If you’ve followed the name Paul George as it swept through headlines and tweets and columns and mobile alerts over the past five months, you’re probably aware that George is a free agent next summer, and you’re probably equally aware that George has a likely destination. USA Today‘s Sam Amick has written on multiple occasions that George is “hell-bent” on playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. Word has made its way throughout the league as well, seeping through to front office executives and ownership. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, teams believe “there is at least a 75 percent chance George stays true to his LA plans.”
But how does George see it?
He addressed the scuttlebutt head-on for the first time since his trade to Oklahoma City in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, and his take is that the Lakers talk has been “overstated.” Here’s his full quote:
“I grew up a Lakers and a Clippers fan,” George says. “I idolized Kobe. There will always be a tie here, a connection here. People saying I want to come here, who doesn’t want to play for their hometown? That’s a dream come true, if you’re a kid growing up on the outskirts of L.A., to be the man in your city. But it’s definitely been overstated. For me, it’s all about winning. I want to be in a good system, a good team. I want a shot to win it. I’m not a stats guy. I’m playing this game to win and build a legacy of winning. I’ve yet to do that. I’m searching for it. If we get a killer season in Oklahoma, we make the conference finals or upset the Warriors or do something crazy, I’d be dumb to want to leave that.”
“It’s too early for L.A.,” he says. “It would have to be a situation where the ball gets rolling and guys are hopping on. This guy commits, that guy commits. ‘Oh s—, now there’s a team forming.’ It has to be like that.”
“I’m in OKC, so hopefully me and Russ do a good enough job and make it to the conference finals and love the situation, why not recruit someone to come build it with us? I’m open in this whole process.”
George’s general sentiment is clearly stated. He loves LA, and still feels a connection to his hometown. But, first and foremost, he wants to win.
After all, that’s why he decided to leave Indiana. George touched on that in his interview with Jenkins, too:
“We only get a small window to play this game and more than anything you want to be able to play for a championship. I wanted to bring that to Indiana. I really did. I love Indiana. That will always be a special place for me and I’m sorry for not holding on. But I wasn’t sure we’d ever get a team together to compete for a championship and that’s where all this came from.”
It is important to hear this from George, because without his voice, assumptions about his free agency preferences had run rampant. And there were consequences that came along with those assumptions — namely, that they dragged George’s trade value down into the bargain bin, enabling Oklahoma City’s fleecing of Indiana. The manner in which he engineered his Pacers exit had also drawn criticism locally. To hear the explanation straight from George’s mouth was refreshing.
But George’s point that his desire to play for the Lakers has been overstated should not automatically quell speculation about his future. There is now a distinct divide between his public statements and the general feeling around the league. If NBA teams believe there is a greater than 75 percent chance that George winds up in Los Angeles next summer, as Lowe reported, that opinion isn’t unsubstantiated. General managers and front-office personnel don’t just blindly believe what they read on the internet. They don’t just roll with rumors. Their intelligence on the matter is presumably as thorough as anybody’s.
It might even be more trustworthy, therefore, than George’s own word. That’s because there are likely other motives behind George’s statement. It’s unhealthy for a player to arrive in a new city to play for a new franchise with the overwhelming sentiment swirling overhead that the player is only there as a one-year rental. George needed to quell that by talking up the possibility of a long-term stay in Oklahoma City.
But his efforts to do so were riddled with hypotheticals. He prefaces his I’d be dumb to leave OKC scenario with, “If we get a killer season in Oklahoma, we make the conference finals or upset the Warriors or do something crazy … ” Before he fantasizes about recruiting a third star to Oklahoma City, he says, “Hopefully me and Russ do a good enough job and make it to the conference finals and love the situation.” His qualifiers are far from guarantees. Some of them even seem unlikely to occur.
George’s comments are well-intentioned, and his thoughts are well articulated. They will hopefully stamp out some in-season discussion of his future, which everyone in Oklahoma City would probably like to avoid. And the entire Lee Jenkins story, which also includes Kevin Durant gushing about Oklahoma City to George, is well worth your time.
But that doesn’t mean George’s comments necessarily override the thought that the clear favorite for his services next summer will be the Lakers.