LOS ANGELES — On All-Star forward Paul George's right forearm resides a tattoo of the sign for California State Route 14, the highway that connects Palmdale with the greater Los Angeles area.
When asked, George will tell people outside of Southern California he's from Los Angeles. Not many are familiar with the 60-plus-mile drive north of Staples Center to Palmdale where George grew up, watching both the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers from a distance.
On Wednesday, he'll visit the Lakers as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder after a painful exit from the Indiana Pacers, who drafted George in 2010 with the 10th overall pick. After making it clear he wouldn't stay with Indiana following the 2017-18 season, George was dealt to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis last July. It was a bold move by Oklahoma City because George can opt out of the $20.7 million final year of his contract before July, and the Lakers project to have sizable spending power this summer.
Erik Horne @ErikHorneOK
Pretty candid stuff from Paul George about L.A. with Lakers and Clippers coming up. Says he has no regrets about Lakers popping up as trade destination when he was with Pacers: https://t.co/1j2bqmRc8m2018-1-2 18:40:53
On Tuesday, George told reporters he had no guilt over the rumors tying him to the Lakers while with the Pacers:
"No, I have no regrets at all. All that was said was a destination I would love to go to. It wasn't, 'Hey, gun pointed at head, send me here.' I just stated somewhere I wanted to go play.
You ask 80 [or] 70 percent of the guys in the league if they would love to go back home and play for the city, play for their home. That's all I stated. I just would have loved to go back home and play for my city. So, no regrets at all. I think this trade that went down was a win-win for both sides and I'm happy we both can move on."
The interest is (or at least was) mutual. In August, the NBA censured and fined the Lakers $500,000 for tampering after an investigation revealed general manager Rob Pelinka contacted Aaron Mintz, George's agent with Creative Artists Agency.
So will George's stay with the Thunder be brief, or has he found a new home in Oklahoma City? That's less of a question for the Lakers than for Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
If George is set to opt out and earn a new contract starting at an estimated $30.3 million (based on a $101 million salary cap for the 2018-19 season), is Presti willing to risk losing George for nothing as a free agent? Or is he willing to cut bait before the Feb. 8 trade deadline to make sure he doesn't lose another All-Star forward to a California team without anything in return?
Los Angeles executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Pelinka can afford to wait. The team can get to roughly $47.5 million in space this summer by letting all its free agents (Julius Randle, Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Corey Brewer and Andrew Bogut) and non-guaranteed players (Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant) leave after the season.
That's enough to sign George and pay a second player $18 million. The Lakers can open up more spending power by dealing Jordan Clarkson or by finding a clever way out of Luol Deng's contract—enough to chase the likes of LeBron James or DeMarcus Cousins.
After a slow start to the season, the Thunder (20-17) have climbed to fifth in the Western Conference, although they've lost two straight.
L.A. can help its cause by playing spoiler, as it faces Oklahoma City three times before the trade deadline. A serious Thunder swoon might inspire Presti to consider another big move. But as of early January, there's no significant reason to expect George to be moved. It would probably take a devastating injury this month for the Thunder to change course. Nonetheless, the Lakers need to be prepared for every contingency.
It's extremely unlikely Los Angeles would part with any significant assets to acquire him via trade because it may have the power to sign George simply by being patient. That would mean Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are likely safe, but Johnson and Pelinka may be willing to part with players they don't see as long-term Lakers.
They made a similar move this past summer, sending out guard D'Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets to dump Timofey Mozgov's expensive contract. Will Randle or Clarkson face a similar fate? If the team must let Caldwell-Pope walk to make room for two stars, does it shop him at the deadline?
Or does Caldwell-Pope's connection to James—sharing agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports—make the shooting guard untouchable?
The Lakers haven't exactly been kissing up to Mintz, trading his client Russell and relegating Randle to the bench for most of the season in a contract year. Perhaps James is their goal above George. Maybe they're just that confident in the latter that they aren't concerned about appeasing his agent.
Meanwhile, Presti may value Randle's restricted rights in July. Clarkson is on a reasonable contract, earning $12.5 million and $13.4 million over the next two years. Caldwell-Pope would be eligible for a 20 percent raise over his $17.7 million salary, but few teams will have the cap space to pay more than the mid-level exception of $8.6 million.
Would two of the three be enough to entice the Thunder to deal George, assuming Oklahoma City has a miserable month? If so, will other teams even make offers to rent George's services for a playoff run if conventional wisdom becomes, once again, that he's Lakers-bound?
For the Thunder, he's already served his primary purpose. George helped inspire league MVP Russell Westbrook to extend his contract until at least the 2021-22 season. That signature was a grand slam for Presti—if George works out on the court, too, that's a bonus.
The verdict is still out.
If the two teams do hit the negotiation table, Presti has the reputation of being a "grinder" in deals, according to an Eastern Conference executive.
The Lakers may have other pieces to offer, such as high-quality role player Larry Nance Jr. or center Zubac, who has great potential but hasn't gotten much of a chance from coach Luke Walton this year.
The Lakers traded their 2018 first-round pick in 2012 for Steve Nash (going to either the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers thanks to a series of moves). Johnson and Pelinka may be reluctant to part with another first, especially when George may be available in free agency. The next future No. 1 pick the Lakers can deal is for the 2020 draft.
They won't give up much, but the Lakers have to be at least somewhat concerned they may strike out in free agency, whiffing on the likes of George, James and Cousins. Then again, that may be the risk they're willing to take in lieu of parting with valuable assets. The vast maybes in July could be enough for the Lakers to play it conservatively in early February.
The best path to George may be patience, but if there's a reasonable shortcut to land that bird in the hand that might help lure the second star in summer, that's a move the Lakers need to make.