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Paul George—who reportedly opted out of his contract with the OKC Thunder to become an unrestricted free agent Thursday, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski—is such a malleable talent that he could fit in anywhere.
What NBA team wouldn’t prove capable of using his defensive skills, the ones that allow him to flit around the half-court set shutting down passing lanes and deflecting one feed after another? Who wouldn’t want to use the high-scoring talents that get displayed in both on- and off-ball scenarios?
The answer is simple: Such an organization doesn’t exist, because George’s two-way skills make him an ideal player in the modern Association.
But he’s not choosing between all 30 squads. Only a select few options are capable of tempting him into a new contract, and the options range from re-signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder to jetting for an Eastern Conference franchise on the rise.
George has the luxury of picking between teams that allow him to strut his stuff and immediately compete for a championship. So if your favorite squad isn’t one of the six we’re covering here, you should probably brace yourself for disappointment and begin mentally preparing for pursuits of other free-agent targets.
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If the Purple and Gold can land LeBron James (and/or Kawhi Leonard via a trade), they’d become an even more appealing destination for Paul George. He could have realistic visions of a superteam dancing through his head as well as thoughts of rings earned while traveling past the many hurdles contained within the ranks of the brutal Western Conference.
But even if he’d be the only star heading to the Lakers, we can’t rule them out.
He’d still be a strong fit alongside Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Julius Randle, who would likely be brought back on a new deal in this scenario that no longer involves James or Leonard. Not only would he prove capable of taking over as a shot-creating superstar who also drills plenty of catch-and-shoot triples off Ball’s feeds, but he’d be the defensive ace needed to complete Los Angeles’ ascent of the defensive-rating standings.
And we can’t forget about the hometown appeal.
That’s the reason George has been perpetually linked to the Lakers, after all. Even when the franchise was still operating in a downtrodden state and trying to recover from their failed superteam efforts in the closing stages of Kobe Bryant‘s career, the basketball-watching world knew, if only in the back of its collective mind, that this swingman was always a flight risk because of that L.A. temptation.
George was born in Palmdale, California. He didn’t leave the state until completing his high school career and breaking out at Fresno State. As he told Vigilant Sports’ Scott Agness last July: “I grew up a Lakers and a Clippers fan. I idolized Kobe. There will always be a tie here, a connection here. People saying I want to come here, who doesn’t want to play for their hometown? That’s a dream come true, if you’re a kid growing up on the outskirts of L.A., to be the man in your city.”
Of course the Lakers are a primary suitor this offseason, especially now that they’re swimming in youthful talent.
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Who says anything has to change?
Paul George has reasons to stick with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he’ll have to look past a couple of negatives first.
His final memory of the 2017-18 campaign will be an inglorious exist at the hands of Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz during the opening round of the playoffs. Carmelo Anthony has opted into his contract and trolled those upset with his decision, and the choice comes on the not-too-distant heels of his statement that he wouldn’t even consider accepting a bench role.
“Yeah, I’m not sacrificing no bench role,” he said, per ESPN.com’s Royce Young. “That’s out of the question.”
But Anthony’s inability to read the tea leaves aside, George did find quite a bit of success during his first season in OKC. Before Andre Roberson was lost for the year—an injury that should be talked about more as a landscape-altering one—the Thunder looked like legitimate contenders to challenge the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference.
In fact, lineups featuring Russell Westbrook, Roberson, George and Steven Adams outscored opponents by a whopping 14.2 points per 100 possessions, per PBPStats.com. That would make for the No. 1 net rating throughout the league, easily outpacing those of the Rockets (8.5) and Warriors (8.0).
George and Westbrook can coexist. When surrounded by stellar defenders on the wings and in the painted area, they make for a dominant duo that keeps adversaries off balance on both ends. Those two alone even posted a 6.4 net rating while playing more minutes than all but two tandems throughout the league: Anthony/Westbrook (4.1 net rating) and Taj Gibson/Andrew Wiggins (4.6).
If this 28-year-old winds up leaving the Thunder behind, it won’t be because the experiment failed. Quite the contrary. He’d simply be seeking greener pastures than the already lush ones he experienced in the Sooner State.
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This only works if LeBron James decides to remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Should the four-time MVP decide to leave Northeast Ohio, there would be nothing left to coax Paul George into a wine-and-gold uniform. He’s not going to play alongside Collin Sexton, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Kyle Korver, JR Smith and the rest of the incumbent Cavs while joined by zero fellow stars.
Sorry. It’s just the truth.
But if James chooses to stick with his hometown organization, everything changes. The allure of working in tandem with the game’s best player could severely influence George’s decision.
Just imagine the appeal for both players.
James would have an ace defender joining him on the wings, ready to assume the toughest assignments each night so that the elder forward would be preserved for the most important time of year. George would get to strut his stuff in the spotlight, knock down spot-up jumpers off James’ brilliant feeds and be virtually guaranteed a legitimate path through the Eastern Conference—note: not necessarily a trip to the Finals, but at least a reasonable roadmap to them.
The Cavaliers might not have much cap space to lure in a third star (and just to get George aboard, they would need to jettison significant salary or convince him to backtrack and complete a sign-and-trade), but they could still remedy that in two different manners. First, they could pull a Golden State Warriors and count on useful veterans such as David West desiring a ring-chasing pursuit while operating on smaller deals. Second, they could shop Sexton and any other attractive young pieces (Ante Zizic and Cedi Osman, maybe?) for a more established contributor.
The upside is palpable. It has to be if George teams up with James.
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No team makes more sense for Paul George than the Philadelphia 76ers.
Does he want an organization that can surround him with fellow stars capable of pushing toward an appearance in the NBA Finals? Absolutely, and the combination of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can deliver on that front.
Does he want youth in his supporting cast so that he can view this destination as a long-term home with a chance at dynastic levels of dominance? Simmons is just 21 years old, Embiid is only 24, and we haven’t even touched on Dario Saric (24), Robert Covington (27), Markelle Fultz (20) and incoming rookie Zhaire Smith (19).
But even beyond those surface-level criteria, his skill set would mesh perfectly with the talents of the incumbents. George’s two-way abilities allow him to slide in seamlessly with almost any organization, but his primary gifts are the ones constantly sought after by head coach Brett Brown: go-to scoring and switchy perimeter defense.
Even without George, the Sixers were one of the NBA’s stingiest teams in 2017-18, allowing a meager 102.0 points per 100 possessions. After the All-Star break, that number dropped to 100.8, which left them trailing only the Utah Jazz (96.0). Everything clicked, with the wings, guards and forwards switching interchangeably as Embiid capably contained everything on the interior. Throw George’s rangy off-ball defense into the mix, allowing him to slot in next to Simmons, Covington, Saric and Embiid, and it might be impossible to score against Philadelphia.
Offensively, he may still be an even better fit.
Not only can George capably serve as the shot-creating presence the youthful Sixers have been missing in situations that call for a bucket generated off the bounce, but he scored 1.22 points per spot-up possession to fall into the 93rd percentile during his year with the Thunder. He can fill the JJ Redick role and do so much more, further diversifying an offense that sometimes stagnated in spite of the presences of generational talents.
If George wants to win now and in the future—doing so while admittedly sacrificing a bit of the spotlight—he knows who to call.
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First you have to sneak past Jrue Holiday, who’s ready to greet you at the point of attack and continue functioning as one of the NBA’s deadliest on-ball defenders. Then you have to look off Paul George, ensuring that the havoc-wreaking wing stopper can’t jump into a passing lane and add to his remarkable tally of deflections. If all that goes according to plan, you still have to fool Anthony Davis, now serving as the New Orleans Pelicans’ last line of defense around the basket.
The Pelicans were already a strong defensive squad in 2017-18 with Holiday and Davis on the floor. Allowing just 104.9 points per 100 possessions, per PBPStats.com, they would’ve ranked No. 12 throughout the league in the season-long hierarchy. And that’s with a limited assortment of wings assisting them, none of whom are widely known as lockdown defenders.
In fact, DeMarcus Cousins (3.6), Davis (2.3), Emeka Okafor (1.3), DeAndre Liggins (0.7), Solomon Hill (0.6) and Holiday (0.3) were the only members of the Pelicans to post positive marks in defensive box plus/minus last year, and the three non-stars combined to log just 784 minutes. George would be a game-changer, even if acquiring him would require other sacrifices.
If George comes to the Pelicans, Cousins is likely gone. The organization can’t afford to keep him alongside the hefty salaries of Holiday, Davis, Hill and Nikola Mirotic once this new acquisition is aboard. Just adding the swingman alone could require moving Hill or a combination of lesser pieces such as Alexis Ajinca and Darius Miller. But that would be perfectly fine, because it means committing to a different identity—one steeped in preventing prowess and talents even more complementary to those of the centerpiece lining up at the 5.
Just stop and think about a lineup comprised of Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, George, Mirotic and Davis.
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This scenario has admittedly grown a bit more unrealistic during the early portion of the 2018 offseason. After the Indiana Pacers declined Lance Stephenson’s team option for 2018-19, Paul George took to Instagram to make his feelings known, not so subtly hinting that the organization, not him, should have been viewed as the bad guy during his departure last summer.
As Chris Barnewall subsequently wrote for CBS Sports, hurt feelings remain even if everything worked out for both sides:
“George obviously is still a little bitter about how his breakup with the Pacers went down. Not everything in life can be clean and their situation definitely wasn’t. However, it appears to have worked out best for everybody involved. George made the playoffs, and now has the option of going wherever he wants to be. The Pacers made the playoffs, took the Cavaliers to seven games in the first round, and have a future star in Oladipo. There’s no need to be angry at each other! Even if they are 100 percent still angry with each other.”
But what if animosity could be thrown aside?
A reunion with the Pacers would make a lot of sense for George now that the team has a co-star in Victor Oladipo, a center on the rise in Myles Turner and plenty of other intriguing pieces. Even if Thaddeus Young opts out and departs, Indiana might have to clear some salary to throw its former standout a max salary, but shipping off players such as Al Jefferson and Cory Joseph in cost-cutting moves wouldn’t deplete the team’s depth.
Plus, putting together an Oladipo-George combination would be worth it. Not only would that duo thrive on the defensive end and help spark an Indiana ascent up the points-allowed leaderboard, but it would give head coach Nate McMillan a chance to draw up plays for two scorers capable of exploding for a 30-spot on any given night.
During the first seven years of George’s NBA career, Lance Stephenson (3.0 in 2013-14), David West (3.3 in 2012-13) and George Hill (3.4 in 2012-13) were his only teammates to crest 3.0 value over replacement player (VORP). None of them could match Oladipo’s 4.5 VORP from 2017-18, though.
Quality teammates would no longer be a concern.