Magic Johnson, who has taken over as president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, made headlines recently when he expressed his desire for the franchise to land a superstar player. Such a pursuit makes sense, as Los Angeles has always been built around stars, with Johnson perhaps shining brightest of them all during the heyday of the Showtime era of the 1980’s.
Of course, all eyes immediately shifted to Paul George, who hasn’t seemed too thrilled with his Indiana Pacers teammates and is rumored to be “hell-bent” on coming back home to Los Angeles. Discussions took place at the NBA trade deadline this past year with multiple teams hoping to land George, but nothing was agreed upon. Talks will almost certainly heat up again this summer, and the Pacers will rightly demand a King’s ransom (not Sacramento, Vlade) if they are going to be persuaded to part with their star.
The Lakers have a solid selection of young, talented players that they could put on the block, and if the basketball gods smile upon them in the NBA Draft Lottery, they could also have a top-three pick to dangle in front of Pacers president, Larry Bird.
The question is, should they?
The knee-jerk reaction is to say yes, since George is a star and the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the notion that, in the NBA, stars are required in order to win.
That said, there is some historical evidence that mid-tier stars, which George certainly is, may not be the kind of player to make an overly-aggressive move for. After all, George is unlikely to be included on an All-NBA team this year, which is good for the Lakers due to the massive salary the Pacers could offer him if he did make it, but it also means that there are at least six forwards in the league who are better.
Essentially, while George qualifies as a star, he isn’t in that upper-tier of players like LeBron James or Kevin Durant who virtually guarantee a deep playoff run, but then again, very few can reach those heights.
Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka must tread carefully. George is an excellent player that would be a massive addition to the Lakers, but he isn’t a transcendent talent that can carry a team on his own, as we have seen with the Pacers. There is a fine line between striking a good deal for George and overpaying, and with the Boston Celtics and their cache of Nets draft picks skulking in the shadows, Bird will keep his asking price high.
As the Lakers have learned with Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, the consequences for overpaying, whether it be in via trade or free agency, are steep. Plus, they have to consider what kind of team George would be joining post-trade.
Let’s say Indiana demands Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, and the Lakers top-three pick (basketball gods willing) in exchange for George. The Lakers would receive a surefire star for three young pieces with potential, which could end up being a favorable deal. However, the asset cupboard would then be nearly bare, making it difficult to put a contending team around George.
We saw a similar situation play out when Carmelo Anthony was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks. With the rival Nets circling, the Knicks decided it was best to get Anthony in-house via trade now rather than wait for him to hit free agency. However, the Knicks parted with so many assets to obtain Anthony that they struggled to upgrade the team around him.
That’s a frightening notion for the Lakers because George will be a free agent in the summer of 2018. They may believe that playing in Los Angeles for a season would give them time to convince him of the benefits of playing in the bright lights of Hollywood, but that’s what they thought about Dwight Howard, too.
No team can afford to watch a star player walk away without compensation, but for the Lakers, who still owe draft picks from the Howard and Steve Nash trades, parting with assets only to see George walk would set the rebuild back irreparably.
As counter-intuitive as it would seem, the best outcome for Los Angeles this summer would actually be NOT trading for George — as long as no one else does, either.
After all, trading for George now would be partially due to the threat of the Boston Celtics or another team coming in, making a deal, and then convincing him to stay when he hits free agency. If the Lakers can keep him out of their clutches that may be beneficial but it also comes with a huge risk.
Looking at the roster the Lakers would be working with, a theoretical trade of Ingram, Clarkson, and the Lakers’ pick leaves the team woefully thin. They would have a decent chunk of cap space to work with, and George’s presence may lead to more free agents considering Los Angeles, but that may not be enough.
Instead, the hope should be that George stays in Indiana for the 2017-18 season and then enters free agency, which would allow the Lakers to keep all of their assets in-house and then bring him into the fold.
A core of Ingram, Clarkson, George, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Ivica Zubac plus whoever they select with their 2017 draft pick (fingers crossed) is a lineup offering plenty of flexibility going forward. Not only would they have a plethora of young talent around George that could conceivably grow into a contender, but the Lakers would also have the pieces necessary to pull off a trade down the line for another star.
The Lakers would be risking George slipping through their fingers, but the upside of having their star AND all of their assets still in the bank makes the risk worth it.
Of course, it has to be noted that much of the outcome will ultimately be determined by George himself. The escalating problems with the Knicks and Anthony are regrettable, and no player or team wants to be in that situation. Tampering is against league rules, but there are ways George could get word to the Lakers to hang onto their assets until the summer of 2018 so that a stronger team would be awaiting his arrival.
He can also dissuade any team, the Lakers included, from trading for him by letting it be known that he won’t sign there in free agency. If teams believe George is just a one-year rental they won’t offer nearly as much for his services, which increases the likelihood that he plays out his contract in Pawnee.
It’s a complex situation that the Lakers will have to carefully navigate, and will certainly test Johnson and Pelinka’s ability to handle their new roles. Showing patience now just may lead to an even better Lakers team in the summer of 2018.