Lance Stephenson and Paul George came into the NBA together and though their careers have put thousands of miles between them over the years, their friendship persists.
It is often expressed in the form of NBA 2K video games. George creates a player, Stephenson creates a player (whose name is obviously his moniker of Born Ready) and they take on internet opponents together.
“We ain’t lose a game yet,” Stephenson said.
If last summer had gone a little differently, they might have been actual teammates not just virtual teammates. And many thought it would.
The Lakers will face the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday for the first time since George shunned the Lakers in free agency. George, who was cheered like a member of the home team each time he played against the Lakers at Staples Center last season, will undoubtedly be booed. He’ll come to Los Angeles this season with one of the league’s best teams, being talked about for MVP consideration.
There won’t be a marquee matchup between two of last summer’s top free agents though. LeBron James won’t play and could miss another week because of the groin injury he suffered Dec. 25. James did some shooting on New Year’s Day when the Lakers met for a light practice. Coach Luke Walton said it was the first time he’d seen James shoot since the injury.
James was one star linked all last season to the Lakers. George was the other.
In George’s case, that linkage happened by design. In 2017, he told the Indiana Pacers, the team that drafted George and Stephenson in 2010, that he planned to leave in free agency during the summer of 2018 to sign with the Lakers. The Pacers responded by trading him to Oklahoma City.
The Thunder had a season-long audition for George and he appreciated their willingness to give up promising young guard Victor Oladipo for him. They worked throughout the season to show him how much they valued him, though Russell Westbrook grew angry any time that dynamic arose.
“Sales pitch is gonna be when we win a championship,” Westbrook said. “Beat that pitch.”
Instead, the Thunder made an inglorious first-round exit, losing in six games to the Utah Jazz.
But that didn’t turn George away. He loved playing with Westbrook and responded positively to general manager Sam Presti’s retention efforts. Although George was talked about as being a Los Angeles native, he actually grew up in Palmdale, a less urban place that had more in common with Oklahoma City than Los Angeles.
Before free agency opened, George committed long term to the Thunder. Many people within the Lakers organization were devastated. Some, including owner Jeanie Buss, wondered if this was going to be a repeat of seasons when free agents flirted with the Lakers but ultimately the storied franchise came up empty.
Less than 24 hours later, James agreed to become a Laker.
“You prep yourself, you do your work and then whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen,” Walton said. “You don’t get too emotionally attached to it. We went after players, LeBron decided to come, Paul didn’t. That’s our team now. We’re very happy we have LeBron James on our team.”
While the Thunder spent last season trying to figure out how to integrate their rebuilt team, they have spent this season reaping the benefits.
“They have a really good defensive team,” Walton said. “They got length and size and versatility. They have been doing it for a while now. … You can tell they buy into that end of the court.”
A lot of that is because of George, who arguably is the Thunder’s best player. He’s averaging 26.4 points this season while shooting 45% from the field and 38.5% from three-point range. He’s also averaging 8.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists.
“I think he improved a lot and I think he’s getting better every year,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson and Walton declined to say much about whether they were surprised George didn’t sign with the Lakers. For Stephenson, their friendship won’t pause because they are playing against each other this week.
“We gonna talk,” Stephenson said. “We gonna talk trash for sure, man. I remember in practice with the Pacers, we’d always go at each other and push each other to be better. And I feel like that made us better.”
VS. OKLAHOMA CITY
When: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday
On Air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet, ESPN; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: The Thunder (23-13) split games on back-to-back nights, home and away, against the Dallas Mavericks and sit third in the Western Conference, just one game behind Golden State and Denver. Russell Westbrook is again averaging a triple-double (21 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.1 assists).
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli