To those who watched Team USA’s practices, though, George looked as good as ever.
He looked and sounded like a man confident in himself and his surroundings — which, he said, was a big reason he didn’t even bother to take a meeting with another team before committing to remain with Oklahoma City for the next several seasons in the opening hours of free agency.
“I felt comfortable where I was at already,” George said. “There was no need to prolong it and go further with meetings and interviews.
“I knew what my heart was set on. I would just be wasting people’s time at that point.”
If there were any concerns that George would be something less than what he was in the past when he returns to the court this fall, they were displaced by his showing in Las Vegas. George took part in every facet of Team USA’s practices, and he looked every bit the lithe athlete he has been since bursting into stardom years ago.
He said the recovery from the arthroscopic surgery he had on his left knee in Los Angeles in May had progressed nicely, and while he didn’t feel he was back to where he’d like to be, it was impossible to tell from watching him play.
“The knee is doing good,” he said. “It still has a long way to go. … It looks like I’m doing well, but I’m still working through some stuff, and still working on trusting and putting full confidence in my leg. I’m a little ways away, but there’s no pain, there’s no swelling, there’s nothing I’m concerned about. I’m just not at the level I need to be.
“There’s no limitations. All it is, is taking steps, all it is, is progression. I’m just trying to get ready and prepare for training camp down the line.”
George is also taking steps with his shooting form, something that he complained about throughout last season in Oklahoma City. His overall numbers looked fine — he finished the year shooting 40.1 percent from three-point range, the second time in his career he’d eclipsed 40 percent for the regular season. But George shot just 32.4 percent from three after the all-star break and 36.5 percent during Oklahoma City’s six-game loss to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs.
It turned out there was a reason for that: George was dealing with bursitis in his right (shooting) arm. He complained off and on during the season that he was dealing with “tightness” in his forearm, but once the season ended he got his bursa sac aspirated — and discovered just how problematic the bursitis had become.
“I had a huge sac, 18 to 20 ounces of blood just sitting in the sac of my elbow, so I had that aspirated,” George said. “I was dealing with that for pretty much the whole season. That was causing a lot of frustration with shooting and playing.
“To be able to shoot again, to be able to feel confident in my shot, to not have that on my mind, playing on the court … I’m great going forward.”
That’s an assessment the Thunder would agree with as well after getting George to commit to the team for the long term. George was one of the most coveted free agents on the market this summer — to the point where ESPN made a documentary chronicling his decision — and seemed like a natural fit in his native Southern California with the Los Angeles Lakers, particularly if LeBron James wanted to join them.
So while George had originally told the Indiana Pacers last year that he only wanted to play for one of two teams — the Pacers or the Lakers — when his contract expired, George said the year he spent in Oklahoma City convinced him a different path was right for him.
“My feelings for the Lakers [are] the same,” George said. “I love the organization, I love the history, I love the legacy. But being around [Thunder General Manager Sam Presti], being around Russ [Westbrook], being around [Coach Billy Donovan], Andre [Roberson], Steven [Adams] … I gained a brotherhood.
“I gave them one year. I would’ve gave that group one year, and that just didn’t sit well with me. I went to war, I went to battle, we made the playoffs, we were in the hunt, and we stuck together all year long, and you never heard of any turmoil, no matter how we played, in the locker room.
“We built a real brotherhood there, and I didn’t want to walk away from that.”
Because he didn’t, the Thunder now possesses something the franchise has lacked for years: a clear indication of where its future lies.
Since 2015, when Kevin Durant was entering the final year of his contract, the Thunder has gone from one plan to another. Its focus was centered first on keeping Durant; when that failed, the 2016-17 season turned into a celebration of Westbrook, who became the first player in a half-century to average a triple-double while leading Oklahoma City back to the playoffs and winning the league’s most valuable player award.
But in trading for George — and, later, Carmelo Anthony — the Thunder took a swing for the fences to try to return to perennial contention. Keep George, and he and Westbrook could form the backbone of a contender in the West for years to come. Fail to do so, and the prospect of a full-on rebuild was likely staring Oklahoma City in the face sooner rather than later.
After spending a year with Westbrook, George saw enough to commit. And, with their future now clearly aligned, George thinks the best is yet to come.
“Me and Russ, we know I decided to stick around because I know what we have and I know what we are up against,” George said. “We’re both ready to steer the ship. We’re both ready to guide the team.
“We know what it takes. We’ve been together, we’ve been around each other, we’re working out with each other, we’re building chemistry, but that’s all it comes down to.”