Why the Pacers aren't the only big losers in Paul George trade

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Across the NBA on Friday night, for the teams not involved in the trade derby for Paul George, the news of where he went and how little he was traded for generated the same reaction – confusion and disbelief.

“Who knows?” texted one Eastern Conference executive.

Oklahoma City acquired George, a top-10 talent in the league, by shipping one nice starter, guard Victor Oladipo, and one young prospect, big man Domantas Sabonis. And … that was it.

In one quick swipe, Oklahoma City reasserted itself into the championship chase – still not equal to Golden State, but at least it can see the Warriors from here.

Meanwhile, the league was left asking one question: Where exactly was Boston? Armed with a slew of first-round draft picks and a roster full of young talent, the Celtics could easily have crafted a deal with something better than Oladipo and Sabonis.

Oladipo is a good player, a proven 16-point-a-night scorer entering his fifth season in the league. As a former Indiana Hoosier, he is sure to be popular in Indy, which will need all the fans it can get as it enters a rebuild. He’s also being paid a sizable $84 million over the next four years.

Paul George is one of the NBA’s best two-way players. (AP)

Sabonis is 21 years old, stands 6-foot-11 and averaged 20.1 minutes as a rookie out of Gonzaga. He didn’t show much ability to shoot (39.9 percent) or score (5.9 ppg) his first year, but who knows?

This isn’t necessarily Indiana’s fault. The Pacers weren’t in much of a position to play hardball. George had already informed them he would leave as a free agent after the 2017-18 season. A Southern California native and Fresno State product, his preferred destination is reportedly the Los Angeles Lakers.

So George, for all his ability, was a potential rental with no long-term guarantees, even though, under NBA rules, by acquiring him now, you also acquire the ability to pay him more to stay. As such, Indiana was always getting pennies on the dollar. Maybe the Pacers could have remained patient a bit longer and waited to see if someone got desperate, but there just wasn’t a big enough market, or enough teams, willing to take the risk.

Did they have to get this few pennies though?

Couldn’t the Celtics have sweetened the pot? Armed with so many tradable assets – seven first-round picks in the next two drafts – Boston is in position to make a huge move. Utah’s Gordon Hayward is set to meet with the Celtics on Sunday, a chance for the All-Star to reunite with his college coach at Butler, Brad Stevens.

Add George and Hayward into a mix that just finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference and you have something that might actually make Cleveland nervous, a juggernaut growing for the future.

Yet nothing got done.

Reports in the Boston media the past couple of days claimed that Indiana was seeking two of Boston’s projected lottery picks and at least one starter. That can’t possibly be true, not if Indiana willingly took one sure starter for George.

General manager Danny Ainge is clearly hesitant to move his picks in a trade right now, whether it was for George or earlier in the week for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, who went to Minnesota for a package the Celtics could have easily matched or exceeded.

Instead it was OKC, stepping outside of the media buzz to score George. The Thunder can now team him with Russell Westbrook, giving the club a second star desperately needed since Kevin Durant bolted to Golden State in last year’s free-agent derby. George may not be Durant, but he’s a reasonable stand-in.

That doesn’t put the Thunder in Golden State’s class, at least on paper, but it does make things interesting. OKC isn’t left just watching Westbrook put up historic numbers for another season. A year after having the carpet pulled out from under them, the Thunder are as much of a contender for the title as anyone else not playing in Oakland.

If George goes to L.A. next July 1 and it all blows up on them, then so be it. You can find guys such as Oladipo and Sabonis. Thunder general manager Sam Presti rolled the dice. If George decides to stay, they got a complete steal. If nothing else, they were playing aggressively.

In Boston, the wait for the big offseason continues. Butler is gone without the Celtics making a concerted push. Now George is too. Blake Griffin re-signed with the Clippers on Friday night, too.

It’s Gordon Hayward or bust now for this summer. Danny Ainge is sitting with a pocketful of No. 1 picks and unwilling to deal them for proven stars. Oklahoma City appreciates that.

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