With the 12:01 a.m. Saturday start of free agency approaching, a development both spectacular and stunning hit the league.
The Thunder reached an agreement Friday with the Pacers to acquire superstar Paul George, league sources confirmed, in a trade as daring as it is dramatic. The deal sends the stud, 18.1-points-per-game career scorer to Oklahoma City for guard Victor Oladipo and power forward Domantas Sabonis.
Also on the eve of free agency, one prime target came off the market when Blake Griffin reportedly agreed to a five-year deal to stay with the Clippers. And in a move that affected the glut of free-agent point guards, the Timberwolves traded former Knicks target Ricky Rubio to the Jazz for a 2018 protected first-round pick.
George will be a free agent after the 2017-18 season, and his desire to play with his hometown Lakers is as much a secret as the fact President Trump tends to use Twitter. The Thunder must believe they and reigning MVP Russell Westbrook — who reportedly will be offered a massive five-year, $200-million extension — can convince George to stay. Westbrook also will be a free agent after 2017-18.
“It could be a one-year rental for Oklahoma City,” one opposing executive said. “I don’t think the players that OKC gave up are anything special. Now, do both George and Westbrook go to the Lakers next July?”
The deal actually has little downside for the Thunder. In the current NBA climate of building superteams — witness the Warriors or the Rockets adding Chris Paul to a backcourt with James Harden — George, 27, joining Westbrook, 28, is a chance to maximize an MVP in his prime by going the way of the league and adding a top-10 player.
The Thunder acquired Oladipo, 25, and Sabonis, 21, the No. 11 pick in 2016, from Orlando on draft night 2016 in a deal for Serge Ibaka (so basically, the Thunder are getting George for Ibaka?). The Thunder last year lost Kevin Durant to free agency. Durant went to the Warriors, formed the superteam of all superteams and won a championship and the Finals MVP Trophy.
George was seen as a prime target for the Celtics, despite his open preference for the Lakers. George is coming off his best scoring season — 23.7 points per game. His recovery from a devastating leg injury suffered with Team USA in August 2014 was determined and inspiring.
The Pacers, though, have been spinning their wheels following a 56-win season and a trip to the Eastern Finals in 2014. They could not get out of the first round the past two years after missing the playoffs in 2014-15, when George rehabbed most of the season. General manager Kevin Pritchard called George’s intention to head to L.A. “a total gut punch.”
Griffin, late Friday, canceled meetings with Phoenix and Denver. Then came reports from The Vertical he had agreed to a deal worth around $173 million.
When word filtered out of the impending Rubio trade, Jazz president Steve Starks took to Twitter. Must be a presidential thing. Starks tweeted one simple emoji — a fist bump.
So the Jazz were all in on the acquisition of Rubio, 26, a six-season vet whose service comes for a 2018 first round pick acquired from the Thunder in the Enes Kanter trade.
“We’d like to thank Ricky for his time in Minnesota over the course of the last six-plus years. Ricky has been a consummate profession,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau said.
The acquisition of Rubio, a good pass-first point who defends but does not shoot well, signals the end of free agent George Hill in Utah. Hill, once on the Knicks’ radar but now seen as a Spurs target, was among the horde of free agents who could begin meeting and negotiating with suitors at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, when the free agent period began. Signings can begin Friday, when the moratorium is lifted.
The Timberwolves and Knicks discussed a deadline deal involving Rubio and Derrick Rose, who still is on Minnesota’s list, according to sources, but after Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Indiana’s Jeff Teague. Lowry wants a max five-year deal with the Raptors, who always have been against a fifth year.