The Paul George trade, OKC's rise and the blockbuster that keeps on giving

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 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?'”

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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 Harden in a trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, a deal the 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 benefitted the franchise made it something that we could do.”