Have you heard? Another soon-to-be free agent is reportedly interested in leaving his current team to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
By now, we’ve heard this story a million times, and the only significant free agent signings the Lakers have made in recent years just so happen to be two of the worst contracts in the league. It should be noted, however, that those deals were made last summer under the previous regime. With Lakers President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka running the show, the tide appears to be turning.
There have been endless “marquee free agent-X to the Lakers” rumors over the past few years, but none of them ever came to fruition. With Indiana Pacers All-Star Paul George, however, there might actually be some traction this time around.
George’s interest in returning to his hometown of Los Angeles to be the next Lakers star after Kobe Bryant is the NBA’s worst-kept secret. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and there has been an inferno of reports set ablaze by how “hell-bent” George reportedly is to be a Laker.
With the interest between George and the Lakers being mutual, should the team try to acquire him through a trade this summer or wait until he hits the free agent market? Each route carries its own risk, but this time, the safer choice also yields the highest upside.
Now that the Lakers have the second overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the team appears to finally have enough assets to make a blockbuster deal for a star-caliber player and still have at least one or two leftover. Along with that comes the temptation to add established talent through a trade.
Ideally, said talent being brought in would be under contract for at least a few years, giving the front office time to build around the player. With George, though, he can opt out of his contract after next season and become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018.
For the Lakers, there are a number of factors that come into play when discussing a potential trade for George.
How much are they willing to give up for a player that can become an unrestricted free agent after next season? The situations obviously carry different circumstances, but the Lakers made a blockbuster deal for Dwight Howard in 2012 with one year left on his contract and saw him bolt the following offseason, leaving the purple and gold in NBA purgatory. If Los Angeles were to take another chance by giving up assets for a possible rental, they would be running the risk of a similarly devastating blow that could set the franchise back a few more years.
Sure, as each day passes and George becomes more discontent with his current basketball situation, the Pacers continue to lose leverage if they decide to trade their franchise centerpiece, because time is starting to run out.
Knowing this, Los Angeles may be able to offer less than fair value, but Indiana still holds a bit of power here, being able to turn to another team that could offer more without sacrificing too much. A team like the Boston Celtics has stockpiled a number of assets while climbing up the ranks out East, earning a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals this season. The Lakers would have to make a big offer to outbid their hated rivals, and at that point, what would they have left next to George?
If the Lakers wanted to prevent another team from swooping in and acquiring him, they would need to heavily consider just how good a trade for George would leave them next season, and whether or not it would be enough to convince him to re-sign in 2018. He supposedly wants to come home to Los Angeles, but he also wants to win. That’s why this situation exists.
Although Indiana’s leverage is slowly slipping away, it would still take a lot more than, say, Jordan Clarkson and the No. 28 overall pick to land him, because again, the Pacers could certainly find at least one team that could offer more and would be willing to roll the dice on George re-signing next summer. An asking price from Indiana at this point in time would still probably require at least one of the No. 2 pick, D’Angelo Russell, or Brandon Ingram. For the Lakers, they would be giving up valuable assets for a player that a) can leave next summer and b) probably does not put them among the upper echelon of the Western Conference right away, likely resulting in an early playoff exit at best, which is the same situation George is in right now in Indiana.
It is also entirely possible that Indiana rolls their own dice and tries to either build a contender in one offseason around George and the rapidly improving Myles Turner, or they simply hope the additional money is enough to keep him. If they believe trying to convince him to stay is worth more than taking less than fair value, then their asking price is going to be more than what the Lakers should be willing to give up.
Now, because George did not make one of the three All-NBA teams this season, he is not eligible for the five-year, $207 million extension that the designated player extension allows. If he were to make an All-NBA team next season, the Pacers could offer that deal next summer, but at that point, they would not be able to trade him, meaning he could leave them with nothing in return.
Without the designated player exception, the Pacers can still offer more than any other team, but a $177 million deal over five years is significantly less annually than the designated player extension, leveling the playing field a bit for teams trying to pry him away in free agency.
If the Lakers were to acquire George in a trade this summer, they would acquire his Bird Rights, which would allow them to offer a fifth year in his next contract, but only at the maximum of $177 million, not the $207 million designated player extension. The most another team can offer George if he were to leave in free agency is roughly $130 million over four years.
While obtaining his Bird Rights via trade would be tempting, players have shown in recent years that if a better shot at winning is available, they are willing to leave some money on the table (LeBron James in 2014, LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015, Kevin Durant in 2016).
Either way, Paul George is going to test the market and will be the Lakers’ top priority when free agency opens up next summer. Whether the Lakers trade for George or wait for him to become a free agent, it will be difficult to use him as a concrete part of their sales pitch to other free agents — assuming they clear more space by stretching or trading the contracts of Luol Deng and/or Timofey Mozgov — because they will have to convince him to sign a new contract with them first rather than heading into free agency with him locked up already.
Opting out next summer, regardless of what team he is on, will net George the biggest pay day, so that should be the expected outcome at the conclusion of next season, regardless of what team he finishes it with.
So, no matter what, the Lakers are going to have to sell George on signing with them in 2018. Being able to pitch a core of D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Ivica Zubac, Larry Nance, Jr. and the player selected second overall in this year’s draft after another year of development under head coach Luke Walton is a far better presentation than if they traded any of those players for him. The Lakers can offer George the chance to come home, but now they need to construct the best possible chance for him to win there as well. That comes by remaining patient and not selling off valuable, young talent just to get him a little bit sooner.
If the Lakers simply wait and George signs with them next summer, they would be adding him to a promising core when he is 28-years old and could still play at a very high level throughout a four-year, max contract while their young talent continues to progress and hopefully make the leap they need to.
A lot of times, the higher the risk, the greater the reward. In the case of the Lakers’ inevitable pursuit of Paul George, the path with less risk gives them the best chance at success, making the choice an obvious one: Keep the core intact and give them another year to develop.
By the time they do, George might be the missing piece that returns his hometown Lakers back into contention in the Western Conference.
You can follow this author on Twitter @garykester.