Paul George Most Prized Player in NBA Arms Race - Rolling Stone
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How Paul George Became Most Prized Player in NBA Arms Race

Wherever the Indiana Pacers star ends up could change the power structure in basketball for years to come

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Paul George told the Indiana Pacers he plans on becoming a free agent in 2018.

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Paul George has made it known that he won’t be in Indiana for much longer. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, the four-time All-Star has informed the Indiana Pacers that he plans on becoming a free agent in 2018 with the intention of joining another team. It’s believed he has his eyes set on the Los Angeles Lakers – George was born in Palmdale, California and spent two seasons at Fresno State before entering the 2010 NBA Draft – but there are several teams hoping to change his mind between now and then.

There is a simple way this can play out: George sticks with the Pacers for the remainder of his contract before signing with the Lakers in the summer of 2018 for $130 million over four years. There is also a more complicated and compelling route this can go: George parts ways with the Pacers at some point between now and the NBA’s trade deadline in February before joining the Lakers or sticking with his new team for an equally lucrative contract.

Trading George would be in the best interest of the Pacers. George is one of the elite two-way players currently in the NBA and getting some sort of return on him would help the franchise quickly retool. The problem is it remains to be seen how good of a return it would be. Knowing George is interested in signing with the Lakers in 2018, teams might be reluctant to give up their best assets without the assurance he will be with them for more than one season. Some combination of draft picks and young assets would be a gamble for any team, which explains why the Lakers don’t feel any pressure to make a “dramatic offer.”

It has made the NBA arms race all the more interesting. Sure, the defending Golden State Warriors will still be the favorites, but the Lakers, with a young core and a high draft pick coming up in a few days, along with teams like the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, who made a dramatic trade over the weekend for the top pick, are all poised to give the top team trouble in the coming years. 

Put it this way: No matter how much Magic Johnson wants George on the Lakers, there’s no need for them to trade Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram or whoever the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft becomes if he’s going to sign with them in 2018. It won’t take much for them to create the cap space needed to sign him to a max contract and they can plug him into one of the more promising young cores in the league. At the same time, adding George to any other team in the NBA probably wouldn’t be enough to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors next season, so it will be difficult for them to convince him to stay.

However, the one team that could play spoiler for the Lakers is the Cavaliers. They don’t have many assets to work with when it comes to facilitating a trade for George, but they do have Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, both of whom are All-Stars who would fit in well with the team’s up-and-coming center Myles Turner. Although one source told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin that trading Love or Irving for a one-year rental of George would be “hard” to agree to, the Cavaliers believe they have the culture and atmosphere to convince him to stay long-term. It’s why the Lakers might have no choice but to make a dramatic offer if the Cavaliers come close to striking a deal.

Playing for the Cavaliers makes sense for George on a number of levels as well. He’s close friends with LeBron James, he’s sick of losing to him in the playoffs and the Cavaliers can almost guarantee him a trip to the NBA Finals next season. He would likely fit in well alongside Irving and James as a knockdown shooter who can create for himself and he’d give them the type of 3-and-D wing they desperately need to match up with Golden State’s backcourt of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. It might not be the smoothest of transitions to begin with – look at what happened to Chris Bosh in Miami and Kevin Love in Cleveland when they first joined James – but they’d have the pieces to make it back to the NBA Finals and compete with the Warriors. For someone who has made it clear in the past that he wants to be on a team that has “a chance to win it all,” the Cavaliers can offer George the entire package.

Again, nothing may come of this. George hasn’t said anything about wanting to play in Cleveland and the Cavaliers might have to hire a new general manager if David Griffin leaves when his contract expires on June 30th. The former might keep George in Indiana until he becomes a free agent and the latter might prevent the Cavaliers from making the Pacers an offer they can’t refuse. It’s also possible another team enters the conversation in the coming months. Either way, the Pacers have a lot to think about and the battle for Paul George is only getting started. Yet whatever is decided could very well change the landscape of the NBA significantly next season, and maybe for years to come. 

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