Paul George has made things crystal clear for the Pacers and everyone else in the NBA: He will opt out of the contract in one year, he will not re-sign with Indiana, and he prefers to play for the L.A. Lakers. His agent communicated this to the Pacers at least a week ago, according to reports, and the Pacers are reciprocating by engaging in trade talks as the 2017 NBA draft approaches.
This is all wonderful news for the Lakers, who have lacked a star since Kobe Bryant retired and have lacked a star who could actually play basketball at a high level for a couple of years beyond that. L.A. has been madly fortunate in the NBA draft lottery over the last three years, landing three No. 2 picks. Yet, D’Angelo Russell has been a disappointment, Brandon Ingram is still raw, and the 2017 vintage remains to be seen entirely.
This is all to say that the Lakers badly need a star, and there’s a star out there — Paul George — who is offering his services. That is good.
But this is also where it gets tricky. If George is committed to joining the Lakers as a free agent in 2018, why give up any assets to trade for him in 2017?
Don’t let the Cavaliers grab him
The other team heavily rumored to be involved in the Paul George sweepstakes is the Cavaliers. The idea is that Cleveland could move Kevin Love — either to Indiana or a third team — and bring in a more defensive-minded co-star for LeBron James. Given that Cleveland’s NBA Finals struggles came primarily on defense, this could make good sense. The Cavaliers would have two long, elite wing defenders to deal with the Warriors’ incredible attack.
Even if it’s still not enough to beat the Warriors, the worry for the Lakers is that one trip to the NBA Finals with LeBron sells Paul George on life in Cleveland for four years of his prime, derailing the Lakers’ opportunity to poach him in 2018. It’s a real risk given George’s comment about wanting to win big. Since he can’t join the Warriors, there’s no team that can offer a better championship opportunity than the Cavs.
Don’t let the Celtics grab him
Likewise, the Lakers need to be careful George doesn’t get rented out to another very good team that could make him fall in love. The Celtics were already the No. 1 seed in the East. Though Boston looked far behind the Cavaliers in the East finals, the Celtics are set up to recruit a max-level free agent. Adding that type of player and Paul George to the core of a 53-win team could finally end LeBron’s Eastern reign and convince George to sign on long-term in 2018.
The Lakers can’t risk this happening.
This is the summer to attract free agents
The Lakers have about $20 million in salary cap space if they cut non-guaranteed players and contract options are declined. Presuming that L.A. moves matching contracts for George, there would be space to grab a free agent to add to the team. Opening up space for someone like Paul Millsap, Kyle Lowry, or Gordon Hayward would be difficult (unless the Lakers part with Jordan Clarkson, which is plausible). Those Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov contracts are painful. But even without major salary dumps, Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Redick, or other second-tier free agents might be in the right price range.
That salary cap flexibility disappears in 2018 as George and Julius Randle (if he’s still around) soak up chunks of the payroll. Further, having George’s Bird rights in 2018 due to a 2017 trade makes managing contracts easier. Instead of needing to open up the space to sign George outright, there’d be a smaller cap hold in place until he’s actually signed. This could help L.A. add a player in 2018, provided some other moves are made.
There’s no use being bad next year
The upside of the Lakers being bad the last four years has been that, thanks to the NBA’s perverse incentives, they have been rewarded with high draft picks. That gravy train ends now. The Lakers will lose their 2018 first-round pick no matter where it lands. Thanks to the Markelle Fultz trade, the hated Celtics will get the pick if it falls in the No. 2-5 range. Otherwise, the 76ers receive the pick.
As we’re learning from the Nets, there’s nothing sadder than a bad team without its own draft pick. Now’s the time to shrug off the future and try to get better now.
Bring a magical vibe back to L.A.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over the Lakers’ front office in February. We don’t know if they will do a better job than Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak did over the last five years. What we do know is that this change in management was a clean narrative break for the Lakers.
The Lakers under Buss and Kupchak struck out repeatedly on high-level free agents, and sometimes in embarrassing fashion. (Remember the LaMarcus Aldridge saga? Remember the Dwight Howard saga?) L.A.’s inability to act like L.A. was definitely a thing, and it stuck with Kupchak and Buss. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered — the rumors that George wanted to join the Lakers have been around a couple of years — but it was an awful look for a storied franchise.
If Magic Johnson trades for George in his first summer running the Lakers, the narrative changes completely. If Magic Johnson gets the Lakers back into the playoffs in his first full season in charge, the Lakers take on a new aura of exceptionalism. The story writes itself!
Of course, Magic would have done so on the backs of the picks Buss and Kupchak collected over several awful seasons. Of course, Magic would have traded for a star, not convinced one to sign outright as a free agent. Of course, George does not a championship team make.
But narratives matter when you’re selling a fan base and other players on the state of a franchise. Magic would purchase an immense amount of goodwill on both accounts if he landed George, provided the price isn’t too steep.
Magic pushed Buss aside and Kupchak out because the duo wasn’t bold enough in making a play for a superstar in February, and that star was DeMarcus Cousins. Paul George is even better. Magic understands the stakes for the start of his tenure running the Lakers. Nothing could be bolder right now than grabbing a star and beginning the Lakers’ comeback.