The Oklahoma City Thunder’s shocking acquisition of Indiana Pacers All-Star Paul George does not appear to have ended, or even affected, the Los Angeles Lakers’ pursuit of him. The team is now all in for 2018, and it appears that George might be too.
Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report wrote a column on the George/Russell Westbrook/Lakers/Thunder dynamics following the trade, and reported that most around the NBA expect the reigning MVP to remain with the Thunder next season. However, Ding also writes that the Thunder “retaining George with Westbrook is a long shot.”
Why are the Thunder’s odds of keeping George so bleak despite pairing him with a player who just won MVP, all while giving up next to nothing and saving him from ever having to wear a Pacers uniform ever again? Well, it appears George already has already bought in to the Lakers’ vision for him (via Ding):
The Lakers, under Johnson and Pelinka, have already conveyed to George behind the scenes how he can be the first to experience what they will do—and George wants in.
That... That sounds a lot like tampering, although Magic Johnson’s attempts to let George know he’s interested haven’t all been “behind the scenes,” or even subtle:
*pulls up from 30*— Grant Goldberg (@GrantGoldberg) April 21, 2017
PAUL GEORGE. FUTURE LAKER. pic.twitter.com/KyW7KF2fjQ
George has said Johnson’s winking won’t sway him to join the Lakers, and it’s a lot more likely the team has let him know their plans through other means, like through his agent, Aaron Mintz, who they also dealt with for D’Angelo Russell and continue to speak with about his other client, Julius Randle.
Both sides have also spoken to each other through fairly transparent leaks to the media, whether it’s George’s side telling reporters how “hell-bent” he is on getting to the Lakers or the Lakers’ outlining grand plans of pairing George with a player like LeBron James next summer.
Whether it’s those two methods or another, Ding’s report makes it clear that the Lakers are finding ways of skirting the collective bargaining agreement’s outlines for how teams contact players, which makes sense, because it’s probably part of why the team hired Magic Johnson and (especially) Rob Pelinka anyway.
Back when Johnson was first brought in as an advisor to Lakers president Jeanie Buss, Ramona Shelburne of ESPN dropped a lengthy feature on the reasons why. Included within was a tidbit on the Lakers were missing out on marquee free agents mainly because former general manager Mitch Kupchak was unwilling to engage in exactly the sort of back-channeling Ding reports they’re doing with George (via Shelburne):
Part of the reason the Lakers missed out on those cases is a philosophical decision to prioritize superstar free agents above all else. But another read is that the Lakers aren't moving at the speed NBA business is now being conducted.
Said one player agent, who has dealt with Kupchak on several contracts, "He's the only GM in the league who won't engage at all before 9:01 p.m. [PT] on the first night of free agency. Then when he calls to express interest, there's no stickiness to it."
That speaks to Kupchak's integrity, as contact with an agent or player is considered tampering before the opening of free agency, but it also speaks, according to sources, to a lack of savvy. There are ways of gathering information on free agents without trampling the rules, so that a team doesn't begin the process far behind everyone else.
The Lakers aren’t starting behind anymore. In fact, George’s level of commitment to his Lakers dream paints quite the opposite picture.
Whether one agrees with the front office’s decisions as they go all-in on cap space for 2018 or not, it’s very clear the main difference between Johnson and Pelinka’s superstar team-up dreams and those of Kupchak and Jim Buss is that the new front office is starting that chase ahead of the rest of the league, rather than trying to make up ground once the pesky window for legal negotiation with players opens up.
The new plan is the same as the old plan, but the methods of executing it are different. So far it seems to be on track towards working out for the Lakers.
Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.