Breaking Down the Los Angeles Lakers' Potential Path to Paul George

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterApril 26, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 23: Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers reacts against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 23, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Cavaliers defeated the Pacers 106-102 to sweep the series 4-0. 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 — On Sunday, the Indiana Pacers were eliminated from the postseason in four games by the Cleveland Cavaliers, 106-102.

After losing three straight years to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat from 2012 to 2014, twice in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers haven't been able to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.

What will their recent exit mean for All-Star forward Paul George, who can opt out of his contract before July 2018 to become an unrestricted free agent?

Is the fate of the Palmdale, California, native tied to that of the struggling Los Angeles Lakers?

Going by the words and gestures of Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the Lakers president of basketball operations sure hopes so.

Johnson can't speak directly about another team's player, but his not-so-subtle comments on Jimmy Kimmel Live! were certainly in the gray area of tampering. The intent is pretty clear: He the Lakers are very interested in acquiring the talents of one Paul George.

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The challenge is that he is under contract with the Pacers. George's current salary is $18.3 million, climbing to $19.5 million in July, followed by a player option of $20.7 million for the 2018-19 season.

George and the Pacers have some business to attend to before a decision is made. Equally, the Lakers have several outstanding variables that will help determine their suitability for landing the nearly 27-year old forward.

Should George be named to an All-NBA first, second or third team, he will qualify for the league's new designated veteran player extension with the Pacers that would enable him to recommit to Indiana at roughly $207 million over five years.

If not, George would still be eligible for a new five-year deal with the Pacers worth about $177 million. The most another team could offer in July of next year would be four years at approximately $130 million.

That $47 million gain might seem insurmountable, but George would be able to make up a significant portion with a new contract in 2022.

The gap between $207 million and $130 million is harder to overcome, which is why it would seem a lock that if George is named to an All-NBA squad that he'll take the money to stay in Indiana.

If George does not qualify for the bigger extension, the Pacers need to consider a trade, lest they lose him for nothing in free agency. That's where the Lakers could enter the picture, along with many suitors.

The key date for Los Angeles is May 16, when the NBA holds its draft lottery. After winning just 26 games, the Lakers finished with the third-worst record in the league, giving the franchise a 46.9 percent chance at landing a top-three pick.

If the Lakers drop to fourth or below, they'll forfeit their selection to the Philadelphia 76ers to close out the Steve Nash trade. They'll also lose their 2019 first to the Orlando Magic.

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Should the Lakers keep their pick in May, their obligation will delay a year, as the pick owed to the Sixers is fully unprotected in 2018. They'll also send their 2017 and 2018 second-rounders to the Magic but keep their 2019 first.

With players like Washington's Markelle Fultz, UCLA's Lonzo Ball and Kansas' Josh Jackson projected by B/R's Jonathan Wasserman to be the top-three picks in June, L.A. might have an appealing piece to offer Indiana for George—provided it survives the lottery.

Of course, the Boston Celtics could have a similar or even better asset to offer with the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick they'll receive from the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett trade. Via the Nets, the Celtics have a 64.3 percent chance at a top-three pick and a 25 percent shot at No. 1.

Even if everything works out for the Lakers, whatever they might be willing to offer up in trade for George may well be trumped by another franchise.

To trade for George before July, Los Angeles would need to send out $13.3 million in salary.

Assuming the Pacers are not interested in the likes of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, who are owed a combined $102 million for the next three seasons, the Lakers would be able to to reach the required threshold for George with the salaries of D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Tarik Black, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac and Corey Brewer, in various combinations.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 11: Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates after a slam dunk against New Orleans Pelicans during the second half of the basketball game at Staples Center April 11, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: Us
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A package of Clarkson and Nance would be a very different price than Ingram, Russell and the first-round pick.

There must be a line that the Lakers are wiling to cross to acquire George before next season but also a limit where the expense in outgoing talent is too rich.

Los Angeles need the ability to build a quality team around George—give up too much and it ends up in the same position as the Pacers, good but not great.

Another option is waiting a year to pursue George in free agency, but there's a risk factor in that he could choose another destination. Then again, that risk exists even if the team completes a deal this summer, as trading for him could prove to be a one-year rental.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 20:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers handles the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers on January 20, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Negotiating these choppy waters may be Johnson's biggest test as a newly minted NBA executive.

If traded, George would not qualify for the designated veteran player extension in Los Angeles but the team would be able to offer the same five-year, $177 million pact.

In July, the Lakers will fall under the NBA's projected salary cap of $101 million, but they won't know how much spending power they'll have until the lottery.

A top-three pick will eat up between $4.8 to $6.2 million in space. Nick Young has a player option at $5.7 million while the team has an option on David Nwaba's $1.3 million. Tarik Black's $6.7 million salary is non-guaranteed.

If the Lakers lose their first-rounder, Young leaves and they cut Nwaba and Black, the team will near $28.3 million in cap space, not quite enough to pay out the maximum ($30.3 million) for potential free agents like Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin.

That cap room could be used to make an unbalanced offer to Indiana, without the need to match salaries—like George for Ingram and Randle, who will earn a combined $9.7 million. Or, the Lakers could use their cap room to sign a quality free agent in July, assuming they are able to lure a big name, and then make a blockbuster deal with Indiana.

If George is the answer for Los Angeles, then the Lakers are going to have to be the answer for Indiana, and that's going to rely on Johnson's convincing of his lifelong rival, Pacers president Larry Bird, to deal.

The Lakers need a significant talent upgrade. Acquiring or developing an All-Star is extremely difficult.

Patience may be a virtue, but then can the Lakers afford to wait another year?

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Lakers Insider Notebook

Pelinka Talks to the Fans

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

With almost two months on the job, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka saw his team go on a late five-game winning streak before closing out the 2017-18 regular season with nine more victories than the franchise worst of 17 in 2016-17.

After an exit meeting with each player, he's spent the early part of the offseason preparing contingencies for the summer.

"The biggest topic that Magic, Luke [Walton] and I focused on with the players is their mentality, and then dedicating themselves to an elite and world-class level of fitness," said Pelinka via ESPN LA 710.

On Monday, he took the time to connect to Laker fans directly, answering calls with hosts John Ireland and Steve Mason.

Given the uncertainty of the Lakers' draft pick, Pelinka noted the team has thought through several contingencies.

"There's probably a plan A, B all the way to Z," he said.

If the Lakers do land a top-three pick, will the team take the best player available or the one who is a better fit?

"You can't just in isolation say, 'Who is the most talented player?'" Pelinka said. "For every player we evaluate, you have to think about that player's talent [is] and how that player fits with Coach Walton, with the rest of the roster, but also [with] what the Lakers stand for."

"It takes a unique leader, a unique young person to thrive in this city," he continued. "We're going to put a lot of weight into the character of the player. How do they face adversity and overcome it in life?"

Regarding fit, Pelinka stressed that versatility has become important in today's NBA, notably so for Walton's style of coaching.

With that in mind, Pelinka wasn't willing to pigeonhole Russell or Clarkson as point guards or shooting guards.

"Both showed that ... they're great ball-handling guards," he said. "The hybrid style of basketball is definitely more the way the game is going."

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Pelinka also said that a "dominant 5 is something that we have as a priority," but one that fits into today's game, noting that player "may be different than the dominant ones we've had in the past like Wilt [Chamberlain], Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] or [Shaquille O'Neal]."

In addition to praising current center Mozgov, Pelinka called Zubac "one of the pillars for the future."

Pelinka stressed striving for excellence, a theme he has hit on consistently since joining the franchise.

One caller questioned Pelinka's qualifications as general manager after he spent most of his career as Kobe Bryant's agent.

Pelinka answered that he isn't one to sing his own praises but suggested the caller check out Wikipedia.


Blue D-League MVP

EL SEGUNDO, CA - MARCH 22:  Vander Blue #0 of the Los Angeles D-Fenders looks on during the National Anthem before the game against the Texas Legends on March 22, 2017 at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

On Monday, the NBA Development League announced Los Angeles D-Fenders guard Vander Blue as the league's most valuable player.

The D-Fenders finished the season with the best record in the Western Conference at 34-16 but fell in the first round to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, 2-1.

"I'm hurt we're still not playing, competing for a championship," Blue said to Bleacher Report. "With this award that I received today, it made everything all worth it—all the hard work by my teammates."

Blue averaged 24.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists a game, improving his career scoring average to 22.5—the second-best in league history.

"I can score, but at the same time, I want to be the energy, the spark that the team needs," Blue said. "I want to get the last stop. I want to guard the best guy at the end ... I just want to be the hardest-playing player out there."

Blue went undrafted in 2013 out of Marquette. He made three appearances with the Boston Celtics in 2013-14 and then joined the Lakers for a couple of games at the end of the 2014-15 season.

To Vander, getting back to the NBA means everything.

"That's all I think about, every day," Blue said. "All I think about is me in an NBA uniform." 

"I came out of school early... graduated high school at 17," he continued. "I'm just about to turn 25 this summer, but I've been a pro for four years now. I was still learning the game, learning how to act on and off the court."

Last year, Blue helped the D-Fenders advance to the D-League Finals, falling in three games to the Sioux Falls Skyforce. He's been an All-Star in each of his three seasons in Los Angeles.

Still, he didn't get an NBA call-up. Instead, defensive-minded guard David Nwaba was signed by the Lakers through the 2017-18 season (provided the team takes his option in late June).

"David is my roommate, and I'm more than happy for him. He's my brother. He worked hard with the D-Fenders. A great player; he deserves everything he got," Blue said. "I know my chance is coming and I'm just going to prepare for when that time comes."

His next step is finding an NBA team where he'll have a shot to make the roster.

Blue has faith in himself and his journey. He wouldn't have asked for a different path given how close he's grown to coach Coby Karl and his teammates.

"[The D-Fenders] helped me become the player that I am today," he said. "I've learned how to become a leader. I've learned how to take ownership. I've learned everything that I need to learn here, I've matured in a way that I think is going to help me deep down in my career."

The 22 coaches in the league were responsible for voting Blue as MVP. On Tuesday, he was named to the All-NBA Development League First Team. Now, he's looking for just one parent club to give him that NBA opportunity.


Calderon Huge for Hawks

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 24:  Jose Calderon #13 of the Atlanta Hawks celebrates after Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on April 24, 2017 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Last summer, the Lakers acquired Jose Calderon from the Chicago Bulls, along with a pair of second-round picks.

The veteran point guard made 24 appearances for the Lakers, averaging 3.3 points and 2.1 assists a game.

Before the March deadline, the Lakers let Calderon out of his contract to pursue a role on a playoff contender.

Calderon quickly agreed to a deal with the Golden State Warriors, but when All-Star Kevin Durant was injured, the Warriors needed to go in a different direction.

Honoring their commitment, the Warriors signed Calderon for $247,991 but then waived him immediately to sign former Lakers forward Matt Barnes.

The Atlanta Hawks promptly claimed Calderon off waivers, where on Monday, he helped his squad tie the Washington Wizards 2-2 in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

With starter Dennis Schroder saddled with three quick fouls, Calderon led the Hawks on a 31-15 run in the second quarter.

"Jose gives us an edge," said All-Star Paul Millsap to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He's got a little spice to him. When he brings that intensity from a veteran position, he knows how to play basketball the right way."

Calderon scored 10 points and had five assists but more importantly, the Hawks outscored the Wizards by 29 points in 20 minutes.

Down the stretch of the season, the Lakers experimented with Clarkson at point guard alongside Russell.

With the playoffs long out of grasp, Calderon was better served elsewhere on a team with postseason aspirations.


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