With the news that Paul George has informed the Pacers he will not re-sign with them following this season, speculation has inevitably turned to the Lakers as a possible suitor either now or in 2018. That makes sense, as George has a well-known affinity for the franchise and grew up in Palmdale, Calif., which is a little over an hour away from Staples Center.
The unusual circumstance of a star player's well-publicized interest in joining another team a year out presents a fascinating thought experiment for the Lakers.
They could work with the Pacers in an effort to bring him over this season, which would give George an extra year with their young core without draft-related consequences, as the team does not have their first-round pick in 2018. Having George under contract would also give L.A. full Bird rights, meaning they could give him a fifth year and higher raise without clearing cap space next summer.
Theoretically, he could use that experience and time to encourage other players to join the Lakers in 2018, though it would be difficult to clear sufficient cap space for significant additions. Acquiring George now would require resources, and it does not appear that Indiana has given up hope of bringing back serious return for their pending free agent. Knicks fans know all too well how poorly trading young talent for a star who wants to sign with you the next summer can work out, as their Carmelo Anthony trade made it substantially harder to build a competitive team around him.
Alternatively, the Lakers could let this season play out and simply sign George as an unrestricted free agent next summer, presumably using cap space. One of the more significant differences between the two approaches comes in terms of the contracts the Lakers can offer. Here is the difference between the two potential deals, assuming George takes his maximum allowable salary and raises using the current $102 million cap estimate for the 2018–19 season with a final season player option:
The differences are fairly minor through the first few seasons, as the margin is just 5% vs 8% on the same base salary. However, it becomes a much larger disparity later on and present indications are that the salary cap is going to stay pretty stable for the next few seasons with the massive new television contract fully incorporated.
Something else the Lakers should consider is George's next contract. If they sign him using cap space with a fourth-season player option, he will have turned 30 almost exactly two months before the start of free agency. With 11 seasons under his belt, George would be eligible for the full 35% maximum in 2021. At that point, all of the Lakers' current first-round picks will be on new, likely more lucrative contracts and even this season’s pick be on an extension or in restricted free agency. Success over those three years will likely determine whether giving George a significant sum at that point makes sense, but the timing could get complicated since he would likely expect a pay raise and long-term contract at that point.
It may sound counterintuitive but a longer first contract could carry less risk for the Lakers. Even if George declines a potential 2022–23 player option with the full Bird contract, he would be 31 at that point having contributed for four seasons. For reference, on that timeline George would hit free agency at about the same age Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry are this off-season. He could still earn a full max contract at that point, but getting older could depress his value, opening up the possibility of a more reasonable deal in terms of years or annual salary.
In all likelihood, the Pacers' asking price will be a more significant factor than contract disparity. A more competitive Lakers team will be in the mix for other high-level free agents, and it will be easier to move Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov's onerous contracts when fewer seasons remain. Another worthwhile consideration is the risk of bringing George on board before the young players are ready.
The Lakers did give up assets to acquire Dwight Howard a season before free agency, and that tumultuous campaign ended up spurring a decision to leave for Houston. Since George has been open about his desire to play on competitive teams, trading for him now functions as a massive bet on their holdover young talent, which may or may not be worthwhile.
Like all of the most interesting off-season decisions, there is no clear right or wrong answer for Magic Johnson and the Lakers' new front office. They will have to assess their internal talent to see how George fits and weigh who would and would not be worth sending out to secure his services this summer. The most likely outcome at this point appears to be the Lakers showing patience and waiting until free agency, but a declining asking price later in the summer could open the door for a major trade if Indiana has not found a new destination by that point.