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OKC 'checked the boxes' during its yearlong recruitment of Paul George

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Thunder's hopes increasing that PG stays (2:26)

Royce Young explains the growing optimism that Paul George will re-sign with the Thunder instead of exiting in free agency. (2:26)

With a gray and blue Thunder snapback pulled tightly over his head, Paul George stepped off a private jet to shake hands with head coach Billy Donovan and GM Sam Presti while a horde of fans behind a chain-link fence baked in the heat of an Oklahoma summer.

He hopped into a black SUV and was chauffeured around his new city and then to a welcome party the next night where he was formally introduced onstage, spoke with reporters and did a SportsCenter interview with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski in a private room at the top of the 21C hotel. Then he was off to spend the evening getting to know his new MVP teammate at a local bar.

There was nothing subtle about it, the whole arrival choreographed to manage every detail.

Last summer the Thunder pulled out all the stops for George with not only the hope of a special season alongside Russell Westbrook but also a bigger dream of a long-term partnership. It came with a heap of risk.

"The risk in this decision was not making it," Presti said a few days after the trade for George.

A day before training camp opened, the Thunder traded for Carmelo Anthony, a move that energized and deeply impressed George, sources say. George was coming from a Pacers team that had been picked apart, with teammates like Danny Granger, David West, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson all departing to leave George as the primary holdover from a brief Eastern contender.

Westbrook signed a five-year extension and George said the move would make his decision "easier." The plan was working.

It's been 363 days since Presti swung for the fences to land George. In a few days, the franchise will find out whether it was all worth it.

The Thunder have made a strong impression on George, league sources with knowledge of the situation said, and George had said early in training camp that the Thunder "checked all his boxes" while speaking lovingly about his new franchise.

There was a connection building and it carried throughout the season. A few days after George's 28th birthday in May, Westbrook joined him for some paintball. George's family threw a surprise party a little more than a month later -- on draft night -- inviting Thunder staffers, including Donovan, to come to Southern California for it.

Now that he's officially opting out, George is weighing his options, with his unrestricted free agency starting on July 1. That's all the Thunder really ever hoped for: He actually has a decision to make.


Decoding the clues

"I would say why don't we listen to Paul?" Presti said a few days after the season ended. "He has had a lot of comments also."

Presti was responding to speculation that George was "gone," after the Thunder's disappointing first-round playoff exit, a prevailing assumption that persists.

Throughout the season, George made a number of comments resetting the idea that it was a foregone conclusion that the Los Angeles Lakers were his ultimate destination -- at least to those paying attention.

He praised his relationship with Westbrook, who, whether it's been spending the day in a boat with George during his charity fishing trip or joining him for paintball, has been the Thunder's lead pitchman all year.

"Russ is the reason why this decision is becoming even more easier to make; [it's] the character Russ [has]," George told ESPN's Rachel Nichols in February. "That's my guy forever."

He's referenced multiple times about it being "Year 1" with the Thunder.

"This is our first year together. This is Year 1 for this group," George said just before the playoffs. "We've got a chance to win it all, but realistically it takes time for things to build and chemistry to mesh -- just for everybody to be on the same page. So this wasn't a championship-or-bust coming into this for me. It was just an opportunity to see what it's like being here and just to naturally fall in love with it.

"And it's been that. It's been a lot of love here."

He's talked about recruiting players to the Thunder.

"You've got to look at the team coming back, with free agency coming up with other guys who we could possibly go grab and who could we -- myself, Melo, Russ -- who can we recruit with us here," George said.

He said going to the Lakers wouldn't be just about playing at home.

"The fact of the matter is I'm from [Los Angeles], and I love being here," he said. "But that has nothing to do with my decision with where I'm going to be playing at the end of the day."

And he was still talking about checking those boxes after the season.

"They honestly check the boxes where I needed those boxes to be checked from what a player wants and needs," he said, "out of a front office, out of a medical group, out of teammates, out of coaching staff."


Déjà vu all over again for OKC?

With each pro-Thunder comment comes the instinctive pushback:

"Yeah, but Durant said ..."

The optimist counters that not every player and situation is the same. The pessimist notes that George has said similar things before, like with the Pacers, where days before he was traded he said, "It's all about trying to bring a championship to Indiana."

And on top of it, George's desire to play for the Lakers has been well-documented. The Thunder have always been the ones swimming upstream.

However you want to decode the comments, the Thunder are taking George at his word. The communication among George, his representation and the Thunder is said to have been transparent and positive all season long.

And if anything, they've secured a seat at the table with George when they otherwise would've been locked out of the house. After Kevin Durant left, the Thunder started looking for star-level talent to combine with Westbrook but couldn't even get a conversation with free agents like Gordon Hayward or hometown guy Blake Griffin.

It would take something dramatic, an ability to show, not tell.

What's surprising is that the momentum has gained steam for the Thunder and George, despite the actual season not going according to plan. The Thunder weren't as good as they thought they'd be, and a first-round exit at the hands of the Utah Jazz certainly was not part of the recruiting pitch.

But as George said in Part 1 of his behind-the-scenes SportsCenter series, he takes some blame for that.

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6:52

Paul George's incredible journey to free agency

In Part 1 of SportsCenter's exclusive three-part series on Paul George's free agency, the NBA star and his family reflect on the road to get there.

After he and Westbrook played majestically off each other in Game 5, George struggled in Game 6 as Westbrook put on his try-hard hat and jacked up 43 shots. There can be frustration playing with Westbrook, and George almost assuredly felt some at points, but throughout last season he was rigidly positive, investing himself completely into making it work with Westbrook and Anthony.

George wants to play with stars. That's the message he'd sent to the Pacers front office, and the one he had on his mind shortly after the trade with regard to the Lakers chatter.

"It's too early for L.A.," George told Sports Illustrated before the season. "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."

(Translation: If LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard isn't going to L.A., neither am I.)

George declined to reveal what his full free-agency checklist is, but people around him know he wants his game acknowledged and respected and to have his share of the spotlight. There are no lights brighter than Hollywood, but the Thunder will be sure to counter with their national TV appearances and the megawatt attention that comes with playing alongside an international superstar like Westbrook.

Last season George played in his first Christmas Day game and privately noted that not having that opportunity with the Pacers always bothered him. His shoes are one of the best sellers on the market and worn by more active NBA players than anyone else. His jerseys sell well. The Thunder might be in a small market, but they have cultivated stars on a global scale.

George wants to win. That will be at the top of any list he makes. No amount of recruiting or paintballing or stocked fishing ponds can outweigh that. There's a sense George wants to give it another chance -- maybe a one-plus-one deal -- to run it back with Westbrook and see whether it meshes any better next season. But he also said in February that he wants to plant roots with his next contract.

"I'm not looking to bounce around and play for multiple teams throughout my career," he said. "The decision I make will ultimately be to build something. ... So this next decision, whatever it is, is to make sure I'm there for a duration."


Do the Thunder have a Plan B?

What happens if George leaves for the Lakers or another team? What is next for the Thunder, who would face another star player departing in free agency? In this scenario, they aren't just empty-handed, they actually would have less than before the trade.

To get George, the Thunder dealt Victor Oladipo, now an All-Star and 2017-18 Most Improved Player, and high-caliber versatile big Domantas Sabonis: two young players on long-term, controllable contracts.

The Thunder would be looking at a road map that has them over the salary cap, with a core of Westbrook, Steven Adams and a 34-year-old disgruntled Anthony. The Thunder shot their shot, taking a swing at a near full recovery from Durant leaving by adding a star small forward, but they could be left in a more desperate, more uncomfortable position than ever.

They still would have Westbrook locked up for the next five years, but with him taking up more than a third of their cap space, plus a dry cupboard of assets and no salary-cap levers to pull, would the franchise dare entertain the idea of trading Westbrook and starting a full-on house flip?

Or does OKC go right back to it, working off the foundation of Westbrook and Adams, hoping that a young player like Terrance Ferguson erupts?

Presti has talked a lot about how the Thunder are still "working off the canvas" they had when the team relocated from Seattle more than a decade ago. It's been a single-line graph for this era of the Thunder, a decade of playoff appearances, MVPs, historical achievements and periodic contention.

For now, the Thunder don't want to go down any new paths. What they want is to finish the plan that started a year ago. They have a real chance to retain George and to keep working off that same canvas.