, how this is setting up. So again, it goes back to ultimately just having a chance to do it. That’s what I’m most happy about in this situation.”
The Lakers possibility still looms large, of course. George, who returned to his MVP-caliber ways in recent years after the gruesome leg fracture that threatened his career during a Team USA scrimmage in the summer of 2014, grew up an hour north of Los Angeles and has always dreamed of wearing the purple and gold. Just last month, the Lakers were fined $500,000 by the NBA for tampering due to premature communication between Mintz and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka.
But if idolizing Kobe Bryant taught George anything, it’s that winning – more specifically, winning it all – is the only thing that matters. And after coming close during the height of his Pacers days, pushing James’ Miami Heat teams in the conference finals in 2013 and 2014, he wants more.
“Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely,” George said when asked if winning was above the Lakers on his list of priorities. “Winning takes precedence over all of it. That’s the ultimate happiness. It’s not location. It’s not stardom. It’s not ‘where can I make the most money.’ It’s winning, and winning championships.
“That’s ultimately what, as a kid, I looked at as the best fit and the biggest thing. I haven’t won on any level, besides the (2016) Olympics (in Rio). I haven’t won a championship in high school. I haven’t won a championship in college (at Fresno State). I don’t know what that feels like.”
Translation: Lakers be darned, the Thunder have a real shot of reeling this one in.
“You ask anybody, and who wouldn’t want to play for their hometown team?” George explained. “Who wouldn’t want to go home and win a championship for their home? So yeah, a lot of me wanted to be a Laker. Even in the draft, coming out of the draft, I wanted to be a Clipper, to have a chance to play at home…(But) I’m not solely tied to LA.
“This feels like a championship team. Like I said, man, I’m in a good place. I know Russ is in a good place. ‘Melo is motivated more than ever. I think he was, what, top 65 or something (in ESPN’s player rankings). I know he’s motivated more than ever. You put us three together, who all have something to prove still, we’re going to be a special team. We have a young group, a lot of talent here, an unbelievable coach (in Billy Donovan). As you see, a front office that’s willing to do whatever it takes to improve the team. It just has all the makeups to be a great organization and a chance to put championships together.” [/restrict]