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7 Reasonable Free Agency Destinations for Paul George

Eclipsed by LeBron James's upcoming decision and heavy expectations that he'll head to Los Angeles, the complex significance of George's own free agency hasn't received the attention it deserves.
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With LeBron James in his own tier of significance and unpredictability and Kevin Durant still at least a few barbs from his own general manager away from leaving the Golden State Warriors, the next important free agent decision will be made by Paul George.

A five-time All-Star coming off an efficient 21.9 points, 3.3 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game average, George is still talented enough to elevate just about any franchise in the league as a cozy fit alongside just about any personnel group. But, as is the case with any non-LeBron person, that franchise must also have at least one (and hopefully two) All-Stars beside him if legitimate championship contention is the goal.


The days of molding a roster around George are probably over, but he’s still only 28 years old and aging well into a league that’s appetite for long, 6’9” wings with a confident outside shot is ever expanding. In his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, George made more threes than everybody except James Harden and came up with more steals than everybody except Victor Oladipo. Only LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jimmy Butler averaged more minutes. He’s exceptional and probably still has room to grow. But George has yet to garner the attention he truly deserves because his future feels like a foregone conclusion.

Ever since the Indiana Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City, George’s free agency felt like a binary choice between his current team and the Los Angeles Lakers. To some extent, it still is. Both situations are sensical enough. The Thunder is the only team that can guarantee a fifth year and eight percent annual raises on a max contract, which lets them offer $45.45 million more than anybody else. And the Lakers are a franchise he’s always dreamed about playing for. But Oklahoma City couldn’t get out of the first round despite having home-court advantage and no serious injuries beyond Andre Roberson. Its cap sheet is a bloated disaster, to boot.

The Lakers have far more flexibility and optimism within their organization, but given Kawhi Leonard’s reported preference to go there, how does George feel about potentially being the second or third best player on a super team that won’t be promised a trip to the Finals? Is he interested in sacrificing money and shots? Even still, he’d shock a lot of people by signing with a third team next season, even though several stand out as a logical destination. Here’s a look at seven of them, ranked by my subjective feelings of what makes the most sense—some are far more realistic than others.


7. New Orleans Pelicans

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This isn’t the most practical premise, but if George wants to replace DeMarcus Cousins as Anthony Davis’s sidekick, the New Orleans Pelicans can renounce Cousins and the rest of their free agents and then, after George exercises his player option, exchange Nikola Mirotic’s expiring deal and what’s left of E'Twaun Moore’s contract (two years and about $17 million) for it. If Oklahoma City isn’t interested in that package—given their cap sheet and timeline, it’s fair to think they’d consider it a better return than nothing—that money can be redirected to a third team.

That’s all very complicated and unlikely, but it’s still an idea George should explore. Davis’s supernatural skill-set draws more attention than all but a tiny handful of players, each of whom played in the past two NBA Finals. His prime promises deep playoff runs in an enjoyable on-court environment, where, alongside George, a new candidate for the league’s most devastating pick-and-roll tandem can be born. George’s impact as a wing scorer who can slice up single coverage when defenses mob Davis is critical, too, and his ability to force turnovers would jack up New Orleans’s energy and have it looking even more sleek in the open floor than it was last season.

Throw Jrue Holiday into the mix and trying to score against the Pelicans quickly becomes the plot of a Mission: Impossible movie in which the protagonist repeatedly fails. If they renounce Rajon Rondo, New Orleans can pitch George on handling the ball far more frequently than he did on the Thunder, but, unlike his time with the Pacers, it’d be alongside a superstar who’ll be feared in a more immediate way than any of his previous teammates ever were.


6. Oklahoma City Thunder

I just don’t see why George would re-sign in Oklahoma City, where he’s filming Gatorade commercials with Terrance Ferguson (one of the weirdest ad campaigns nobody talks about) and playing with two of the most exasperatingly selfish scorers of their respective generations in Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook. That trio yielded exceptional offense and a positive point differential with or without Roberson on the floor last year, but they have no bench or any means to get one, and finished 14th in clutch offense.

Melo is 34 years old and in the stage of his career where he’s skydiving without a parachute. Westbrook’s love of his own jumper knows no bounds. There’s no reason to think they’d be better than they were last year, and in a conference that may welcome LeBron James, that means they may not even make the playoffs.

But contractually, beyond the five-year max deal Oklahoma City can offer, George is two years away from being a 10-year veteran, which then qualifies him to receive 35 percent of the cap instead of the 30 percent he's currently limited to. This matters.

The difference in what the Thunder can offer relative to everybody else on a three-year deal is negligible (“only” a little under $3 million total), but if George doesn’t want to commit long-term or move, he can sign a three-year, $98.1 million contract with a $35.1 million player option in 2020-21. That would let him re-enter free agency in a couple years, when he’s as old as Steph Curry is now, and be eligible for 35 percent of the cap. We don’t know if the Thunder would be interested in locking him down then at such a monstrous number, but if they offered a five-year deal, this is his path to make the most money possible. (Once he opts out in 2021, the Thunder are the only team that can offer five years and eight percent annual raises. Everybody else can only go four with five percent annual raises.)


But that only matters if he values money over title contention, because the Thunder are irrelevant in that context so long as Westbrook is on their books. Given the relatively minuscule difference in money over the short term, the perks of that three-year deal are more attractive elsewhere, and the surrounding personnel is less than ideal to compete at a high level.

5. Indiana Pacers

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So, this would be amazing and stunningly Machiavellian: George forces his way out of Indiana, lets them replenish their roster with a flowering All-Star guard and gifted young big, and then re-signs the following year. Nothing is cooler than this.

But outside the feels, this move makes real basketball sense. The Pacers are not bad. Only seven teams won more games during the regular season and, technically, this team finished the postseason with the second highest net rating—they lasted seven games—per Cleaning the Glass. If Thaddeus Young opts out (as he’s reportedly considering) and the Pacers waive Al Jefferson and either Darren Collison or Bojan Bogdanovic, they’ll have enough room to afford George’s max.

And going back to the financial benefits that come with a short-term deal, the best part is George doesn’t even have to commit for a long time! He can lock himself in for two years, make deep playoff runs on the team that drafted him with a sidekick who’s younger, more efficient, and complementary than Westbrook. Oladipo in 2019 may be the best teammate George ever plays with, and watching them dominate together, with one of Myles Turner and Domas Sabonis existing as an intriguing third wheel/trade chip would be pretty awesome.


Unless Turner makes a leap in Year Four, George is exactly what Indiana needs to reach a level Oladipo probably can’t take them by himself. Feathers may be ruffled between the two All-Stars, but if George and Oladipo can make it work and admirably realize they can both be franchise players, the Pacers will be good enough to make the conference finals.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

George would have to take a massive pay cut and want to live in the midwest…after LeBron James re-signs in Cleveland and then makes a pitch for George’s service. This particular series of events feels exceptionally unlikely. But if all those boxes get checked, George Hill and the eighth pick in this year’s draft would be more than enough to complete a trade. There’s obvious risk for Cleveland, but the upside of potentially winning a championship is well worth it.

The trade would shift Kevin Love to a tertiary role and allow Ty Lue to go small without sacrificing as much on the defensive end, especially in a possible Finals rematch against Golden State. Given how absurdly brilliant LeBron was in Game 1, imagine all of Jeff Green’s (plus way more) minutes belonging to a two-way hound like George—someone who’d actually make open catch-and-shoot threes and capably execute a brutal two-man game with Love and LeBron.

George’s minutes would have a significant trickle-down effect across the roster. His presence would diminish roles once occupied by J.R. Smith, Hill, Kyle Korver, and Jordan Clarkson. In the Eastern Conference, that team would be in the Finals for a fifth straight year, more equipped to punch up against the Bay Area’s unbeatable despot.


If LeBron stays in Cleveland and wants a respectable one-time rival to be his new teammate, George would regret passing on the chance. It’s an excellent role beside arguably the greatest player who ever lived, and, for George, a brief opportunity to become the Scottie Pippen of his time. The thought is dashed if James wants to play elsewhere, but those two teaming up in Cleveland course corrects a deal the Cavs tried to make before they shipped Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics, and doesn’t let the Warriors exhale.

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3. Houston Rockets

In today’s argument-sown culture, it’s hard to find two people who agree on just about any issue. But look hard enough and a few objective facts still exist: Dover is the capital of Delaware; The Blueprint packs more soul than Kingdom Come; Pam is the flattest character on The Office; and Paul George is a better basketball player than Ryan Anderson.

But if George desperately wants to team up with James Harden and Chris Paul and compete for a realistic championship—a trade that’d almost definitely require him to opt in and make $20.7 million next season—the Thunder may need to accept Anderson and unprotected first-round picks in 2019 and 2021 (maybe 2023, too) for him. Maybe the Thunder say “thanks but no thanks!” and force George to either opt in and stay put, find another suitor, or make Daryl Morey gut his roster to clear enough cap space (which is illogical/almost impossible). Or maybe those picks are too juicy for the cap-strapped Thunder to turn down.


And in the meantime, Anderson can be the stretch four Patrick Patterson is not/Carmelo refuses to be, creating driving lanes for Westbrook and letting Steven Adams rumble undisturbed through the paint. Look at it with the glass half full and it’s a way for Westbrook to possibly look even better than he did in 2017.

For the Rockets, well, swap George in for Trevor Ariza then try to convince yourself they aren't better than the Warriors.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

Not a whole lot needs to be written about L.A. The Lakers can clear enough cap space to guarantee a four-year, $130.3 million deal (if that’s what George wants) while still being able to afford LeBron…if that’s what LeBron wants. But even if this move isn’t about competing for a title—as it probably wouldn’t be unless a third star entered the frame—becoming the face of the Lakers franchise, and their first significant free agent signing in 20,000 years, really matters. In a world where LeBron goes to Houston, Boston, San Antonio, Philadelphia, or stays in Cleveland, George would be lauded as a basketball demigod. The symbolic savior for an organization that can then enter 2019 with Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler as realistic targets.

The path to a title still won't be easy in the Western Conference, and so many variables need to fall into place for this situation to pay off on the court as much as it surely will off it. But as, by far, the most likely team George signs with regardless of what anybody else does, the Lakers need to rank this high.

1. Philadelphia 76ers

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George might be the most perfect player in the entire league to plop beside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. He’s comfortable moving off screens as a catch-and-shoot threat, has the size, length, and speed to cover multiple positions in a defensive system that loves to switch, can space the floor for teammates who want to post-up or get downhill off a high screen, and as someone who won’t disappear (a la Robert Covington) in a playoff game—let alone an entire series—can ease the stress felt by two inexperienced phenoms when the going gets tough in a seven-game series.

Unlike LeBron, George doesn’t need the ball to thrive, provides superior possession-to-possession defense, and is a superior shooter. (He’s also over five years younger and about $5 million cheaper.) It sounds crazy because LeBron is LeBron, but this should be Philadelphia’s primary target. To afford him, the Sixers can renounce all their free agents (J.J. Redick, Amir Johnson, Marco Belinelli, and Ersan Ilyasova) and then dump Jerryd Bayless’s expiring contract with their own 26th overall pick on Atlanta, Brooklyn, Dallas, Indiana, or any other team that has the space and wants a quality asset.

George may want to sign a three-year deal with a player option in 2021, and that's okay. Until then, he'll turn Philadelphia into the devil’s army for opposing coaches who’ll have no choice but to swap their playbook for a bible. Simmons, George, Covington, Dario Saric, and Embiid would curdle the NBA’s most fluid offenses, obliterate opponents on the glass, and create various size-related advantages when they have the ball for the next two years. The luxury tax comes for every team that aspires for greatness, but the Sixers won’t cross that bridge until 2021, when Saric, Simmons, and George are all up for new contracts.

If Markelle Fultz is able to step on the court without hurting himself, and the tenth pick can slide in and provide a positive impact right away, the Sixers would be a veritable title contender every season George is there.