At 3:19 p.m. ET on Sunday, Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical wrote the following tweet:
Sources: All-Star Paul George tells Pacers he plans to leave franchise in 2018 free agency, prefers Lakers. https://t.co/anP4bvbwir
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) June 18, 2017
Twenty-three minutes later, Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson wrote the following tweet:
God is so good!
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) June 18, 2017
Coincidence? Maybe. But then, in the words of Emma Bull, “Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.” And after a revelatory Sunday, it sure feels like we can see the start of the machinations behind the lifting of the NBA’s next major move.
The long-whispered rumors grew deafening back in February, and now, the talk is plain, simple, loud and clear. Charity softball game comments to the contrary, Paul George intends to leave the Indiana Pacers when he reaches unrestricted free agency next summer, and he wants to join the Lakers. After years of spinning their wheels in attempts to find their next signature star as the Kobe Bryant era sputtered to a close, the Lakers now find themselves in prime position to land an in-his-prime All-Star, a legitimate two-way game-changer, and precisely the kind of megawatt talent capable of kickstarting the moribund franchise’s return to its former prominence.
Provided, of course, he actually gets to Los Angeles.
There are two ways to look at this. On one hand, knowing George wants to wind up in forum blue and gold might mean that Johnson, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and owner Jeanie Buss can afford to play hardball with Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard.
It might seem like it happened 10 lifetimes ago to us, but NBA decision-makers remember well how New York Knicks owner James Dolan insisted on pulling the trigger on a midseason deal to import All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony at the 2011 trade deadline rather than waiting until that summer’s free-agency period to make a bid for him. More to the point: they remember how the Knicks wound up parting ways with four starters (center Timofey Mozgov, forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, point guard Raymond Felton) in the deal, effectively scuppering any chances of fielding an immediately competitive team around their incoming star. (New York also shipped out future first-round draft picks later used on Dario Saric and Jamal Murray, if you’re keeping score.)
It’s no surprise, then, that Woj reported Sunday that Pritchard “has yet to show an inclination to engage the Lakers.” Or that Johnson, Pelinka and company “won’t be compelled to make a dramatic offer to Indiana now” to land a player for whom they can create a maximum-salary slot to sign in free agency next summer. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne struck the same note, saying the Lakers “have shown no inclination yet of surrendering anything for a player they can get in free agency.”
The Lakers, as presently constituted, are terrible. They’re coming off four straight sub-30-win seasons, ranking among the NBA’s 10 worst offenses and three worst defenses in each of them (including dead last on D the past two years). If they feel confident they can get George next summer while retaining the still-ripening fruits of all that failure — 2014 No. 7 pick Julius Randle, 2015 No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell, 2016 No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram, the No. 2 pick in Thursday’s 2017 NBA draft, combo guard Jordan Clarkson, et al. — well, that seems a more reasonable use of resources than rushing to compile a package that might get Pritchard to pull the trigger right now.
“[Woj’s Sunday] report is nothing but a win for the Lakers,” wrote Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated. “As long as George doesn’t change his mind between now and next summer.”
That “if,” though? That’s a pretty big conditional on which to bank the direction of your franchise.
Sense from teams talking to IND is that Pacers intend to move fast on a PG deal.
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) June 19, 2017
Woj reports that Pritchard has “become more aggressive in pursuing trades for George” since the revelation that the four-time All-Star doesn’t plan to stick around Indianapolis beyond next summer, engaging in PG trade discussions with “several teams” — including the Cleveland Cavaliers.
No, the capped-out, repeater-tax-paying and pick-strapped Cavs don’t have a war chest full of rebuild-friendly assets — namely talented and cost-controlled young players, plus multiple near-future first-round draft picks — to dump on Indiana’s doorstep. They do, however, have the eternally burning win-now motivation of knowing that they’re pushing through LeBron James’ mid-30s — likely the main reason why ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported Sunday that “the Cavs are willing to enter into trade talks for George without any assurances he will commit to a long-term deal in Cleveland.”
After all, the Cavs didn’t know for sure they’d be able to lock in Kevin Love when they first started discussing the swap that imported him from Minnesota in exchange for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. That assurance came later, and so did Love, and so did a title. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and you have to assume that the will in Cleveland — where LeBron just watched the best offense he’s ever piloted get steamrolled due in large part to the Cavs having no defensive answers for the Golden State Warriors’ dominant wing-heavy attack — is pretty damn strong right about now.
Speaking of Love, he gives Cleveland something to offer in trade that the Lakers don’t: another in-his-prime All-Star. Love’s under contract through the 2018-19 season, with a $25.6 million player option for ’19-’20 that would allow him to enter free agency in July of 2019. Maybe a Pacers team that’s reportedly considering all options with its next move considers the idea of coming away from George’s final season with a legitimate here-and-now All-Star power forward to put next to rising-star center Myles Turner more attractive than triggering a full-tilt rebuild. Or maybe Pritchard likes the idea of figuring things out from a position of relative strength — having a star to deal who’s got two years, not one, left on his deal before he can hit the market, and who might thus return more in trade than George after telegraphing his intentions.
There are threats outside Ohio, too.
If the Pacers are canvassing teams willing to roll the dice on a one-year rental and looking for “the kind of young players and future picks that Indiana might want in return for George,” you have to figure that Pritchard either has been or soon will be in touch with Danny Ainge.
His Boston Celtics, who also had a pretty busy weekend, now have control of as many as seven first-round picks over the next three drafts, just won 53 games and made the Eastern Conference finals, and have the cap space to land another max-caliber free agent this summer. Swinging a deal to add George to a core including Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and some combination of intriguing young talents — Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, this year’s No. 3 draft pick, 2016 No. 3 choice Jaylen Brown and more — could help sway one of those top-flight free-agent options to join up for another run at knocking the Cavs off their conference perch. And if George gets another taste of winning big, whether in Boston or in Cleveland, he might have a change of heart when it comes to pulling up stakes and heading west next summer.
“As I told [now-former Pacers personnel boss] Larry [Bird], I always want to play on a winning team,” George told ESPN Radio during All-Star Weekend. “I always want to be part of a team that has a chance to win it [all]. That’s important. Say what you want; I want to compete for something. It’s frustrating just playing the game for stats or for numbers or to showcase yourself. Man, I want a chance to play for a chance to win a championship.”
The Cavs and Celtics would be banking on the idea that providing that chance, both this year and in years to come, would help convince George that he won’t find greener pastures in a Laker uniform. Other teams just below the NBA’s top tier, like the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, could also be positioned to make such a case, according to Sean Deveney of the Sporting News. Should Johnson and Pelinka be willing to take the risk that one of those teams makes Pritchard an offer he likes, gets George in-house, and shows him what life can be like on a perennial contender?
Sitting on the sideline for PG could backfire in LAL. Short term could turn long-term when surrounded by a championship level team.
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) June 18, 2017
It’s a tough question; nobody wants to be the next post-Melo Knicks. But it’s one the Lakers should answer by taking advantage of the opportunity provided to them, and acting now.
Acting now allows the Lakers to get George one year early, affording them the opportunity to use his Bird rights to re-sign him next year rather than having to create a maximum salary slot to import him. It allows the Lakers to sell reality rather than promise to prospective free-agent targets — not “Paul George wants to be here,” but “Paul George is here.” It allows the Lakers to shed the stink of several swing-and-a-miss free-agent periods by successfully bringing in a legitimate star around whom to build their next competitive team. It allows the Lakers to enter their rebuild in earnest without fear that another down year will mean coughing up a high-value draft pick, with L.A.’s 2018 first-rounder bound for either Philadelphia or Boston.
And provided they’re able to swing a deal that doesn’t include Thursday’s No. 2 pick, it allows the Lakers to re-enter the ranks of teams that matter on the court. It marks an end to the darkest period in team history, a break from the late-and-post-Kobe era, and the start of a hopeful new age under the leadership of one of the franchise’s greatest legends and an ascendant star from Palmdale whose gifts match perfectly the way the NBA game looks now. There’s risk in giving up something when you don’t have to, but it’s not nearly as great as coming away with nothing when you could have had the fresh start Lakers fans crave.
God is good, but God only helps those who help themselves. George and his agent got things rolling; the ball’s in Magic’s hands now. Just like during his playing days, the entire NBA is waiting with bated breath to see what he does with it.
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