The Paul George trade created one of the NBA's best duos. It also birthed a potential NBA dynasty

ByTim MacMahon ESPN logo
Thursday, February 22, 2024

AS LA CLIPPERS brass celebrated, Doc Rivers executed an uncomfortable assignment.

It was July 10, 2019, and the Clippers had just pulled off a blockbuster one-two transaction punch that carried the potential to shift the NBA's balance of power.

The Clippers' long-running pursuit of Kawhi Leonard had succeeded, as LA sealed the two-time Finals MVP's free agency commitment by pulling off a massive deal to acquire his hand-picked co-star, Paul George.

The deals instantly established Los Angeles' less glamorous franchise as a legitimate contender, but it came at a steep cost: The package dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder was headlined by a historic haul of draft capital -- and a promising 20-year-old guard who had just wrapped up a second-team All-Rookie campaign.

It was then-Clippers coach Rivers' responsibility to call Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and inform him of the trade.

"He understood it, but he is a competitive dude," Rivers told ESPN before his midseason hiring to coach the Milwaukee Bucks. "That bothered him, like it should, because whenever you get traded for someone else and then the reason you're trading him, it is to say you're trying to win a title, then that guy's thinking, 'Well, wait a minute, what about me?'"

Thunder general manager Sam Presti insisted on Gilgeous-Alexander's inclusion, envisioning him as a piece of the Thunder's core for years to come. Gilgeous-Alexander had played a significant role on the Clippers' scrappy No. 8 seed as a rookie, averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 assists, and Rivers believed he had star potential.

George, though, was a superstar in his prime who had been a first-team All-NBA selection the previous season in Oklahoma City. He was essentially attached to Leonard, who was fresh off demonstrating how much he could impact winning by leading the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title in his lone season with the franchise.

If that's what it took for the Clippers to land their superstar combo, Gilgeous-Alexander had to go.

"I didn't see it coming," Gilgeous-Alexander said recently. "I'm not like, 'Why would you do that?' It made sense. I think Paul just came off like an MVP-caliber year. ...

"I used it a little bit as motivation just to get better and really turn myself into that caliber of player."

In his fifth season in Oklahoma City, Gilgeous-Alexander has established himself as one of the NBA's leading MVP candidates. Second-year forward Jalen Williams, selected with one of those picks acquired from the Clippers, has emerged as one of his co-stars.

The Clippers, meanwhile, have yet to cash in on their seismic transactions that summer, failing to advance to the NBA Finals due in part to injuries suffered by Leonard and George. (LA's window was propped back ajar by adding former MVP James Hardenin a trade with thePhiladelphia 76ers, a dealthe Thunder assisted in facilitating.)

And as they battle for the Western Conference's top seeds, and with a playoff showdown potentially looming, the two franchises remain linked -- all because the Thunder capitalized on a unique set of events in summer 2019.

More than four years later, Oklahoma City, boasting the largest stockpile of first-round picks in league history, is still reaping the rewards.

DAYS AFTER JOINING the Clippers, George described the deal as a "mutual decision" made with the Thunder. Presti's perspective differed.

"That would infer that we were wanting to trade Paul George, which I think most people would agree that that probably wasn't on the top of our offseason priority list," Presti said during a news conference that week.

"But I would say that it was not adversarial at all, and I also fully respect the way that it was handled. And the fact that we were able to make it work in a way that benefited the franchise made it something that we could do."

It had been a week of massive change for the Thunder. In the wake of George's exit, Russell Westbrook's request to join his former Thunder teammate Harden with the Houston Rockets was granted. (OKC received Chris Paul, two first-round picks and a pair of potential pick swaps in the move.)

The Thunder projected the summer of 2020 as the pressure point: George would be entering the final season of his three-year contract. That's when Presti expected to face the scenario of a franchise reset.

Leonard's recruiting efforts sped up the timeline, making his commitment to the Clippers contingent on the addition of George and giving Presti unprecedented leverage: The Thunder capitalized on the trade value of the reigning Finals MVP without ever having Leonard on their roster.

"I even brought it up to Kawhi: 'Are you sure?'" Rivers recalled. "'I think Shai's going to be an amazing player. It may take a year or two, but I think you're underestimating how good Shai's going to be.'

"I didn't argue the decision or anything, but I brought it up. I just thought, is there any way we can do this deal without putting Shai in it?"

PRESTI FIELDED 22 questions from the Oklahoma City media that day. It took until the 21st before he was specifically asked about Gilgeous-Alexander.

"I think he's not really even scratching the surface," Presti said, calling Gilgeous-Alexander "a sponge," referring to his capacity to learn. "And I think where Shai is today is not close to where ultimately he's going to be. But we have to be really patient with that process."

Gilgeous-Alexander, the No. 11 pick in the 2018 draft, has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Rivers proudly proclaims that he considered Gilgeous-Alexander to be a franchise-cornerstone type of talent, but an MVP candidate as he approaches his prime? Rivers can't claim he saw that coming.

It was a gradual ascent to superstardom for Gilgeous-Alexander. He averaged a team-high 19.0 points during his first season in Oklahoma City, when the Thunder finished fifth in the West and pushed Harden and Westbrook's Rockets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs inside the league's Orlando, Florida, bubble. Then Presti pivoted fully to a rebuild.

Paul, Danilo Gallinari, starting center Steven Adams and sixth man Dennis Schroder were all traded that offseason. Mark Daigneault, an assistant who had coached Oklahoma City's G League team for five years, was promoted to head coach after Billy Donovan and Presti mutually decided to part ways.

The Thunder were a combined 46-108 over the next two seasons despite Gilgeous-Alexander's brilliance when he was on the floor. He averaged 24.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists over those two seasons, but he played in only 91 of the 154 games, as the Thunder prioritized protecting Gilgeous-Alexander's health and the franchise's lottery position.

The Thunder closed the 2020-21 season with a 3-26 run after Gilgeous-Alexander was shut down because of plantar fasciitis. He missed 10 games in the middle of the 2021-22 season because of a right ankle sprain and was shut down for the final 10 games of that season because of soreness in that ankle.

With Oklahoma City as far from the NBA spotlight as possible, Gilgeous-Alexander's name was rarely mentioned in the wider conversation about the league during this time, aside from the occasional reference to potential trade targets. But the Thunder dealing Gilgeous-Alexander was never even a remote possibility.

The franchise's commitment to Gilgeous-Alexander, and his belief in Presti's patient rebuilding process, was reflected in the contract extension he signed before his third season in Oklahoma City; the five-year, $173 million maximum contract does not include a player option.

Gilgeous-Alexander made a massive leap last season, when the Thunder made a 16-win improvement to qualify for the play-in tournament despite No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren missing the entire season because of a foot injury. Gilgeous-Alexander's scoring average soared to 31.4 points, and he joined Dwyane Wade and Michael Jordan as the only guards in NBA history to average at least 30 points, 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game in a season. Gilgeous-Alexander was the Most Improved Player runner-up and a first-team All-NBA selection.

"We knew Shai was going to be really, really good, but he's special," George said after he had 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals in a Jan. 16 home win over the Thunder. "And so I guess in a way, Oklahoma won that trade with picks and a future MVP."

Gilgeous-Alexander had arrived among the NBA's elite. The Thunder seemed to be on the path to perennial title contention. The question about Oklahoma City entering this season: How soon?

Gilgeous-Alexander, 25, is the oldest starter on an Oklahoma City squad that comes out of the All-Star break with a 37-17 record and in second place in the West standings, half a game ahead of the Clippers entering their Thursday night meeting. Rookie of the Year candidate Holmgren and Williams are rising stars who fit well with Gilgeous-Alexander.

This deep Thunder roster lacks a lot of postseason experience, but the question being asked now is whether Oklahoma City is already ready for a deep playoff run. It's not a topic that gets much thought from Gilgeous-Alexander, who is averaging 31.1 points with career bests in true shooting percentage (64.7), assists (6.5) and steals (league-leading 2.2).

"To be honest with you, none of that goes through our minds," Gilgeous-Alexander said after a Jan. 2 win over the East-leading Boston Celtics, which capped a five-game winning streak that also included victories over the West-leading Minnesota Timberwolves and defending champion Denver Nuggets.

"Every day we come to work the same way. ... I think we all stay in the moment, and I think that's why we've been able to get better. We just stay in the moment, attack the day, attack the program in front of us.

"What I figured out in my career was throw out expectations, not throw out goals, but just focus on day in and day out and try to get better every day. ... You'll have 365 days of getting better."

JALEN WILLIAMS SMILED when he recalled his shocked reaction when Portland's Damian Lillard swished a buzzer-beating, series-ending, sidestep 37-footer over George and the Thunder in April 2019.

Williams was preparing for his freshman year at Santa Clara University, barely a blip on the radar of NBA scouts, much less considered a lottery prospect.

Williams occasionally wonders, what if Lillard didn't make that shot? What if the Thunder came back to win the series? Would George still have been traded to the Clippers?

"And then obviously being a part of that, basically that whole spinning cycle of Dame's shot, then the Paul George trade and all that was kind of crazy," Williams told ESPN.

It took a series of unforeseen circumstances for Williams to end up being a key piece of the Thunder-Clippers blockbuster deal.

The buzz about Williams, a multidimensional 6-foot-5 wing with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, becoming Santa Clara's first NBA draft pick since Steve Nash in 1996 didn't start building until early in his junior year. His testing and performance at the NBA scouting combine bumped Williams into first-round projections, and his stock kept climbing after individual workouts for more than a dozen teams.

The Thunder identified Williams as a target for the No. 12 overall pick in 2022. It took some major misfortune from the Clippers for that pick to land in the lottery:

Leonard missed the entire season while recovering from surgery to repair a knee injury suffered during the previous year's conference semifinals. Injuries limited George to only 31 games as LA finished with a 42-40 record, then a COVID-19 case sidelined George for the Clippers' loss in the second play-in game, resulting in the Thunder receiving the lottery pick.

Williams was the Rookie of the Year runner-up and a major reason for the Thunder's drastic improvement a year ago. He has made an even bigger leap this season.

Williams, whom Daigneault refers to as "an artist" because of his on-court creativity, ranks second on the Thunder behind Gilgeous-Alexander in scoring (19.2 points per game) and assists (4.6). He's one of the most efficient volume scorers in the league, shooting 54.4% from the floor and 45.3% from 3-point range. While Holmgren and forward Lu Dort rightfully draw much of the praise for Oklahoma City's fourth-ranked defense, Williams is an essential contributor on that end of the floor, a rarity for a young scorer.

"He's going to be a star in this league for a long time," Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters after Williams scored 36 points in a Dec. 27 win over the New York Knicks. "As we can see, sky's the limit for him."

JUST BY GETTINGGilgeous-Alexander, a superstar who projects as the centerpiece of a contender for the foreseeable future, the George trade has been widely viewed as a successful deal for Presti's Thunder. But the addition of Williams, likely a long-term sidekick for Gilgeous-Alexander, qualifies as phenomenal value in the minds of scouts and executives around the league.

"I think [the trade] worked out for both parties," Williams said. "I think both organizations are probably pretty happy where they are now. I mean, they have Harden now, too. ...

"It makes the NBA fun."

Rivers, who departed LA in what Clippers owner Steve Ballmer called a "mutual decision" after Leonard and George's first season together fizzled out in the second round of the playoffs, doesn't view the deal as favorably for his former franchise.

"If you did everything whatever amount of years later, you would never do that deal," Rivers said. "You just wouldn't. But who had a crystal ball?"

There are plenty of other pieces from the trade, several that are yet to be determined. The Thunder took guard Tre Mann at No. 18 overall in 2021, the first pick Oklahoma City received in the deal, and eventually included him as part of the package dealt to the Charlotte Hornets for veteran wing Gordon Hayward before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. (The 2023 swap with the Clippers didn't convey.)

The Clippers' 2024 pick will belong to either the Washington Wizards or Utah Jazz, depending on how the standings play out, as Presti traded the two least valuable first-rounders the Thunder owned in this draft in separate deals betting on future upside.

Oklahoma City gave up the least valuable of those picks -- currently OKC's own at No. 28, a pick that has since been traded twice more -- in a multiteam deal before last year's draft that landed the Thunder a top-five-protected 2029 pick from the Nuggets. Presti sent Dallas its second-least-valuable pick from the Thunder's 2024 first-round bundle -- currently LA's at No. 25 -- to reroute to Washington for center Daniel Gafford before the trade deadline, securing unprotected 2028 swap rights from the Mavericks.

Oklahoma City still has the rights to Miami's lottery-protected 2025 pick (unprotected in 2026 if it doesn't convey the previous year) and 2025 swap rights with the Clippers from the George trade.

The final piece from that deal, the Clippers' unprotected 2026 first-rounder, was also used in a prototypical Presti deal. LA needed a second first-round pick to meet Philadelphia 76ers president Daryl Morey's demand for the then-disgruntled Harden, so the Clippers called the Thunder. Presti gave up the least favorable of the Thunder's 2026 first-round haul, which also includes the Rockets' top-four-protected pick and OKC's own, to get unprotected 2027 swap rights from the Clippers.

The Clippers got Harden, the point guard they hope can be the final piece in their championship puzzle. The Thunder got yet another swing at potential lottery upside, timed to when Leonard, George and Harden will all be in their mid or late 30s.

The Clippers made the original George trade to give the franchise a chance to win its first championship, a pursuit that has yet to be accomplished but remains a reasonable goal. LA is 28-7 since the start of December, the best record in the NBA during that span.

The Thunder, pushed into the deal by a fortuitously timed trade request, aimed to pave a path to a long stretch as contenders. That appears to be Oklahoma City's reality for the foreseeable future with a star-studded young core and the flexibility provided by possessing so many draft picks, a challenge for Presti that every GM in the modern NBA would accept.

"I just think both sides won," George said after the Clippers' Jan. 16 home win over the Thunder. "I did think it was quite a lot that the Clippers were willing to give up, but their commitment to me is my commitment to them. So just appreciative that they went out and grabbed me and brought me over here. Very appreciative of Steve [Ballmer]. But both sides won."

ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this report.

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