Paul George free agency landing spots: Where 76ers, Clippers and Magic stack up, plus potential mystery teams

Paul George is a bit of a throwback. It’s been half-a-decade since the NBA has seen a true superstar free agent. Kyrie Irving was nominally available last offseason, but quickly re-signed, and James Harden opted in rather than exploring the market last summer. The 2022 offseason had a superstar hiding in plain sight, but none of knew what Jalen Brunson would become yet. The 2020 and 2021 offseasons were largely ruined by extensions that came before free agency. The best free agents to consider moving were players like Gordon Hayward and DeMar DeRozan, and neither got the max. You have to go back to 2019, when Irving, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, and George’s (former?) teammate Kawhi Leonard moved to find a free agent of this caliber that was genuinely available.

And he’s treating it like a proper sweepstakes. Leonard was the last star free agent to actually hold meetings with prospective suitors, which was very much the style of the 2010s before free agency was largely replaced by forced trades. There’s a degree of spectacle here that’s largely been absent in recent star pursuits. This isn’t a negotiation. It’s a chase. At least three teams will openly try to convince George that they are where he belongs. It’s possible that mystery teams attempt to join the fray in the coming days. We can’t exactly make predictions because we don’t know how well any of these presentations are going to go.

So let’s attempt to preview George’s free agency by laying out what each team has to offer. Why should George choose, or not choose, the Clippers, 76ers or Magic? And if there is going to be a mystery team here, who might it be? Here’s everything you need to know about the George sweepstakes.

Los Angeles Clippers

Nobody likes moving. Granted, it’s a bit easier when you have a nine-figure contract coming, but all things being equal, I think most of us would like to live in Los Angeles, especially those who already live in Los Angeles, and extra especially to those who grew up in Los Angeles. George went to great lengths to become a Clipper. He is, to date, the only player ever to lead the franchise to the Western Conference finals. That’s not something to throw away lightly.

There is a world in which George stays, the Clippers win the championship and he’s treated as a franchise icon for eternity. That 26-5 stretch in December and January may have been brief, but it was real. The Clippers ranked first in offense by a mile during that run and trailed only Boston and Cleveland in terms of net rating. That’s proof of concept, or at least, enough of it to convince one of the key parts of it to believe that this team can genuinely contend moving forward assuming James Harden returns.

The question here is the money. A four-year max offer from another team would come in at roughly $212 million. The Clippers gave Kawhi Leonard a three-year, $153 million contract in January. That seems to be a baseline in George negotiations. How significant is that $59 million gap? Well, it’s hard to say. Remember, the Clippers contract is one year shorter. Barring a total collapse, George will still be drawing a salary in his age-37 season. The salary cap is going to rise significantly in that time. If it hits the 10% limit each year, it will come in at roughly $188 million the next time George becomes a free agency. He’s probably not making $59 million as a 37-year-old. If he follows the traditional aging curve, something like $20-25 million — not far above mid-level money by that point — feels feasible.

Of course, George would be entirely justified in preferring the guarantee. He’s had several injuries in his career. Why risk $59 million on your 37-year-old self? Frankly, George has already risked enough. Part of the extension calculus for Leonard was risk assessment. He took less than he would earn on the open market because he got the security of signing early. George didn’t. He earned the right to demand a max that multiple teams appear willing to give him. If the Clippers don’t, well, it’s not hard to see why he might feel a bit disrespected by that. 

Philadelphia 76ers

If you’re going to hitch your wagon to the injury-prone superstar, it might as well be the younger one. Joel Embiid is 30. Kawhi Leonard is 33. James Harden is 34. Tyrese Maxey is 23. Embiid is the best player in that group today. It is possible that Maxey is the best player in that group when George’s next contract ends. Reaching the NBA Finals out of the Eastern Conference is fundamentally easier than doing it out of the West. George reached more conference finals with Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson as his best teammates than he did with Leonard.

The Maxey-George-Embiid fit is as traditionally fitting as any star trio in basketball. It’s a guard, a forward and a center. All three of them shoot. All three handle the ball. Two of them defend. They’d be spectacular together. The 76ers would have leftover cap space to sign or trade for another starter. They’d have the cap room mid-level exception at their disposal as well. They even have a number of role players from last year’s roster like Kyle Lowry and Nic Batum that are seemingly beyond chasing every last dollar and may come back for the minimum. Daryl Morey is among the NBA’s most creative executives. The roster will have the flaws that come with such a top-heavy salary structure, but it will be as competent as is reasonably possible. George would have a legitimate chance to win the championship in Philadelphia.

He’d also get paid. Philadelphia comfortably has the $49.4 million or so it would take in cap space to offer George his four-year max. The Clippers can do so, but have thus far chosen not to make the offer. The Magic just barely crossed the goal line by declining their option on Joe Ingles. If getting a max salary is the priority, Philadelphia checks that box. Of course, given the exorbitant cost of eventually extending Maxey and putting a supporting cast around him, George and Embiid, Philadelphia may start running into second apron issues by the end of this contract.

The primary question here is lifestyle. Forget about just moving from one coast to the other. Philadelphia fans are among the craziest in all of sports. The Clippers largely skate by unnoticed in Los Angeles because of how much more popular the Lakers are. That’s not happening to the 76ers. Does George want to deal with all of the pressure that would come with playing in Philly? It’s hard to say. Not all players are built for it.

Orlando Magic

If making money is George’s primary goal, Orlando is the pick. Like Philadelphia, the Magic can offer George a four-year max deal. The difference is that Florida does not have a state income tax. George would be able to keep a higher percentage of his earnings by playing for the Magic than he would the 76ers (or Clippers, who play in high-tax California). Ironically, Daryl Morey used the lack of a state income tax as a selling point to free agents for years when he ran the Houston Rockets. Now it’s working against him as he leads the Pennsylvania-based 76ers.

The Magic also have the longest runway of any of these teams. They currently have nine players under contract. Jonathan Isaac is the oldest at 27. Everyone else is between 21 and 25. Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs are still a year away from rookie extensions. Paolo Banchero is two years away. George would be arriving in Orlando as a primary option. He could slowly ease into a supporting role as the kids mature into their primes. The Magic may not even need to worry second apron problems during this George contract, or at least not until the very end. The Magic would give George a sustainable winner.

But this group has also never won a playoff series. Is George really prepared to bet his last chance at winning a title on such a young team? Perhaps just as importantly, is he willing to bet it on such an unconventional one? Orlando runs is offense through two forwards in Banchero and Wagner. They had a suffocating defense last season because of all of that size, and George would only add to that. Suggs had a real case for Defensive Player of the Year. Wendell Carter’s shooting at center is rare. But when points become hard to come by late in the playoffs, sometimes it helps to just have a normal point guard on the roster. How many times did George learn that lesson with the Clippers? The Magic, for lack of a more elegant phrase, would be really freaking weird. Weird isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just weird. Some 34-year-olds are more interested in weird than others. We’ll see if George is open to playing for such an unusual sort of team.

The Mystery Teams?

For now, George appears to only be meeting with max cap space that have a chance to genuinely compete. The Pistons have max cap space. The Jazz aren’t far off. They just aren’t contenders. They might try to convince George otherwise. For now, though, they’re probably out of the equation.

You know who does have a contender? Oklahoma City? You know where George played from 2017 through 2019? Oklahoma City. You know where George loved living? Oklahoma City. You know who has a path to max cap space? You guessed it, Oklahoma City. If the Thunder are willing to trade Lu Dort into someone else’s cap space, they would have a path to something approaching max space. George is obviously a substantial upgrade on Dort. If he rejoined the Thunder, Oklahoma City would become, at the very least, the prohibitive Western Conference favorite, if not the straight up championship favorite.

A pursuit of George would be fairly out of character for the Thunder. Their roster-build has emphasized sustainability. Paying George the max for the next two years wouldn’t hurt. Doing so for the last two years of the deal, when Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren start their rookie extensions, would be much harder. Would the Thunder set themselves up to be a second apron team so early in what could be a decade-long run? It’s hard to tell. Here’s what we can say comfortably: the Thunder move in silence. You will not see Sam Presti in a hotel lobby before a pitch meeting. He’s not going to put any of his players on alert that they might be traded to clear cap space. If the Thunder are interested, we’ll hear about it when it’s done and not a second before, much like we did when Presti traded George to the Clippers in the first place.

Are there sign-and-trade possibilities? Potentially, but don’t hold your breath. If the Rockets were interested enough in George to seriously pursue him, they likely would have tried for the opt-in-and-trade route. It seems as though Houston is waiting on the Phoenix stars, or at least a younger one, before making its big move.

A Lakers swap makes plenty of sense, especially if LeBron James is willing to take a big enough pay cut. The Lakers can throw multiple first-round picks at the Clippers. They have matching salary to work with now that D’Angelo Russell has opted in. They need another two-way wing, though George isn’t quite the point-of-attack defender he once was. The holdup here is probably ego, if it isn’t basketball-related. The Clippers aren’t going to want to help out the Lakers, especially not right as they are about to move into a new arena. Besides, the Lakers mostly haven’t been linked to stars this offseason. They seem to prefer the idea of filling out the supporting cast with depth.

For now, it seems like a three-horse race. But free agency is unpredictable. Someone else could jump into the fray at any time. By opting out, George gave the market a chance to reset itself. Any team with remote interest is at least talking over feasibility right now. If there’s a way for another genuine contender to work itself into the mix, there’s a good chance we find out about it.

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