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How Lakers should proceed with delicate Paul George situation

Indiana Pacers' Paul George during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics in Boston, Wednesday, March 22, 2017. The Celtics won 109-100. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Paul George wasn’t quite lying. Just three days before reportedly informing management of his plans to leave the Indiana Pacers in free agency next summer, the four-time All-Star gave a tepid commitment to the only franchise he has ever known.

“I’m under contract as a Pacer,” George told Nate Taylor of The Indianapolis Star on Friday. “That’s all that needs to really be known. I’m here. I’m a Pacer. Again, what I’ve been dealing with is stories. You guys talking or teams talking. I’m a Pacer. There’s no way around that. This is my team, my group, and this is where I’m at.”

Most of that is true. George is owed $19.5 million next season, and Kevin Pritchard supposedly wasn’t exploring trade possibilities for his team’s superstar after taking over as chief decision-maker from Larry Bird early last month. There’s no reason to believe George wouldn’t put his best foot forward with the Pacers, either, even if the open secret of his desire to play elsewhere going forward was eventually confirmed.

There actually is a way around the 27-year-old continuing his career in Indiana next season, though, and he took it on Sunday. The rumors of George, a Palmdale, Calif., native, signing with the Los Angeles Lakers a year from now have become much louder. After his agent told Pritchard that George will spurn Indiana in free agency next July and prefers to sign with his hometown team, intrigue surrounding his future no longer centers on the Pacers. It’s Los Angeles that’s dealing from a position of strength now, a stunning development that places even more significance on Magic Johnson’s first offseason as head honcho for the league’s glamour franchise.

Patience is the virtue that should guide the Lakers with respect to George. If only it were that simple.

Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) greets Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) before the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

AP Photo/Alex Gallardo

In 2011, the New York Knicks sent Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Raymond Felton and a first-round pick to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for a package headlined by Carmelo Anthony, whose longing to play at Madison Square Garden wasn’t exactly held close to the vest. The Knicks could have signed Anthony outright one summer later, retained quality young depth and helped usher in a new era with the lottery pick that headed west – one that turned into Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris. Charting New York’s course if it had played the long game is futile; orange-and-blue clad fans across the globe don’t deserve that brand of unusual torture. But just imagine how different that organization would look now if Anthony’s tenure began with the Knicks possessing tradable assets.

Los Angeles faces a very similar situation six years later. Unlike back then, though, other teams are reportedly considering the prospect of bringing in George as a one-season rental, according to The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the biggest threat. George is the one available player in the league who could tilt LeBron James’ chances to beat the Golden State Warriors a meaningful direction. One problem: There’s nothing to indicate that he’d sign with the Cavaliers as a free agent other than blind optimism. In fact, George downplayed the basketball influence of his chummy relationship with James mere seconds after reiterating that he’s “under contract as a Pacer.”

Still, the Lakers should carefully monitor the possibility of George being traded to Cleveland or another contender. Nothing warms players to cities they’d prefer not calling home like competing for a title. It goes without saying that the only teams willing to mortgage their future for nothing more than one guaranteed season of George are those with legitimate championship aspirations, too. If the Cavaliers don’t win this trade sweepstakes, it’ll be the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs or another team that has reason to believe it might be one piece away – and could thus convince George to stick around long-term with a deep playoff run next spring and early summer.

Los Angeles is watching. According to Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, Johnson, Rob Pelinka and company will “parachute” into trade discussions with Indiana should a swap with Cleveland becomes close to imminent. In that scenario, the Pacers will surely prefer whatever bundle the Lakers are offering. The Cavaliers deal is likely to center on Kevin Love and flotsam. Maybe David Griffin makes Kyrie Irving available if Indiana balks initially, which would markedly up the ante for other suitors. Tristan Thompson is the only other player on Cleveland’s roster worth anything meaningful on the open market, but he’s a poor fit for the Pacers given the style they want to play and the presence of burgeoning star center Myles Turner. Love, basically, seems to be the guy most realistically in play here.

The package Los Angeles is equipped to surrender for George is light years better, but that doesn’t mean Johnson should offer it. Brandon Ingram should be off-limits here; he’s a perfect fit next to George in Luke Walton’s position-less brand of basketball. The Lakers would obviously be best served playing hardball with the second pick of Thursday’s draft, too, even if it means giving up D’Angelo Russell.

Might Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, the 28th pick (by way of the Houston Rockets) and a first-rounder in 2020 be enough for Indiana? No way in a vacuum, but the Pacers don’t exactly have much leverage. Reports of George wanting to play for the team he grew up watching first surfaced months ago; Indiana should have been quietly gauging his value on the trade market well before it came to this unenviable point. It’s nowhere near a certainty that some asset-rich team like Boston ponies up the dough absent an assurance from George that he won’t be a rental, either. There are only so many other realistic suitors for a player whose free-agency mind may very well be made up.

This is a delicate situation for Los Angeles. Johnson must feign nonchalance while keeping laser focus. If the aggression of Cleveland or another team necessitates trade talks with the Pacers, he must resist the urge to leave his team’s stable of assets barren. It’s an almost impossible balancing act. What a coup for the Lakers, though, that Johnson and the rest are being forced to tip-toe it.

For years, the forum blue-and-gold mystique has led to nothing but disappointment in free agency. Today, Los Angeles is desirable enough for its most substantial target to make his plans known a full year in advance. Not bad for a team that won 26 games last season.

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