Thunder's Westbrook, George ready to lead Oklahoma City into future with questions in past

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SportsPulse: Jeff Zillgitt and Trysta Krick put their prediction hats on for some bold takes as the NBA season gets set to begin.
USA TODAY

OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook’s recruiting pitch isn’t so much a pitch at all.

Flashy dinners or getaways are not the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar’s style. That’s too much of a change to his personality.

“I’ve always done the same thing,” Westbrook says. “For me, I’m a real person. I’m real. I keep it 100, straightforward. I don’t go out and be someone I’m not just to get somebody to stay because that’s considered being fake, and for me, I be myself at all times.

“It’s important to do that, and that’s part of being a leader, part of being a leader of this team, an organization, and that’s what I do.”

And Westbrook is a big reason why Paul George shocked the NBA by re-upping with the Thunder for four years and $137 million as July’s free agency opened in a glamorous party on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.

As the Thunder prepares to open the season without Carmelo Anthony, who departed for Houston, the future remains bright with George and Westbrook, a duo together for the foreseeable future.

“I just developed these really good relationships here, almost feeling like I’ve been here for a while,” George says. “And then just over the course of the whole season, it just steamrolled, just got better and better, and here I am.”

Last season, George averaged 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals. He was selected to his fifth All-Star Game.

He developed a strong bond with Westbrook, even as the up-and-down season ended in disappointment with a second consecutive year of losing in the opening round of the postseason.

Naturally, that led to speculation he would leave, head for his hometown of Los Angeles and reopen a wound in a state not quite over the departure of Kevin Durant in 2016.

But that’s not what happened.

George, who grew up as a player in Indiana, was attracted to Oklahoma City’s small market and its community aspect appealed to him. 

Each game is sold out. Fans live and die with each game. Players are heroes in the community.

The glitz and glamour of Los Angeles suddenly didn’t matter. The Lakers never got a chance to deliver their recruiting pitch.

“I think me starting off in a small market helped with feeling what small markets bring as far as a community standpoint,” says George, 28. “And then again, the city being behind this team, the team being behind the community, it was just hand in hand. And then just being a part of this team, it just felt right.”

Familiar faces

George can be himself again, the elite defender and scorer the Thunder covets. The questions about his future are gone.

“For the past two or three years, there’s always been speculations or people deciding what my future should be,” George says. “I know where I’m at and the world knows where I’m at. So yeah, in a sense I can go back to just playing ball and enjoying the game.”

And playing with Westbrook helps.

His up-tempo, relentless style drew George on the court. Off the court, they became good friends. It’s why Thunder players felt good about the chances George would remain, one year after arriving from an eight-year stint with the Indiana Pacers.

“Of course, you could see that the chemistry that him and Russ shared, him and coach (Billy) Donovan shared and the rest of the team that we all had with him,” Thunder forward Patrick Patterson says. “There’s always that chemistry, that friendship, that bond that we shared. But at the end of the day, you don’t know what’s going on in his head. He’s the only one who knows.

“Just going off of that, off of what I saw physically, I had full confidence that he was coming back just because the way that we hung out together, the way we were around with one another. I believed he was coming back.”

Veteran Raymond Felton, who re-signed for one year, also said he never doubted George would return. He understood the process George had to go through, but always knew Oklahoma City could become his home.

“Being like a big brother of the team, I kind of knew a little bit more than maybe others, so you know, I really wasn’t panicking,” Felton says. “I’m glad that he chose the place that he loved, and we’re definitely happy to have him back for sure.”

The Thunder now get a chance to build something special on the court.

Westbrook remains a triple-double machine, though he enters the season coming off a fourth knee surgery. Steven Adams continues to develop into a powerful center. Andre Roberson is working his way back from an injury to remain an elite defender. The Thunder retained Jerami Grant and Felton, but shed the contract of Anthony and rebuilt the bench.

That keeps the Thunder in line to pay a league-high $73.7 million in luxury tax at season’s end. But it’s a hefty price they’ll pay for a title contender that should only improve.

George and Westbrook will be better together just based on familiarity. The roster has not undergone drastic changes like last season, including a late addition of a veteran star like Anthony.

“Because of Russell’s investment here over his entire career, who he is as a leader, I think he and Paul really developed a very, very close and good relationship that I think they work through those things,” Donovan says. “So, I would say they’re probably at a better place this year starting the season than they were a year ago because they really just didn’t know each other in terms of that kind of familiarity.

“So, that part of it I think is positive.”

This all started with George returning.

“I was just open, very open about the situation,” George says. “For me to give everything I had and for me to be committed, I had to be open about coming here, otherwise I would have been not giving the team every bit of effort or it just would have been something that I was holding back.

“I just told myself to start the process off, just give this team everything I have and see what happens.”

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