WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. — The Conejo Valley lunch crowd was confronted by an alarming image Monday afternoon on the 3100 block of Willow Lane: Paul George lying face down on the floor of a 5,000-square-foot warehouse, garage doors open to the street, cursing under the weight of six 20-pound metal chains draped across his back. This is where George has spent the past three months, at ProActive Sports Performance in Westlake Village, pushing 800-pound monster-truck tires alongside linebackers such as the Packers’ Clay Matthews and running backs like the Bucs’ Doug Martin. On Road Trip Fridays, George and his new NFL pals charge up 35-degree inclines on 200-yard sand dunes north of Malibu.
No one has figured more prominently in the NBA’s manic off-season than George—traded by the Pacers, rumored to the Cavs, ticketed to the Celtics, fated for the Lakers, acquired by the Thunder—yet no one has been less visible, training six days a week with Ryan Capretta at ProActive and recovering at his home in aptly named Hidden Hills. George will finally extricate himself from the chains, which he uses for resistance during pushups, and board a private plane Tuesday morning at Van Nuys Airport that was dispatched by Thunder owner Clay Bennett. He cannot fathom the outpouring that awaits him when he touches down in Oklahoma City. “I’ve heard there might be people, like, at the airport,” he says.
George has no relationship with Russell Westbrook beyond pregame pleasantries. He describes Sam Presti as one might depict a character in a spy novel. All he has ever seen of his new home is the Skirvin Hilton Hotel and Chesapeake Energy Arena. But in the 11 days since George was sent from Indiana to Oklahoma City, he has done his research, asking former Thunder players what he can expect in one of the league’s smallest but staunchest markets. One notable source was particularly insightful.
“KD was like, ‘That place will blow you away,’” George says. “He told me, ‘They can offer what other teams can’t in terms of the people and the preparation and the facility, down to the chefs and the meals.’ He was pretty high on them. He thought it was a first-class organization in every way.” The Thunder, who essentially traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for a yearlong free-agent pitch session with George, will take any recruiter they can get—even if it’s the guy who left, sweet-talking his replacement.
George has discovered in the past several months what Durant and LeBron James already knew about superstar defections. “There’s no right way to handle it,” George says. “I get the frustration. I get why people are upset. But at the same time, I want the average fan to understand that we only get a small window to play this game and more than anything you want to be able to play for a championship. I wanted to bring that to Indiana. I really did. I love Indiana. That will always be a special place for me and I’m sorry for not holding on. But I wasn’t sure we’d ever get a team together to compete for a championship and that’s where all this came from.”
Throughout 2016, George followed the dog-eared free-agent playbook, betraying little about his future plans. “I straddled the fence,” he says. “‘Let’s see how this team shapes up and we’ll let you know.’ There was no, ‘Hey, I’m sticking around,’ and no, ‘Hey, I’m leaving.’” Not until June, after Pacers president Larry Bird resigned, did he sense a shift in the franchise and in himself. The core that reached the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago—George Hill, David West, Roy Hibbert—were all gone, as was the legendary architect. “Here I am, the last guy, and I kind of felt a rebuild coming,” George says. “I felt like the window had closed. I thought they were going in a different direction and I wanted to go in a different direction.” He didn’t ask for a trade. He told the Pacers he intended to sign elsewhere after his deal expired in ‘18. “I wanted them to have the opportunity to get something back if they didn’t want me to play that last year.”
George braced for a myriad of potential suitors: Boston and Cleveland, Miami and San Antonio. Oklahoma City was nowhere near his radar. But one of George’s closest friends is Reggie Jackson, and when the Thunder shipped him to the Pistons in 2015, Jackson was stunned to learn his destination. George knew that Presti, the OKC general manager, worked in secret. On the afternoon of June 30, a few hours before free agency dawned, Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard called George and informed him that he was off to Oklahoma. Jackson, despite his own turbulent exit from the Thunder, told his buddy that he would love it.
“I’m thrilled,” George says. “All I was asking for was a little help in Indy. Now I’m getting a lot of help in Oklahoma.” He and Westbrook talked briefly on the phone that first night. “I think I fit with how he plays and vice versa,” George says. “Being a knock-down shooter, I think I can spread the floor for him and run the floor with him. But I also think I can help get him easier opportunities, being able to drive and dish the ball out, so he can attack guys closing out on him.” Durant and Westbrook sometimes clashed, but George may be more tolerant of a ball-dominant point guard with a sharp edge and a quick trigger. He adored Monta Ellis, for instance.
The Thunder are obviously not as talented as the Warriors, but they could be best qualified to defend them, with the length and versatility of George, Andre Roberson and Steven Adams. “Our defense,” George says, “is going to be insane.” Head coach Billy Donovan has already flown to Los Angeles, and during a barbecue at George’s house, discussed strategy with his new star.
George is from the L.A. area, and by superficial measurements, Oklahoma City is about as far away as he can get. But George actually grew up in Palmdale, more than an hour from Hollywood, and his favorite pastime was fishing on lakes in the Antelope Valley. The Lakers, with their historic home-court advantage, have reason to believe they can sign George as a free agent next July. The Thunder, with their player-friendly culture and MVP floor general, have reason to believe they can make it a fight. Optimism abounds that OKC will soon re-sign Westbrook, another Angeleno, to a five-year extension.
“I grew up a Lakers and a Clippers fan,” George says. “I idolized Kobe. There will always be a tie here, a connection here. People saying I want to come here, who doesn’t want to play for their hometown? That’s a dream come true, if you’re a kid growing up on the outskirts of L.A., to be the man in your city. But it’s definitely been overstated. For me, it’s all about winning. I want to be in a good system, a good team. I want a shot to win it. I’m not a stats guy. I’m playing this game to win and build a legacy of winning. I’ve yet to do that. I’m searching for it. If we get a killer season in Oklahoma, we make the conference finals or upset the Warriors or do something crazy, I’d be dumb to want to leave that.”
George will get four eyefuls this season of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and the young Lakers. Superficial measurements will matter far less than max slots and won-loss records. “It’s too early for L.A.,” he says. “It would have to be a situation where the ball gets rolling and guys are hopping on. This guy commits, that guy commits. ‘Oh s—, now there’s a team forming.’ It has to be like that.” But the same is true for virtually every locale outside of Oakland. “I’m in OKC, so hopefully me and Russ do a good enough job and make it to the conference finals and love the situation, why not recruit someone to come build it with us? I’m open in this whole process.”
George is a top-10 player and a two-way wing on the right side of his prime, an asset more valuable than draft picks galore. Players of that ilk cannot say a thing about their future without every word being parsed. But it’s way too soon to read between lines. The anguish George experienced July 1, typing goodbye texts to staffers and friends in Indiana, has turned to excitement about Oklahoma City. He is leaving the warehouse in Conejo Valley and boarding a plane in Van Nuys, bound for a place he doesn’t know, with rabid fans and master chefs and a co-star more explosive than Monta Ellis.
The NBA will wait to see what else he finds.