Once the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Paul George, expectations for the team went from tepid to steamy. And once they acquired Carmelo Anthony, they went from steamy to straight-up burning.
Unfortunately, the two big-name additions weren’t able to change much regarding the Thunder’s fortunes. Oklahoma City added merely one victory to their win total between 2016-17 and 2017-18 (going from 47 to 48), while winning just one more postseason contest (two) before being sent packing.
And now, they face a very important summer as far as their future is concerned, because George – the player they were so excited to land at the cost of just Victor Oladpio and Domantas Sabonis – is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent.
The Thunder could very well wind up losing the five-time All-Star and have nothing to show for it.
Although some may question how much that really matters considering George hardly changed Oklahoma City’s record or playoff success, don’t be fooled by arbitrary numbers: George is still a beast.
The Fresno State product averaged 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 2017-18, while knocking down 40.1 percent of his three-pointers and 82.0 percent of his free throws. Additionally, the Thunder’s net rating went from a mediocre -0.2 the year prior to George’s arrival to a healthy +2.9 with George on the team.
Clearly, the guy is a major difference-maker.
And that’s why so many teams will be chasing his signature this summer.
We break down George’s likeliest landing spots.
This summer, cap space will be hard to locate around the Association.
As such, finding George free-agent suitors among just teams that made the playoffs in 2017-18 is impossible.
That’s where the Brooklyn Nets come into the picture.
Although their timeline doesn’t really match the point George is at in his career, the Nets do have roughly $17 million in cap space to use this offseason. If they manage to trade Jeremy Lin, who’s presently recovering from a knee injury and owed $12.5 million for 2018-19, that number would grow to $29.5 million. If they stretch Timofey Mozgov’s albatross of a contract (between July 1 and August 31) and get the bulk of it off their books, that number could grow even further to $39.0 million.
Simply put, Brooklyn has the ability find room for a max-level player this summer (and rather easily, at that).
As far as why they would want to, it should be noted that Nets’ general manager Sean Marks has stated his team plans to be competitive next season, despite the fact they possess their own first-round pick for the first time since 2013. (Essentially, Marks claims they won’t tank 2018-19 for a higher draft spot, even though it would make some sense for them to do so.)
What’s more, George shares an agent with the most promising talent on the Nets’ roster, D’Angelo Russell. The two are represented by Aaron Mintz, who, at one point, reportedly desired that his two clients play together:
With the allure of New York City basketball being what it is, and the region’s other team – the Knicks – being in the midst of a large-scale rebuild, maybe the Nets sense an opportunity and try to take control of the area’s attention.
It’s probably a long shot, but it can be argued there’s at least a non-zero chance a union between George and Brooklyn can come to fruition.
The most ridiculous part of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 2017-18 season wasn’t that they were able to turn it around so quickly, jumping from 28 wins to 52 (their highest total since 2000-01) and locking up the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed for the playoffs. No, it’s that Philadelphia will have the second-largest amount of cap space available to chase free agents this offseason – a truly mortifying proposition for opposing teams in the East.
Buzz regarding LeBron James potentially being interested in joining the Sixers has been picking up steam recently. But if that were to fall through, George would make a lot of sense in Philadelphia too, because, well, of course he would.
George is a stud who can play off the ball, hit triples and lock up opposing wings. And if you need him to get a bucket one-on-one, he’s more than able to do that as well.
His fit with Philadelphia would legitimately be perfect, especially if this summer the 76ers lose the services of JJ Redick, who will also be an unrestricted free agent. Losing Redick would hurt, of course, as his elite three-point prowess and outstanding locker-room presence were vital to Philadelphia turning the corner. But if they could replace the Duke product with George, it would make the loss sting a little less.
Financially, the Sixers can afford George at any price, including the max, and probably wouldn’t hesitate to shell it out if it meant landing a borderline All-NBA talent like him. However, in true Philadelphian forward-thinking fashion, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them try to land George on a two-year max instead of the full four.
That would give the 76ers some cap flexibility going forward, especially if the 27-year-old’s signing doesn’t go as planned, or if Markelle Fultz begins to hit his ceiling as a player over the next couple of seasons.
Don’t forget, that’s exactly how Philadelphia landed Redick last summer: by offering him a huge contract figure, but for a minimal amount of time (one season).
A two-year, $60 million agreement, perhaps with a player option on Year-2, between George and the 76ers would make sense – and would make Philadelphia all the more terrifying come 2018-19.
Los Angeles Lakers
As of now, it would appear the likeliest landing spot for George outside of a return to Oklahoma City would be the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 6-foot-9 wing was born in Palmdale, CA, which is about an hour outside of Los Angeles. He went to college at Fresno State University, located in his home state of California. And he has made interesting comments regarding his feelings about where he grew up (via the Norman Transcript):
“’I obviously would’ve loved to go home. That was ideal when it was that time,’” George said in February. “’But now, being here and playing alongside Russ, playing alongside ‘Melo, I feel a real brotherhood with those guys. If we’re here right now, then where can we be next year? Where can we be the year after that?'[…] ‘Of course, Los Angeles is home, so that’s always going draw the attention. But we’ll see. I won’t rule anything out, but I’m definitely happy where I’m at,’” George said to ESPN. “’I like where we’re going, and I want to see how this unfolds.’”
George expressed satisfaction with his situation in Oklahoma City, but there was clearly something there when he brought up his feelings toward Los Angeles as well.
That should make Thunder fans nervous, especially after how their season ended.
The Lakers have loads of cap space to use this summer, even more than Philadelphia, and they also boast an elite young core that may not be all that far from playoff contention, at the very least. And, perhaps most importantly, George considers them the home team.
At the end of the day, George joining the Lakers this offseason on a four-year, $130.6 million max deal is a very real possibility.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Of course, George could also decide to opt out and re-sign with his current team too.
Maybe with another year of experience playing together, the George-Russell Westbrook-Carmelo Anthony triumvirate can find more success.
Perhaps being closer to actual title contention is more appealing to the three-time All-Defensive Team wing (though, admittedly, it’s difficult to surmise just how close to a championship this Thunder core actually is).
Ultimately, maybe the fact that Oklahoma City owns George’s Bird Rights (meaning they can go over the cap to bring him back) and are able to offer him the most money on his next contract – up to five years and $207.4 million if George makes an All-NBA team in 2017-18, or five years and $177.7 million if he doesn’t – will be what end up mattering the most.
It’s impossible to know right now.
What is certain is that general manager Sam Presti and Co. will be sweating out George’s decision until his signature is on the dotted line.
The threat of Los Angeles looms that large.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.