Sunday afternoon, the worst-kept secret in the NBA was broadcast to the masses: Indiana Pacers star Paul George, one of the league’s best two-way players, plans to play out the final year of his contract and enter free agency next summer — with the intent of heading back to his native Southern California to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
But while George’s wishes were widely known, the fact that his agent, Aaron Mintz of Creative Artists Agency, was willing to tell the Pacers exactly what his client plans to do sets up the dominoes that will impact everything this summer. And it’s made George the grand prize for every team to pursue over the coming months.
It was already expected to be a busy summer, one that began this weekend when the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers agreed to a trade for the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s draft, an offseason filled with more uncertainty and intrigue than any in years. While Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are all but certain to remain with the Golden State Warriors once they hit free agency on July 1, and Chris Paul is likely to do the same with the Los Angeles Clippers (despite rumors to the contrary), all-stars such as Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward, Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin and Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry all could potentially change teams — and change the balance of power in both conferences if they choose.
Those players are talented, to be sure, but none of them possess the same upside as George, who is not only the youngest of them (a couple months younger than Hayward) but also the best defensive player. In a league where wings who score efficiently and defend are at a premium, George’s value is immense.
That’s why there will be a rush of teams angling to secure his services, even if there’s just one year remaining on his contract. For all of George’s bluster about his desire to go only to the Lakers, teams with aspirations of a deep playoff run will hope that, after a year in their system, he’ll want to stay.
And the Lakers are all but certain to stink next season (assuming they don’t get George this summer), and the idea of leaving a contending team to play for a struggling one will be harder for George to stomach than his current situation — leaving a middling team with no clear path to the top of the East.
So, over the next few weeks, expect George’s name to come up constantly. Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard — who only came into the job earlier this offseason, after Larry Bird decided to step down — will face a difficult set of negotiations, given his lack of leverage due to George’s contract status and stated desire to go to Los Angeles.
But that won’t stop Pritchard’s phone from ringing off the hook. Plenty of teams are going to be after the all-star forward, beginning with the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Rumors had already been percolating that the Cavaliers were going to make a run at George (a friend of LeBron James) this offseason, and George would be a perfect fit for a team trying to gear up to take another swipe at the Warriors next spring. Cleveland also has the best present-day asset any team is going to give up to get George in Kevin Love, who would be an outstanding fit next to young center Myles Turner in Indiana’s frontcourt.
The Celtics should also be in the mix. Boston now has eight first-round picks in the next three drafts after making the deal with Philadelphia, which is expected to be approved Monday, and have no one even close to George’s overall talent level. With so many assets available to them, the Celtics seem like an obvious fit whether or not they can get someone such as Hayward or Griffin as a free agent this summer.
And, of course, expect the Lakers to get in on the action. It’s hard to see any scenario in which Los Angeles would give up the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, nor should it. But it’s still unclear exactly how the Lakers will operate under the new stewardship of Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka.
It must also be noted that owner Jeanie Buss’s stated desire is to have an all-star on the roster for next season’s All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It’s been a long time since the Lakers have been able to land a big fish. Can they gamble on George wanting to join them as a free agent, or rush to make a move now to beat other teams to the punch?
Those are just three potential homes for George; plenty of other teams will pursue him, too. Players of his caliber don’t hit the trade market every day, and every contender will be hoping to get its hands on him.
That’s why Sunday was Paul George Day in the NBA, and a reminder that his status will be the defining story line to watch this summer — and how it is resolved could define the next 12 months and beyond.