The Los Angeles Lakers have been closely linked to five-time All Star Paul George since last summer. A native of Palmdale, Calif., George was reportedly “hell bent” on signing with the Lakers when he becomes a free agent after the 2017-18 season.
This caused the Indiana Pacers to trade him to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Things worked out pretty well for the Pacers, who exceeded expectations and gave the Cleveland Cavaliers a tough fight in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Things have not worked out so well for George, however, as the Thunder were just eliminated in the first round by the upstart Utah Jazz. Not only did the Thunder lose, they looked awful doing it.
They were embarrassed by a young team that was not projected to make the playoffs at all once they lost Gordon Hayward in free agency last summer.
George started the series with a 36-point effort but in the final game finished with only five points on 2-for-16 shooting and six turnovers. He was upstaged a number of times in the series by Joe Ingels, a 30-year-old journeyman who taunted him.
When George was traded last summer, Lakers fans were on edge. The Thunder are a perennial playoff team simply by virtue of having superstar Russell Westbrook on their roster. They also signed Carmelo Anthony, who some predicted would have a resurgence as part of the Thunder’s new “big three.”
What if the Thunder made it to the Western Conference finals? Would George really walk away from a team on the verge of competing for a title to join one that has now missed the playoffs for five straight years?
Westbrook signed a long-term extension last September. George responded by saying it would make his own free agency decision easier after the season. Things continued to look bad for the Lakers when George, was asked about his future in January, credited Westbrook for being a reason his decision could be easier.
George reiterated that stance earlier this month, but also hedged a bit after Oklahoma City was eliminated by Utah.
When George begins contemplating his future in the coming weeks, he may realize that Westbrook, while enormously talented, seems to place more importance on his individual accomplishments that on the success of the team.
If Westbrook could not win a championship with Kevin Durant, what chance is there that he will ever win one? Even more important, the Thunder’s foreseeable future looks precarious.
Aside from Westbrook, George, and Steven Adams, who is a solid center, the cupboard is bare. Things are so bad that Corey Brewer, who was cut by the Lakers late in the season, was picked up and immediately became a starter for the Thunder.
Anthony’s huge contract will pay him approximately $25 million next season and Adams is set to earn roughly that same amount. Combined with Westbrook’s enormous salary, it is unknown how Oklahoma City will even find the money to pay George.
Assuming they do, they will have well over $100 million a year committed to just four players, and there will be no money left to build a competent team around them.
Losing in the first round of the playoffs and looking so bad doing it has got to be a shock, something that may eventually cause George to come full circle. With the Thunder he will always be second fiddle in a small market.
With the Lakers, he would be the leader in a huge market for the league’s most glamorous franchise. No matter what George has said in the past, that the Thunder were defeated in the first round improves the odds that he will be available for the Lakers this summer.
But some are wondering if he is really worth the maximum contract that it will take to sign him. George would become the Lakers’ best player, but is it wise to commit that much cap space to someone who does not make your team an immediate contender?
In seven seasons as a member of the Pacers, he did not come close to winning a title even though he played on some very good teams. Nor did George play that well in the series against Utah, which has some hitting the pause button.
There is a perception that George’s statistics have suffered this year because he played alongside ball dominant Westbrook, but his stats were mostly consistent with his career averages.
This season, George averaged 21.9 points per game on a decent 43 percent shooting from the field overall and a very good 40 percent from three-point range. He made 82 percent of his free throws and averaged 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals.
But one should not forget that 20-year-old Brandon Ingram, who plays the same position as George, posted statistics that were not far behind. He averaged 16.1 points per game on 47 percent shooting from the field and 39 percent from deep.
He also averaged 5.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 0.8 steals per game. Had Ingram not missed the last part of the season, he would have finished with even better numbers.
Is George better than Ingram right now? Yes. Will he be better than Ingram two years from now? Maybe not. George will soon turn 28 years old. Ingram won’t turn 21 until September.
Make no mistake about it, the Lakers would be better next season with George. They will still contend for a seventh or eighth seed in the Western conference no matter what, but they certainly have a better chance of achieving that goal with him than without him.
Still, is it worth giving up $30 million in cap space each year for the next four years, just to have a moderately better chance of being the seventh or eighth seed in the west? Last summer, the answer to this question would have been a resounding “yes.”
Now, in light of the improvement of the Lakers’ young core and the desire to re-sign restricted free agent Julius Randle, and after watching George prove again that he is good but not a franchise-altering player, it is a much closer call.
To be perfectly clear, any team, including the Lakers, would want Paul George at the right price. But is a maximum contract simply too high of a cost? It is the Buss family’s money to spend, and it is almost certain that Jeanie Buss sign off on whatever Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka advise.
Johnson is desperate to bring in a big-name free agent, and he has said that he is willing to take chances and swing for the fence. This means that if George is willing to come, Johnson will almost certainly agree to pay the price.
He will surmise that George is just the first step, that he will attract another top tier player to join the team in free agency either this offseason or next. The biggest question might be, could he attract LeBron James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers are also on the brink of elimination, to come to the Lakers?