When Paul George Becomes Available, LA Lakers Better Have a Legit Squad in Place

Eric PincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJune 7, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 01: Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers handles the ball against D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on November 1, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Pacers defeated the Lakers 115-108. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Clad in matching purple shirt and shorts, Earvin "Magic" Johnson put his arms around guard Jordan Clarkson, flashing his signature smile.

The two shared a moment together on Monday at the Los Angeles Lakers' practice facility. Now heading into his fourth season, Clarkson was in the gym to work with assistant coach Jesse Mermuys on attack moves around the basket.

Johnson, the Lakers' president of basketball operations, was on hand for yet another draft workout. Six prospects, including Villanova's Josh Hart and Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans, hoped to show the Lakers they were draft-worthy candidates.

On June 22, Johnson will make his first draft picks as an NBA executive at Nos. 2 and 28. Neither will be an easy decision, but Johnson and the Lakers face far more complex challenges ahead as they look to return the franchise to power.

The team needs a star and while players like Brandon Ingram, D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle may eventually emerge as cornerstone pieces—none are close to that today. The verdict is still out if they will ever reach that level.

Acquiring an All-Star in his prime can be one of the most daunting of all tasks, but Johnson and the Lakers may be in luck, eventually. As originally reported by The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski in February, Indiana Pacers forward Paul George may seriously consider joining the Lakers as a free agent in 2018.

Feb 16, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; NBA legend Magic Johnson laughs during the 2014 NBA All-Star Game Legends Brunch at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson wasn't exactly coy when discussing the George possibility on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, skating the tampering line ever so closely. But it's up to Johnson to give George a compelling reason to return home to Southern California. The Lakers would need to field a deep, competitive team around George—one star isn't enough to be a true force in the Western Conference.

One NBA executive told Bleacher Report that the current task for the Lakers in their pursuit of George is to acquire another player—the type of player who would make defecting more desirable for George. Perhaps the answer is in the draft and player development, but the Lakers may need to accelerate the process by bringing in additional help through free agency and trades. And time is of the essence.

The Palmdale native will undoubtedly opt out of the final year of his contract at $20.7 million after next season when he'll be eligible for a new contract starting at roughly $30.6 million. With the significant chance the Pacers lose George in free agency, the team might be compelled to trade him before July of 2018.

However, the Pacers have yet to signal to teams that George is available, according to a Western Conference executive.

If they're patient (and lucky), Indiana can pay George more than any team at either approximately $178 million over five years (or $207 million if he's named to an All-NBA Team, League MVP or Defensive Player of the Year for the 2017-18 season).

The Lakers, or any other competing franchise, can offer George about $132 million over four years.

That's a significant gamble for Indiana. They can ill afford to let the 27-year-old forward walk without compensation. Finding equal value can be difficult when moving an All-Star, but the Pacers should seriously explore the market around the draft and into July.

Trades present another complex set of issues. George doesn't want to end up like 33-year-old Carmelo Anthony, who joined the New York Knicks in a 2011 trade from the Denver Nuggets.

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 31:  Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks looks on during a NBA game against the Miami Heat on March 31, 2017 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

New York gave up many quality players like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, current Lakers center Timofey Mozgov and draft picks, depleting the team's talent pool. 

George can afford to be patient. He's better off joining a team that doesn't have to dismantle its roster to make room. And George's agent Aaron Mintz can work to diminish his client's value in trade by indicating to teams that he is dead-set on joining the Lakers.

That assumes George has hand-picked the Lakers. But even if that's not the case, the less any team gives up in a trade to acquire him, the better a chance George avoids Anthony's fate.

Per an NBA executive, some teams have been willing to take a risk and trade for a player who won't give an unofficial promise to stay long-term, like the Houston Rockets, but many would shy away. Mintz is the kind of agent who will fight aggressively to get a client to his preferred destination.

The same executive noted the Pacers must get enough for George to make a trade worthwhile. It may not have to be players like Ingram or Russell, or the Lakers' No. 2 pick. Indiana might just let George leave to open up cap space if the return is too marginal. He also noted Mintz might prefer to keep his clients together in Los Angeles, as he represents both Russell and Randle.

Judging by body language on Monday, Johnson is fond of Clarkson, but the 24-year old combo guard could be the piece the Lakers need to offer for George. Clarkson is on a sensible $37.5 million contract over the next three seasons.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 5: Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots a free throw against the San Antonio Spurs on April 5, 2017 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

The Lakers would presumably need to include other players and draft considerations, but nothing on the scale of what New York sent to Denver.

That also assumes another team doesn't offer more and that both George and Mintz are working to force Indiana's hand—and that the Pacers are willing to play along.

Johnson may like Clarkson, but for the Lakers to have the kind of cap room to re-sign George in 2018, assuming no trade is made, they'll need to either part with either Clarkson or Randle, who will be a restricted free agent next summer.

That is unless they can find a way out of the contracts of Luol Deng and Mozgov. The NBA executive believes the Lakers can, but the cost would likely be a draft pick with a shot of being in the lottery.

The Lakers can instead choose to waive and stretch the $102 million owed to the two veterans, but that will eat up almost $15 million of the team's salary cap over a seven-year period. Should the Lakers stretch the pair in 2018, the hit would be $14 million for five straight years.

Heading into this July, the Lakers project to have up to $22 million in cap space. Some of that could be used to facilitate a deal for George or for additional veteran talent in either free agency or a trade. Landing George alone isn't enough, although it'd be a significant step forward for a franchise that has missed the playoffs for four straight seasons.

Soon, the Lakers will work out UCLA's Lonzo Ball and Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox for the No. 2 pick. They'll likely audition Duke's Jayson Tatum and Kansas' Josh Jackson. It's unclear if Washington's Markelle Fultz will work out with any team outside of the Boston Celtics, who hold the top overall selection.

With the cap room, the pick and an emerging youthful core, the Lakers have a lot of potential moving forward.

The team needs a leader and a star, but Los Angeles cannot afford to make George the next Anthony. If the price in trade with Indiana is too high, the Lakers are better off waiting until 2018. 

If that means that George ends up on another roster, so be it.

          

Lakers Insider Notebook

Pat Riley Predicts Ball

Mar 23, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA;  UCLA Bruins guard Lonzo Ball (2) speaks during a press conference during practice the day before the South Regional semifinals of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers will do their due diligence to look at the top prospects for their No. 2 selection. The team isn't going to tip its hand as the draft nears.

Many mock drafts, including on DraftExpress.com, expect the Lakers to draft Ball.

Other reports suggest Ball is on the outside looking in. Steve Kyler of BasketballInsiders.com wrote that unless the UCLA guard "absolutely blows the doors off, he may not be the Lakers' guy."

On Monday night, Johnson joined his former coach Pat Riley for an event hosted by American Express, hosted Cari Champion.

Riley, who is president of the Miami Heat, made it clear who he thinks the Lakers will draft this month.

Perhaps Riley has specific insight or was speculating, but Johnson's joyful reaction wasn't exactly a contradiction.

The truth will come out 10 minutes into the draft when the Lakers make their selection. 

                  

Lakers at No. 28 Wide Open

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 18:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats address the media after the Second Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament against the Wisconsin Badgers at The KeyBank Center on March 18, 2017 in Buffalo, New York.  The Badgers won 65-62.
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The pool of players the Lakers will choose from at No. 2 is relatively limited. The number of options with the No. 28 pick, which they acquired from the Houston Rockets in trade for Lou Williams, is voluminous.

The Lakers will look at over 60 players' auditions before June 22, most in their El Segundo facility.

"You have a small sample size to show them in an hour," Villanova guard Hart said on Monday, who shot well in a Lakers' post-scrimmage drill in front of Johnson and his staff. "It's kind of surreal at first, but then once that ball rolls out, you're really just locked in."

The media won't be invited to every workout, but the following is a list of players the team has brought in over the past few weeks:

Josh Hart (Villanova)
Thomas Bryant (Indiana)

Jordan Bell (Oregon)
Nigel Williams-Goss (Gonzaga)
Kadeem Allen (Arizona)
Jawun Evans (Oklahoma State)
Kennedy Meeks (North Carolina)
L.J. Peak (Georgetown)

Bryce Alford (UCLA)
Sterling Brown (SMU)
Tyler Dorsey (Oregon)
Cameron Oliver (Nevada)
Ivan Rabb (California)

Kyle Kuzma (Utah)
Melo Trimble (Maryland)
V.J. Beachem (Notre Dame)
Andrew White (Syracuse)
Jamel Artis (Pittsburgh)
Sidy Djitte (Clemson)
J.J. Frazier (Georgia)
Josh Hawkinson (Washington State)
Dwayne Bacon (Florida State)
Amida Brimah (Connecticut)
Derrick Walton Jr. (Michigan)
Jason Blossomgame (Clemson)
Xavier Rathan-Mayes (Florida State)
T.J. Cline (Richmond)
Monte Morris (Iowa State)
Roger Moute a Bidias (Cal)
Tyler Roberson (Syracuse)

Only 60 players are drafted, but the Lakers are getting a good look at possible summer league, training camp and NBA Gatorade League candidates.

                      

In the Gym

The season may be over, but the Lakers' practice facility has been busy. In addition to the draft workouts, the team's young players have been hitting the court regularly to work with the Lakers' coaching staff.

Recent sightings include Ivica Zubac, Larry Nance Jr. Tyler Ennis, Corey Brewer, Ingram, Russell and Randle.

On Monday, Ingram was working with Gunnar Peterson, the team's new director of strength and endurance.

Heading into the summer, both Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka stressed that they want their players coming into next season in elite shape and with offseason improvements added.

The early returns suggest their players took the message seriously. 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.comc.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.