George, who is widely expected to turn down his $20.7 million player option for 2018-19 to become an unrestricted free agent, will be one of the most highly sought-after players on the market this summer. Assuming Chris Paul re-signs with the Houston Rockets, George may be the biggest available difference-maker not named LeBron James.
Following the Thunder’s season-ending loss, George hit all of the right notes in reference to his time in OKC.
“They honestly check the boxes where I needed those boxes to be checked from what a player wants and needs out of a front office, out of a medical group, out of teammates, out of coaching staff,” he told reporters about the Thunder. “I mean, honestly, they can’t say it anymore (than) that. They checked the boxes on what needs to be checked.”
He stopped short of confirming he’d be staying with the Thunder, though. Instead, he said “that’s what the summer is for.”
Once July 1 rolls around, George won’t have many enticing options from which to choose. Few teams have enough cap space to offer him a maximum contract, and even fewer can promise him a shot at immediate playoff contention.
However, the Thunder do have a handful of legitimate threats for his services. Which of those make the most sense for George? Let’s break it down.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
When it comes to the Thunder’s own chances of retaining George, they could go a few different routes.
They could offer George a five-year, $175.7 million max deal, far outpacing the most that rival teams can offer him (four years, $130.3 million). If the specter of his freak Team USA leg injury from a few years ago still lingers in the back of his mind, he may prefer to lock in a long-term security net now and worry about the consequences later. Then again, there’s only a $5.4 million difference between what OKC can give him over the first four years of his new deal and what another team can, so he could potentially make up the difference later on down the road.
The Thunder could also give him the flexibility to sign a two- or three-year deal with a player option in the final season. If he goes the 1+1 route, he’d be giving OKC one more chance to roll back this core—with a healthy Andre Roberson this time around—before surveying his free-agent options again next summer. If he took a three-year deal with a third-year player option, he could decline said option in 2020 and be eligible for a 10-year max at that point, which would allow him to sign a deal with a starting salary worth 35 percent of the salary cap.
George gave no indication as to which way he was leaning Saturday, but he did say he’ll be staying in touch with the Thunder’s leadership to gauge the direction of the franchise ahead of his free agency.
“I think the biggest thing is just trying to keep a relationship with [GM] Sam [Presti], continue to talk with Sam. Continue to talk with [Coach] Billy [Donovan], with Russ, and figure out the direction we want to go as a group, more so than anything. I think that’s option one, or that’s the first thing I want to do before free agency or any of that, before we get to that point.
“I want to be, you know, I want to know or be on the same page with those guys. That’s first and foremost. Because we do have something special, and we have something that we can accomplish here, so that’s first and foremost.”
Between the “we can give you more money than anyone else” pitch and the allure of Roberson’s return—would Donovan Mitchell have gone nuclear in that first-round series with an All-Defensive wing like Roberson hounding him?—the Thunder do present a convincing case for George to stay.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
The links between George and the Los Angeles Lakers date back to the 2017 trade deadline, when USA Today‘s Sam Amick reported George was “hell-bent” on joining the Lakers as a free agent “barring a title chance.”
The interest appears to be mutual.
In April 2017, team president Magic Johnson appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and alluded to the Lakers’ desire to sign George. Four months later, the Lakers received a $500,000 fine for “violating the NBA’s anti-tampering rule after general manager Rob Pelinka was found to have had contact” with George’s agent “after the team had already been warned,” according to ESPN.com.
No team will head into the offseason armed with more cap space than the Lakers, who only have $34.5 million in guaranteed salaries on their books for 2018-19. If they rescinded the rights to all of their own free agents—including promising young forward Julius Randle—they could carve out enough cap room to sign two free agents to max contracts by stretching Luol Deng’s contract.
The Lakers’ plan A in free agency is going after both George and James, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski (via Christian Rivas of Silver Screen and Roll). If they found a taker willing to absorb Deng’s contract for future draft considerations and/or young players without sending salary back, they could have enough cap space to sign both George and James while retaining Randle as well, per Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus.
If James turns down the Lakers, is a core of George, Randle, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma enough to challenge the top-tier contenders in the Western Conference? George will have to ask himself that as he ponders a potential homecoming.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
If immediate title contention is a priority for George, the Philadelphia 76ers present a convincing case.
The Sixers, who won 52 games this season, have two budding superstars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They’ll be favored to beat the injury-ravaged Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conerence semifinals, and they might even sneak into the NBA Finals. If Markelle Fultz regains the shooting stroke that made him the No. 1 overall pick this past June, this young Sixers squad will have unlimited upside.
It also wouldn’t be hard for them to create enough cap space to sign George to a max deal. Provided the lottery holds true to form and they end up with the No. 10 overall pick (via the Lakers), they’ll enter the offseason with roughly $75.4 million on their books for 2018-19. If they renounced the rights to all of their free agents and used the stretch provision on the lone year remaining on Jerryd Bayless’ contract, they’d have north of $31 million in cap space to squeeze George into.
With Simmons, Embiid, Fultz, Dario Saric and Robert Covington all under contract through 2019-20, the Sixers have a long-term core in place to appeal to any free agent. If J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli or Ersan Ilyasova were willing to take a major discount to stay in Philadelphia, that’d make the team’s free-agent pitch even more appealing to a max-caliber star like George.
On paper, it’s hard to argue with how George would fit in Philly, as he could slide into the Sixers’ supersized starting five and give them an even more stifling defense. But if George is intent on being The Guy wherever he lands, Philly wouldn’t give him that opportunity, as he’d share co-billing with Embiid and Simmons.
Considering how George has given no public indication as to whether he’s considering the Sixers as a landing spot, it begs the question of how realistic this proposed marriage is.
1. Houston Rockets
If Daryl Morey pulls off his greatest act of salary-cap witchcraft yet, the Houston Rockets would make plenty of sense as a George destination. Provided Houston retained Chris Paul and Clint Capela alongside soon-to-be MVP James Harden, the Rockets would have a Big Four that rivals Golden State’s if George joined the fold.
Making that math work is complicated, though.
Harden alone will earn north of $30.4 million in 2018-19, which leaves roughly $70.6 million of cap space to fit Paul, Capela, George and the rest of the roster into. If George insisted on receiving his full max salary, that would gobble up another $30.3 million, giving Houston only $40.3 million for Paul, Capela and everyone else. Considering the trio of Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker is set to earn $41.8 million in 2018-19 on its own, Morey would need a minor miracle to make a George signing possible.
Much like the Rockets did with Paul last summer, their best bet would instead be to have George opt in to his 2018-19 player option and force a trade to Houston. As ESPN.com’s Bobby Marks noted, however, George must make the decision to opt in by June 29, a few days prior to when he’s allowed to begin going on free-agent visits. Since the Lakers already have enough cap space to sign him out right and the Sixers could get there easily, Marks deemed the opt-in-and-trade route “unlikely.”
If George does opt in, that should immediately raise red flags about the likelihood of him ending up in Houston. Otherwise, Morey would need to find teams willing to absorb Anderson and Gordon without sending any salary back, and he’d need to hope some combination of George, Capela and Paul were amenable to major discounts this summer.
Will that be enough? We’ll find out in early July.