Sources: Paul George tells Pacers he plans to leave franchise, prefers joining Lakers

Paul George says he will become a free agent in 2018. (AP)
Paul George says he will become a free agent in 2018. (AP)

All-Star forward Paul George has informed the Indiana Pacers that he plans to become a free agent in the summer of 2018 and will leave the franchise – preferably for the Los Angeles Lakers, league sources told The Vertical.

George hasn’t requested a trade before he can opt out of his 2018-19 contract, but did have his agent, Aaron Mintz, tell new Indiana president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard that he wanted to be forthright on his plans and spare the franchise any confusion about his intentions, league sources told The Vertical.

In the past 24 hours, Pritchard has become more aggressive in pursuing trades for George, league sources told The Vertical. Pritchard has yet to show an inclination to engage the Lakers, but has discussed deals with several teams – including Cleveland – in which the expectation of teams would be that George is a “one-year rental.” The Cavaliers are devoid of the kind of young players and future picks that Indiana might want in return for George, and George has never mentioned the Cavaliers as an intriguing destination.

It is unclear how robust offers to Indiana will ultimately be, given that teams believe he will sign with the Lakers next summer. So far, Indiana is asking for a substantial package of talent and draft picks for George, league sources said. Discussions could extend until Thursday’s NBA draft – or beyond.

George can sign a four-year deal worth as much as $130 million with Los Angeles next year. George is a Southern California native and playing for the Lakers would represent a homecoming for him.

George plans to play out the 2017-18 season with Indiana, but wants to give the organization the chance to plan appropriately for its future – which George told the team won’t include him, league sources said.

George’s desire to join the Lakers has massive repercussions on the free-agent market in 2018. Under president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, George would represent the first NBA star in years to choose the Lakers in free agency. As Los Angeles’ management reshapes its roster, George could be a lure to recruit other top available players to the Lakers.

Between then and now, the pressure will mount for the Pacers to formulate a trade with the Lakers in the near future, because the risk of losing a star of George’s stature for nothing next summer is potentially devastating. If management takes George at his word about wanting to join the Lakers in 2018, it may be cornered into making the best possible trade it can with Los Angeles now, squeezing whatever value out of the Lakers that Indiana can acquire in a deal for George.

The Pacers could bring back young players – such as forward Julius Randle, for example – and future draft assets to make a deal for George now, if the two teams are so inclined.

Nevertheless, the Lakers can create the necessary salary-cap space to sign George next summer and won’t be compelled to make a dramatic offer to Indiana now.

Indiana’s ability to find a trade for George elsewhere has become increasingly limited, if not crippled, because NBA teams believe that it’s George’s intention to eventually sign with the Lakers as a free agent in 2018.

Because George wasn’t named to an All-NBA team this spring, Indiana lost out on the chance to offer him a five-year, $207 million Designated Player Veteran Exception. Indiana can offer George a five-year, $177 million extension.

George, 27, averaged 23.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 2016-17, leading Indiana to the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Pacers lost a first-round series to the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games. George is a four-time All-Star and one of the best two-way players in the world. He was part of the 2016 USA Olympic gold medal team, just two years after suffering a broken leg.

The Pacers’ inability to maintain a contending roster has played a part in George’s belief that he has a better chance for championship contention by joining the Lakers, league sources said. After reaching the Eastern Conference finals in consecutive years – 2013 and 2014 – the Pacers have slowly had a talent drain that included the decline and loss of Roy Hibbert and the departures of David West and George Hill. George had a close relationship with the architect of those Pacers teams, Larry Bird, who recently stepped down as team president to become a franchise consultant.

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