There’s a large contingent of Lakers fans who have viewed Paul George finding his way to Los Angeles to play for their favorite team as an inevitability. The headlines of “George wants to be a Laker” captivate and then are taken as gospel. But, situations are never really that simple, especially when we’re talking about what can happen a year from now.
This is especially clear (and relevant) today after some ace reporting by USA Today’s Sam Amick reveals that even though George’s interest in the Lakers is real, his mind is far from made up about his future:
George, meanwhile, finds himself at an interesting crossroads here.
Hell-bent as he is on signing with the Lakers, George – according to a person with knowledge of his situation – is also the kind of prudent professional who won’t close a window of opportunity prematurely. So if the Cavs can convince Pritchard to either take on four-time All-Star forward Kevin Love or send him to a third team in exchange for more suitable assets, then George will play his heart out alongside LeBron James and remain open to the idea of re-signing next summer if James were also to return (or, perhaps, George could leave for Los Angeles with James at his side).
Ditto for the Celtics or the San Antonio Spurs, teams that could fulfill George’s desire for title contention and thus put themselves in the running. And should the Lakers come along and trade for him early to ensure he doesn’t fall in love with another team, then so be it. The person spoke with USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation.
That’s the thing about free agency: It’s all about the freedom. And George is making good use of his lately.
First off, I think the Lakers can feel good about the reiteration of Paul’s desires to play for the Lakers. And, it should be noted, the idea that he could be swayed to stay with another team should they trade for him now and experience success could just be a leverage play by the Pacers to drive up the price of doing business with them. If it seems like more teams are willing to take the risk to trade for George and there’s a chance he could stay, he’s a much more valuable piece than if he’s just going to sign with the Lakers next summer no matter where he goes this one.
However, the “George can fall in love with any team that trades with him angle” should also be taken seriously. For one, George understands what it’s like to play on a really good team. His Pacers were once worthy challengers to LeBron’s Heat teams and looked like they would be able to compete for trips to the finals for several years. Remembering what that tastes like in Boston or San Antonio or Houston could derail any “destined” return to southern California to don a Lakers’ uni.
What further complicates things is how the Lakers’ front office is now reading this situation. How much inside information do they have from George’s agent? Do they view the Celtics or Spurs as a real threat? Are they reconsidering their own trade offers for George? If so, how much are they willing to put on the table?
Maybe this is unfair, but it’s not like we have the most encouraging data on how this relatively inexperienced front office responds to situations that can be presented as having narrow windows to act. I mean, today we’re seeing how Darryl Morey used a commitment from Chris Paul to trigger moves to acquire multiple non-guaranteed contracts he could flip to the Clippers to help facilitate a deal. Now contrast that to Magic and Pelinka using Russell to facilitate a Mozgov trade which opens up space a year from now with no immediate moves on the horizon to utilize that space. Said another way, Morey got the “yes” and then pulled the trigger whereas the Lakers front office has, it seems, done the opposite.
So, do the Lakers now take another chance by trading for George now? Yes, he wants to play for the franchise but will that be true a year from now? How about if the team gives up more of its young talent to get George in house, sacrificing some of its talent base in the process? Do the Lakers look as desirable then? And what if Magic and Pelinka aren’t able to close on a secondary star to keep George happy?
These are a lot of ifs and I’m not trying to sway anyone into thinking any certain way about what lies ahead. Too much uncertainty shouldn’t be met with declarative statements.
What I do know is that there is a fair amount of risk for the Lakers no matter which way things go. Which, all things considered, feels different than it did even a week ago. That’s not to say that things won’t work out, but, as I’ve written, this front office actually needs to make these things happen and not just rely on things going their way because, you know, they’re the Lakers. The last regime tried that and now they’re unemployed.
For what it’s worth, I’m split on what the Lakers should try to do at this stage.
I’ve long been against the Lakers giving up much of anything in value for George. If the Pacers want to make a bad trade, great. But, if they don’t, then let George make up his mind next summer. If he really wants to be a Laker, then he’ll come. If he doesn’t, he won’t, and the team can then build organically or explore other opportunities. George isn’t the only really good player out there and there are multiple paths back to becoming a good team.
However, the Lakers have now told everyone their plan and have actually started to execute it. They’ve cleared cap space for next summer and, when you look at their future cap situation, it becomes more clear that more cost saving moves must get executed if the team wants the salary space it needs to sign two top players. Yes, the Lakers can wait to make those moves, but if you can get off of some of those contracts now in a deal for George, should you not consider that? From where I stand, making the Russell trade as early as they did almost necessitates at least exploring those options now*.
When the story broke that George had informed the Pacers he would leave Indy next summer and that his preferred destination was the Lakers, things seemed so simple. However, through leverage plays by the Pacers and some moves the Lakers front office has already made, things look a bit more complicated now.
*Note, I’m not advocating the team trade for George now. But, I can say that if they do trade for him, I actually wouldn’t mind the Lakers trying to make it as big a trade as possible — hopefully including Monta Ellis and/or Al Jefferson in the process. Jefferson’s contract is non-guaranteed for 2018-19 and Ellis’ contract language is worded in a way that states if he is waived before the end of 2017-18 his 2018-19 player option is voided. That, then, equates to nearly $20 million in expiring contracts heading into the summer of 2018 (should you decide to waive Ellis). I don’t know if the Pacers would be willing to include those guys in a deal, but I’d want to push for one or both of them if at all possible.