George, off to best season yet, more than fine in Year 2 with OKC

Thunder are an NBA-best 24-9 since starting the season 0-4

LOS ANGELES — He chose Russell Westbrook over LeBron James.

That, in essence, is what Paul George did last summer when he reached free agency and was free to go wherever and play next to whomever. While there are obvious logistical and lifestyle differences between lacing up with the Thunder in folksy Oklahoma City and the Lakers in glamorous Los Angeles that one must weigh, the core decision for an All-Star in his prime was selecting who he will ride with.

So George did precisely what a fair segment of the hoops world wouldn’t have (the basketballs to do), as many questioned his wisdom for re-signing with the Thunder and re-attaching himself to the ball-dominating Westbrook.

Three months into the season, it appears George chose wisely and did what’s best for him, if winning and happiness are what counts. The Thunder are north of the Lakers in the standings today and the basketball and personal rhapsody between George and Westbrook has a good flow (although time will eventually deliver a verdict in the matter of both).

“I came here to win,” George said. “Bottom line.”

The fact that this duo is working says much about George, of course, and more about Westbrook and the former Kia MVP’s ability to prevent another franchise teammate from leaving. The ultimate winner in the equation is Oklahoma City, still crackling on the court and positioning itself to be the last team standing in the Western Conference between the Golden State Warriors and a trip to The Finals.

“I think I’m pretty adaptable,” George said. “I can pattern my game to work with whomever I’m playing with.”

That includes LeBron James. George said he’d have no problems coexisting with LeBron had he signed up for that duty. Easy-going in personality and unselfish in playing style, George would’ve made for a unique tandem with the Lakers. The connection between George and L.A. began two years before LeBron arrived. As he approached the final year of his contract with the Indiana Pacers, George wanted out, and the Lakers made trade inquiries about a player born and raised an hour north of town.

Indiana sent him to OKC in a trade that was initially vilified. However, it worked out quite well for the Pacers, who received future franchise cornerstones in forward Domantas Sabonis and last season’s Kia Most Improved Player winner, Victor Oladipo. When OKC never managed any serious traction last season, the chase for the Lakers was back on. Yet George felt so strongly about finishing what he started with Westbrook that he didn’t even give the Lakers an interview last summer.

He made his first appearance against the Lakers at Staples Center on Wednesday and showed the crowd what could’ve been, with 37 points in OKC’s 107-100 win.

Last season’s ambitious re-tooling for the Thunder went disastrously, as they imploded in the playoffs against the Utah Jazz and failed to find a role for Carmelo Anthony and his decaying skills. However, this season is pumping the brakes on any visions of an encore. The reasons for OKC’s rebirth fall in line behind the obvious: the sneakers of George and Westbrook are in step.

This is reflected mostly through the play of George, who’s rolling better than he did on any of those fine Pacers teams, better than he did pre-leg injury, better than he did during a fluid-but-not-unforgettable first season in OKC. You could even make a case for giving George a seat at the early Kia MVP roundtable, because 26.4 points (remarkable on a team with Westbrook), 8.2 rebounds (tremendous for a small forward), 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals a game demand that level of respect.

It’s possible George is reaching his career peak here at 28, which means the timing is right for he and OKC. For years, George was a level below the NBA’s heavyweights (and still might be), but his first season as a $30 million player isn’t giving OKC any buyer’s remorse. He may even earn a spot on the 2018-19 All-NBA team.

Last year with Carmelo, we tried to force it to happen instead of trying to build toward it, letting chemistry happen first. That’s been the key right now, having patience and let everything play itself through.”

Paul George, on OKC’s season

What’s more, Westbrook isn’t hindering George’s game. This fear was built largely on Westbrook’s relentless style as plays live or die based on his decisions. But what needed to be taken into account was George, whose game and personality seems a perfect fit next to Westbrook.

After being the lead singer all those years in Indiana, George is comfortable playing off the skills of another star. He isn’t threatened by Westbrook nor put off by the guard’s high usage rate. And Westbrook has made adjustments as well to ensure George feels free and at home.

Westbrook is taking fewer shots (21.1 to 19.3) and often yielding to George during tense late-game moments, especially when the situation calls for 3-pointers, where George is a significantly better option than Westbrook (38 percent to 24 percent).

“I didn’t think it was going to be an easy transition,” George admitted. “We both would have to learn a lot about ourselves and each other. And we did. That’s just the patience needed in this situation.

“Last year with Carmelo, we tried to force it to happen instead of trying to build toward it, letting chemistry happen first. That’s been the key right now, having patience and let everything play itself through.”

So there’s a kinship between George and Westbrook that wasn’t apparent during the final seasons with Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and evidently so. One player bailed on Westbrook … and the other stayed.

“It’s not about making someone wanting to stay here,” Westbrook said. “It’s about creating a bond, friendship, outside of basketball. When you have the bond and friendship that’s bigger than basketball, to me that’s the important part. I’ve had the opportunity to learn about him and his family, where he’s from, how get got here.”

George carried OKC in scoring while Westbrook missed eight games with injuries and there’s been on-court balance between the two since. It also helps that Jerami Grant has a new-found jumper and Dennis Schroder, imported from the Atlanta Hawks, brings an energy boost and 15.9 ppg off the bench. It’s a team that holds a mildly-surprising top-three spot in the West and will soon see the return of defensive ace Andre Roberson from a ruptured patellar tendon.

George said he would’ve worked well with the Lakers. While that’s a safe assumption, what he’s doing with OKC is solid proof.

“I have a better feel for not only Russ but Steven (Adams) and Jerami,” George said. “I was brought here for a reason, to win and win big. This year it’s out there for us. We know where we want to get to and we’re allowing it to happen, to develop.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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