If the Pacers hadn't traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the summer of 2017, the all-star wing would be suiting up alongside LeBron James in purple and gold when the Lakers take on the Trail Blazers in Portland tonight to tip off their 2018-19 NBA season. George, a native of L.A., admitted as much to The Undefeated.
"It was 50-50 on deciding whether I wanted to come back home or if it was smarter to be in the situation I am in now," he said. "But it wasn't overstated. I wanted to play in L.A. That is where I wanted to go. Had that trade never went down, had I played one more year in Indy, I would have been in a Lakers uniform."
For Lakers fans, the "what if" behind his statement will calcify into embitterment if the Thunder out-perform the Lakers this year, as many expect. So, how did it happen? How did a tiny market like Oklahoma City land the L.A. kid who had pretty well decided to go home when he became a free agent?
Two summers ago, before the final year of PG-13's contract, he told the Pacers he was gone in free agency that next summer. It's the standard refrain from superstars who want out but don't want to screw their team over by leaving them with nothing in return (i.e. LeBron's first decision in the summer of 2010). It's an ultimatum the Bucks—with Giannis Antetokounnmpo—and Pelicans—with Anthony Davis—never hope to hear, but it's still a parting gift from a superstar who wants out but doesn't want to leave his old team in the lurch. The Pacers, much to the chagrin of fans at the time, dealt him to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
Before Dipo blossomed into an All-NBA talent with the Pacers last season, while leading them to the playoffs and within one game of knocking off LeBron in the first round, the trade felt like the coup for Thunder GM Sam Presti. But they also traded for Carmelo Anthony, and the mid-season loss of long and lean defensive stud, Andre Roberson, submarined any realistic plans they'd make some serious noise in the playoffs and challenge the Warriors or Rockets for Western Conference supremacy. They were bounced in the first round by the Jazz.
However, George liked OKC. A lot, it turns out. A few days after the start of free agency last summer, Russell Wesetbrook threw a party where Nas performed, and that's the venue where PG announced he had re-signed in OKC for four years. Break out the cigars.
The Thunder had shown him the light, and he didn't even meet with the Lakers when free agency started, much to their chagrin.
The Raptors are hoping the same plan works with Kawhi Leonard this season, who also hails from Los Angeles. Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and LeBron James hope otherwise.