2018 NBA Free Agency: Why Paul George should turn down an offer from the Lakers and return to the Thunder

In an NBA offseason that for months has been predicted to be a weeks-long fireworks display, perhaps the most surprising firework of all would be this: If the majority of the biggest stars are playing for the exact same team come training camp as they are today.

It feels like this is becoming more of a possibility with each passing day.

As much as there's an assumption that Kawhi Leonard is heading to Los Angeles, the truth is that his current team, the Spurs, have plenty of leverage on him. The Lakers might feel pressure to get Leonard, but the Spurs are afforded the luxury of waiting until the trade deadline – especially since his public declaration of wanting to sign with the Lakers in free agency next offseason has torpedoed his trade value this summer. The current Vegas odds have three Eastern Conference teams – the Celtics, the 76ers and the Magic – with a better shot at landing Leonard than the Lakers. And of course there was the recent report that the Spurs "shut the door on" a Lakers trade inquiry (but then reopened it a bit later).

LeBron James? Good luck reading the tea leaves on him. Most everyone who tried to predict where King James would wind up during his last free agency, in 2014, were wrong, including Heat coach Pat Riley. If you started reading the tea leaves during the end of this regular season and the playoffs, all indications pointed toward James leaving Cleveland. James seemed frustrated at his teammates. The frustration boiled over at the end of Game 1 of the NBA Finals after J.R. Smith's bonehead move that symbolized the total team breakdown at the end of regulation that cost the Cavaliers the game and led to an embarrassing sweep – the NBA's first Finals sweep in more than a decade.

Yet are we so sure that james is walking out that door? The Cavaliers are fresh off a Finals appearance, after all, and easily could have won two of those four games against the Golden State Warriors. It could turn out that the Cavs end up being the best of a group of imperfect options, especially when you take into account James' family considerations and his legacy in Cleveland. The fit with Houston is difficult because of salary cap reasons; the fit with Philadelphia is difficult because of Ben Simmons reasons. And he's not going to be the first (and potentially the only) superstar to sign with the Lakers in free agency this summer.

Which brings us to Paul George.

For the past year, since reports came out that he told the Indiana Pacers his preferred destination is his hometown of Los Angeles, it's felt like a foregone conclusion that George will be a Laker for the 2018-19 season. But recent reports have indicated he might end up staying in Oklahoma City and running it back with Russell Westbrook for at least one more season. Las Vegas odds have reflected that shift; the Lakers are still the favorite to get George, according to BetDSI Sportsbook, but the Thunder are not far behind. The only other team listed is the Los Angeles Clippers, and they're a long shot.

Here are his options:

What George did this week in opting out was to say no to making $20.7 million this coming season. But he could stay with the Thunder with a one-plus-one contract that would pay him $30.3 million next season and $32.7 million in 2019-20.

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Paul George has had his eyes on the Lakers for a while. USATSI

With a one-plus-one contract, he'd have a player option to return to free agency next summer, when the salary cap situation around the NBA is expected to make it much more of a bull market for free agents than this offseason. Or he could use that player option to stay with the Thunder for a second season; after that season, he'd have 10 years of NBA service for the 2020 offseason and be eligible for a four-year, $169 million max contract for a team that has the space to sign him.

That's obviously risky for George, a player who missed an entire season four years ago after shattering his leg. Perhaps he'd opt for the combination of security and money that would lead him toward the five-year, $176 million max contract he can only sign with the Thunder.

But if George signs with the Lakers this offseason, he could only sign a four-year deal for $130 million in guaranteed money.

Which means signing that deal with the Lakers could theoretically cost him $46 million.

All of this adds up to this: It makes the most sense financially for George to return to the Thunder for at least one more year, perhaps two more. At age 28, hitting free agency again at 30 isn't a bad option.

And it might make the most sense basketball-wise too.

It's easy to look at the one-year experiment of Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony as a massive disappointment. A team that had aspirations to at least make the Western Conference Finals got KO'd in a first-round matchup with the Utah Jazz.

But look at little bit deeper, and perhaps there's some basketball optimism beneath the surface (Anthony's ego and regressing basketball skills notwithstanding).

The Thunder's most-used lineup during the regular season had that Sorta Big Three (more of a Big Two – sorry, Melo) joined by Steven Adams and Andre Roberson. That lineup played 539 minutes together, far outside small-sample-size area. And that lineup had an astronomical plus-14.2 net rating. The Thunder's season didn't end in its Game Six playoff loss to the Jazz. It ended Jan. 27 when Roberson – who was having a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season – ruptured his patellar tendon. The Thunder's depth was always an issue, and it only became magnified after losing Roberson. Once that awesome starting five was no more, the Thunder went a mediocre 19-14 the rest of the way before getting knocked out in the first round.

To put that starting five in perspective, here is the net rating for the most-used regular season lineups for the NBA's top teams:

If the Thunder are looking to sway Paul George to pick Oklahoma City over his hometown, the pitch is simple, and it makes sense: We make the most sense for you financially. And we might make the most sense for you in a basketball way, too. Let's run it back.

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