For the last few months, we’ve been operating under the assumption that Paul George to the Lakers next season is close to a done deal. But according to George himself, that isn’t so.
George called it ‘too early’ for him to commit to playing with the Lakers next season in an in-depth interview with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. The Lakers will have to make commitments from another top player or two from around the league before George even considers them an option, he said.
“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,” George told Jenkins.
“I’m in OKC, so hopefully me and [Russell Westbrook] do a good enough job and make it to the conference finals and love the situation. Why not recruit someone to come build it with us? I’m open in this whole process.”
George was an All-Star last season, averaging 23.7 points per game on 46 percent shooting from the field and 39 percent from three. But the Pacers barely made the playoffs and weren’t in a position to compete at a high level for the next few years.
The Lakers weren’t any better last season, but they’re in a better position to compete in the future than the Pacers were because they have cap space. But of the three teams, the Thunder are currently closest to achieving George’s title goals. Maybe he stays after all.
Why the Lakers still make sense for George
Competing for titles is the most important thing to George right now, so on the surface, the Lakers don’t make much sense. But eventually, George can still do that in Los Angeles.
Things have to be positioned in a way where star players — in particular one star free agent from Akron, Ohio — are making commitments to playing with the Lakers next season for him to come.
The Lakers can make that happen. As it stands right now, they have about $41 million in salary committed next season. That’s a guaranteed max slot for one player even at 35 percent of the cap. They’d need to ship Luol Deng’s bloated salary out via trade or the stretch provision to make room for another max slot, but that’s doable. They could also potentially trade more young pieces for a star instead of signing one in free agency.
The Lakers haven’t been able to even get meetings with the top free agents over the last few seasons. That does matter. But a commitment from George would change everything.
The Lakers will be one of the few teams with max cap space next summer, which makes them all the more attractive to the top free agents on the market. LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, Westbrook himself, and Chris Paul could all be on the market next season in addition to George.
So, yes, there is a chance.
But Oklahoma City is the safer option for George
It’s better to count on the bird in hand rather than two in the bush. The Thunder are the most stable situation for George right now. He will play this season out with the league’s MVP, and they’ll likely have one of the best defenses in the league next season.
They won’t have the firepower to hang with the Warriors, but their roster may be the most capable of defending them in the conference. Playing with Westbrook will only open up more opportunity for George.
There’s no telling if anyone will commit to playing with the Lakers next season without assurances from George. Even if he does give that assurance, who knows what the rest of the talent on the roster will look like.
Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram look like the Lakers’ best players, but the rest of the roster hasn’t been much to write home about. Veterans like George aren’t usually willing to rely on younger talent developing. Even if the Lakers clear the decks to make room for two or three maximum-salaried players, it’s difficult to put the right talent around those stars to make the roster work.
But George is in Oklahoma with Westbrook right now. They have talent on the roster and should be a solid one-two punch in a tough conference.
Chances George leaves OKC for the Lakers: 5/10
The Lakers will get a meeting with someone, and selling Los Angeles can’t be too hard. If George commits to playing in LA, the Lakers could build a contender again.
But he’s with the Thunder now. If winning is the top priority as George has said, they are in the best position to do it now.