LOS ANGELES — On Sunday, the Indiana Pacers were eliminated from the postseason in four games by the Cleveland Cavaliers, 106-102.
After losing three straight years to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat from 2012 to 2014, twice in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers haven’t been able to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.
What will their recent exit mean for All-Star forward Paul George, who can opt out of his contract before July 2018 to become an unrestricted free agent?
Is the fate of the Palmdale, California, native tied to that of the struggling Los Angeles Lakers?
Going by the words and gestures of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, the Lakers president of basketball operations sure hopes so.
Johnson can’t speak directly about another team’s player, but his not-so-subtle comments on Jimmy Kimmel Live! were certainly in the gray area of tampering. The intent is pretty clear: He the Lakers are very interested in acquiring the talents of one Paul George.
The challenge is that he is under contract with the Pacers. George’s current salary is $18.3 million, climbing to $19.5 million in July, followed by a player option of $20.7 million for the 2018-19 season.
George and the Pacers have some business to attend to before a decision is made. Equally, the Lakers have several outstanding variables that will help determine their suitability for landing the nearly 27-year old forward.
Should George be named to an All-NBA first, second or third team, he will qualify for the league’s new designated veteran player extension with the Pacers that would enable him to recommit to Indiana at roughly $207 million over five years.
If not, George would still be eligible for a new five-year deal with the Pacers worth about $177 million. The most another team could offer in July of next year would be four years at approximately $130 million.
That $47 million gain might seem insurmountable, but George would be able to make up a significant portion with a new contract in 2022.
The gap between $207 million and $130 million is harder to overcome, which is why it would seem a lock that if George is named to an All-NBA squad that he’ll take the money to stay in Indiana.
If George does not qualify for the bigger extension, the Pacers need to consider a trade, lest they lose him for nothing in free agency. That’s where the Lakers could enter the picture, along with many suitors.
The key date for Los Angeles is May 16, when the NBA holds its draft lottery. After winning just 26 games, the Lakers finished with the third-worst record in the league, giving the franchise a 46.9 percent chance at landing a top-three pick.
If the Lakers drop to fourth or below, they’ll forfeit their selection to the Philadelphia 76ers to close out the Steve Nash trade. They’ll also lose their 2019 first to the Orlando Magic.
Should the Lakers keep their pick in May, their obligation will delay a year, as the pick owed to the Sixers is fully unprotected in 2018. They’ll also send their 2017 and 2018 second-rounders to the Magic but keep their 2019 first.
With players like Washington’s Markelle Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kansas’ Josh Jackson projected by B/R’s Jonathan Wasserman to be the top-three picks in June, L.A. might have an appealing piece to offer Indiana for George—provided it survives the lottery.
Of course, the Boston Celtics could have a similar or even better asset to offer with the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick they’ll receive from the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade. Via the Nets, the Celtics have a 64.3 percent chance at a top-three pick and a 25 percent shot at No. 1.
Even if everything works out for the Lakers, whatever they might be willing to offer up in trade for George may well be trumped by another franchise.
To trade for George before July, Los Angeles would need to send out $13.3 million in salary.
Assuming the Pacers are not interested in the likes of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, who are owed a combined $102 million for the next three seasons, the Lakers would be able to to reach the required threshold for George with the salaries of D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac and Corey Brewer, in various combinations.
A package of Clarkson and Nance would be a very different price than Ingram, Russell and the first-round pick.
There must be a line that the Lakers are wiling to cross to acquire George before next season but also a limit where the expense in outgoing talent is too rich.
Los Angeles must have the ability to build a quality team around George—give up too much and it ends up in the same position as the Pacers, good but not great.
Another option is waiting a year to pursue George in free agency, but there’s a risk factor in that he could choose another destination. Then again, that risk exists even if the team completes a deal this summer, as trading for him could prove to be a one-year rental.
Negotiating these choppy waters may be Johnson’s biggest test as a newly minted NBA executive.
If traded, George would not qualify for the designated veteran player extension in Los Angeles but the team would be able to offer the same five-year, $177 million pact.
In July, the Lakers will fall under the NBA’s projected salary cap of $102 million, but they won’t know how much spending power they’ll have until the lottery.
A top-three pick will eat up between $4.8 to $6.2 million in space. Nick Young has a player option at $5.7 million while the team has an option on David Nwaba’s $1.3 million. Tarik Black’s $6.7 million salary is non-guaranteed.
If the Lakers lose their first-rounder, Young leaves and they cut Nwaba and Black, the team will near $28.3 million in cap space, not quite enough to pay out the maximum ($30.3 million) for potential free agents like Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin.
That cap room could be used to make an unbalanced offer to Indiana, without the need to match salaries—like George for Ingram and Randle, who will earn a combined $9.7 million.
If George is the answer for Los Angeles, then the Lakers are going to have to be the answer for Indiana, and that’s going to rely on Johnson’s convincing of his lifelong rival, Pacers president Larry Bird, to deal.
The Lakers need a significant talent upgrade. Acquiring or developing an All-Star is extremely difficult.
Patience may be a virtue, but then can the Lakers afford to wait another year?