Paul George is going to be a free agent in July, and unlike LeBron James, his pursuit hasn’t come with tea leaf reading and school tour tracking. The general consensus on George has been lazier than just about any major free agent in recent history. He is typically linked to one of three situations:
- His current team.
- His hometown team.
- LeBron James’ team.
That’s it. That is the list that the public has produced. Never mind the very interesting pursuits Philadelphia or Houston could make, the quiet cap space San Antonio has a chance to create or the ever-present sign-and-trade option with Boston that will exist until they run out of picks some time in the 24th century.
No, there is a problem far deeper than that. There is a team lurking on the fringes of the Paul George market that makes a sort of quiet sense for the star forward. One that he has an emotional connection to, that fits from a basketball perspective and would likely have the most meaningful impact on his personal legacy.
Stay with me here. Just consider the resumes of the following two teams as of this writing:
Team A:A�37-29 record, +2.2 net rating, has one 2018 All-Star under contract for next season, will be approximately at the salary cap before signing George, would be a high luxury tax team after signing George.
Team B:A�37-28 record, +1.7 net rating, has one 2018 All-Star under contract for next season, could create two max slots before signing George, and therefore have significant space to play with after signing him.
In a basketball sense, these two teams look similar. They are mid-tier playoff teams likely to win between 46-50 games. They have one star locked in. One has a slightly better point differential, but that’s for an obvious reason. That first team already employs George. It is the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The second team does not currently employ George. But it used to. It is the Indiana Pacers.
Once again, stay with me, as the concept sounds ridiculous on its face. But Indiana is quietly building a case as George’s most logical free agent destination.
Victor Oladipo’s ascension to All-Star status is a game-changer for the Pacers. George wanted to leave Indiana to play with other stars, but the player they got in return for him has averaged nearly 24 points per game on relatively efficient percentages of 47/37/80. He plays good defense on most nights and elite defense when it is called for. He is also currently in his fifth NBA season. That means he is going to get better.
Westbrook is averaging only 25.4 points, barely more than Oladipo, and he’s doing it on worse percentages across the board. He also has George to draw attention away from him, a luxury Oladipo is without. This is his tenth NBA season and he plays a style that is heavily-dependent on his athleticism. Typical NBA aging curves suggest Westbrook is nearing the downside of his career. He has never played defense as well as Oladipo does. His new contract is also worth more than double Oladipo’s.
That financial factor trickles down to the rest of the roster. The Thunder will have to cut costs to avoid the luxury tax next season if George is on the team. Their best-case scenario from a basketball point of view would be paying the tax to keep this team together. But the Pacers, who have practically the same record as the Thunder without having George on their team, could add himA�andA�another major piece.
Indiana’s cap situation is somewhat nebulous. It relies on several options. They have control over Al Jefferson ($10 million option with $4 million guaranteed if it is declined), Darren Collison ($10 million/$2 million), Bojan BogdanoviA� ($10.5 million/$1.5 million) and Lance Stephenson ($4.4 million). Thaddeus Young ($13.7 million) and Cory Joseph ($7.95 million) have player options.
Let’s pretend that the two player options are picked up and the team options are all declined. That would leave the Pacers with just over $62 million committed for next season. That’s over $50 million in projected space. Toss out one of the player options, or get creative on the trade market, and the Pacers could be looking at two max slots.
There isn’t a second star who would consider them, but this is one offseason where that isn’t the the worst thing. So few teams have cap space that the $20 million or so in spare cap space the Pacers would project to have after signing George has much more buying power than it would in previous seasons. In 2016, that money would have netted two good bench players. Now? It could get two good starters, or one great one.
The Pacers could round out their starting five by signing Julius Randle and Avery Bradley. They could take a swing at restricted free agent Aaron Gordon. They could help accommodate a more desperate team by taking on contracts from them in exchange for assets. There are plenty of options on the table, options that the Thunder do not have.
These are options that the Lakers do have, and should LeBron choose to move to Los Angeles, they would become a slam dunk for George. But since when does anyone except for LeBron know what he is going to do? Nobody predicted his last two free agent moves. Why will the third be any different?
If the best player on Earth chooses Cleveland, Houston or Philadelphia, then the Lakers can only pitch George on sentiment. How effective would that be against the team that George actually played on for the first eight years of his career? Only George can answer that question. Fortunately, George already has. Here is a direct quote from an appearance on ESPN Radio in February, 2017. That is only 13 months ago.
“As I told Larry, I always want to play on a winning team. 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.
“I want to be the first to bring a championship to Indiana. So that’s still on my mind … and something I definitely want to achieve in Indiana.”
The fact that George left the Pacers doesn’t wipe away everything he accomplished with them. James proved that when he returned to Cleveland. Any attachment he had to the region still exists, and he said himself that he wants to win there.
Now, a very real chance to do so actually exists. If any part of George meant what he said, then he will seriously consider the Pacers this summer.