A LeBron-centered offseason can be fascinating, but it’s definitely exhausting. The shadow it casts on everything around the league—from the end of the season, to the draft, to free agency—pushes other story lines to the margins. Just think of the past few days: Nearly every rumor, piece of scuttlebutt, or bit of hearsay has been about where LeBron will choose to sign this offseason.
But if LeBron is the first and highest-profile domino to fall, then Paul George will be the second.
A free agent after spending a year in Oklahoma City, George has been angling to get to Los Angeles for years. Even in Thunder colors, he didn’t make his desire to play in his hometown less known. (An aside: As a longtime L.A. resident, I am contractually obligated to point out that George was born and grew up in Palmdale, which is about 70 miles north of Staples Center and is a straight-up desert.)
George also seemed to jell well enough in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook: He finished the season averaging 21.9 points a game and shot his second-best career percentage from 3 (40 percent). And when engaged, he was also the defensive wing the Thunder needed in the absence of Andre Roberson. Sam Presti’s gamble didn’t exactly pay out given the Thunder were eliminated in the first round, but it wasn’t a total disaster either.
Marc Stein reported in his New York Times newsletter on Tuesday that George isn’t as set on the Lakers as it has seemed:
“There is a growing belief around the league that Oklahoma City has a far better chance to retain the free agent-to-be Paul George than many believed when the Thunder crashed out of the first round of the playoffs.”
It feels far-fetched to think that George will actually go somewhere other than L.A., but what if LeBron signs a one-year deal in Cleveland again? George could delay his departure by another year and re-sign with the Thunder for a short stint. He has the leverage.
Then, there’s the extremely speculative side of things, the one that is based on appearances like, say, George showing up with Lakers rookie Josh Hart to a Fortnite event in Los Angeles and being asked about joining Hart on the Lakers this summer. “Ha!” George said with a smile. “Next question.”
Hart was asked too, and gave a different response. “It’s gonna be amazing. It’d be a great addition to our talented core. He’s a great player, we’ll see what happens,” Hart said, and then when asked about his recruiting efforts: “We definitely talked a little bit about it. I was letting him know where he should live. We’ll see what happens soon.”
The irony in all of this is that if LeBron selects Los Angeles as his next destination, and George does too, there’s a substantial chance the roster overhaul might cost Hart his position on this team. When players of this caliber decide on a team, their power, as we’ve seen with LeBron, isn’t kind to young players on a suddenly win-now team. But hey, good on him for recruiting. Nick Saban would be proud.
It’s impossible not to tie George’s decision to LeBron’s—or any other free agent’s, for that matter. Both have the Lakers in their sights, and if LeBron signs there, the team has the necessary cap space available to make room for a second star like George. The pairing, plus whatever is left of their current roster, will attract other free agents and turn the Lakers from a youthful rebuilding job to a haven for ring-chasers. And if LeBron doesn’t sign with the Lakers, well George could still go “home” and make them into a playoff team. But George seems much more comfortable as a second fiddle than as the main act. Maybe that’s why Oklahoma City still has a chance. At least until LeBron makes his move.