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New Lakers Regime Now Faces Difficult but Doable Path to Paul George

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterFebruary 24, 2017

Though Paul George remains a Pacer after Thursday's trade deadline, the Lakers are positioned to land him in the near future if they play their cards right.
Though Paul George remains a Pacer after Thursday's trade deadline, the Lakers are positioned to land him in the near future if they play their cards right.Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — There wasn't enough time left in the season—or talent left on the roster—for the Boston Celtics to confidently deal for Paul George at Thursday's NBA trade deadline.

The Indiana Pacers, meanwhile, failed to acquire anything whatsoever, when George so plainly and desperately needed support to contend for a title.

George remains stuck with the status quo, but this week's negotiations revealed something for him: There's a pathway to his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. Next summer, George could have a new long-term home.

Ironically, the only way the Lakers will get George is not to focus on George.

That was the ditch into which the previous regime of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak kept driving the franchise—the quick-fix brainstorming about how the Lakers will be great again. If the Lakers, under new president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, general manager Rob Pelinka and others, stick to their mandate of focusing on player development, George will have something worth coming home to in 2018.

It's true George, who grew up near Los Angeles, worships Kobe Bryant and reveres Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw. But more importantly, George wants to win.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 13:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers dribbles the ball against the San Antonio Spurs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on February 13, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana.    NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

So, how do the Lakers, 19-39 presently, put themselves in position to be a winner in a year's time? They build a team George recognizes as having special strengths.

That means Brandon Ingram going from skinny kid to someone whose wingspan and quickness George envisions as a perfect complement to his own defensive reach, in an era when defending the three-point line has never been more critical. With Ingram, and George on the wings, even the Golden State Warriors would struggle to find open looks.

That means the Lakers' other youngest prospect, 19-year-old Ivica Zubac, likewise develops on defense to give the youthful core a unique rim-protecting 7-footer to go with Larry Nance Jr.'s Draymond Green-ish knack for making the right plays at that end.

That means D'Angelo Russell proving his unspectacular sophomore season was due to his knee problem, not his heart. Head coach Luke Walton tried to position Russell as the team's leader this season, but Russell seemed to have more ice under his feet than in his veins.

That means the Lakers taking advantage of the unfortunate, ongoing, tank-friendly draft system in the NBA and losing enough this season to create the likelihood they keep their 2017 first-round pick. If the selection moves out of the top three, it conveys to the Philadelphia 76ers (Steve Nash trade ramifications). If they keep that 2017 pick, the Lakers also keep their 2019 first-round pick, currently earmarked for the Orlando Magic (Dwight Howard trade ramifications). In that scenario, the first-round pick shifts into two second-round selections.

The Lakers did not land George this week, but they did take a step in the right direction, obtaining Houston's 2017 first-round pick in the Tuesday trade for Lou Williams, meeting their goal of not taking back any salary beyond next season.

Trading some of the youth and assets this summer for George would be a quicker option, especially if Pacers president Larry Bird has to put his superstar wing on the market with the knowledge George isn't signing long-term in Indiana. The Lakers would have to decide whether George might be lost long term if he's sent somewhere else, specifically a readymade contender in Boston.

Max Becherer/Associated Press/Associated Press

Johnson and the Buss family don't want another loss to the Celtics on the ledger. Ten years ago, Jerry Buss thought he had a deal done with Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor to bring Kevin Garnett to the Lakers for Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom…until Timberwolves vice president Kevin McHale helped former Celtics teammate Danny Ainge bring Garnett to Boston, where he would beat Bryant and the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals.

Bird might've already erred by not hiring his former Celtics teammate, Shaw, to replace Frank Vogel as head coach last summer. Shaw's close relationship with George could be an advantage for L.A. in free agency (Shaw also owes the Lakers one after recommending signing Timofey Mozgov, whom Shaw coached in Denver).

The Lakers must also wait and see if George makes one of the three All-NBA teams this year. If George makes All-NBA, he could get paid far more with Indiana in an offseason extension—almost $90 million more over two additional years—under the new collective bargaining agreement.

But George becoming one of six All-NBA forwards via media vote is far from guaranteed, considering Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Green, Gordon Hayward, James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul Millsap could all feasibly rank higher this season.

On Thursday, George hardly sounded thrilled with the Pacers for not looping him in on their trade-deadline plans:

Clark Wade @ClarkWade34

Interesting quote from #Pacers Paul George on today's trade deadline. https://t.co/bMA5rHlWUB

The bottom line? Bird wasn't going to lose George as an undervalued asset right now. By doing nothing, Bird leaves open the possibility that George breaks through as one of the game's true elites next season—after a rare full offseason of rest and training—and raises his stock for keeping or trading.

Last season was George's first full campaign after his horrific leg injury. He transitioned immediately into a USA Basketball summer and Olympic gold-medal run. It's safe to say George, 28 next summer, could peak both mentally and physically in 2018.

The risk? The Lakers could get the best Paul George we've ever seen.

          

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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