Pacers forward Paul George has been thrown into trade discussions, and you might be asking yourself why this matters for the Sixers. Philadelphia has not specifically been linked to George at any point, and the team doesn’t appear to be in any immediate hurry to get involved in the bidding wars for he or Jimmy Butler. But they should be involved, because these are the sort of opportunities The Process was meant for.
Earlier this afternoon, Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical reported the Pacers are considering moving on from George, fearing his departure in free agency next summer:
The Pacers are working the trade deadline on parallel fronts: Pursuing deals that will bring talent into Indiana to sell George on signing a long-term extension – and soliciting deal offers on George that would signal a rebuild around center Myles Turner, league sources told The Vertical.
For teams considering a trade for George, here’s the risk: As a free agent in the summer of 2018, he has considered re-signing with Indiana or joining his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, sources tell The Vertical.
Teams trading for George run the risk of losing the four-time All-Star to a Lakers franchise that will have the salary-cap space to sign him in 2018. The Lakers’ hiring of Magic Johnson as president of basketball operations will be an interesting twist to George’s free-agent recruitment, given that Johnson has been something of a George family icon going back to George’s childhood in nearby Palmdale, Calif.
The loudest refrain from critics of The Process has always been the same: “There’s no guarantee it will work!” This persisted whether it was about trading a known player for a future pick, the uncertainty of the lottery, or gambling on a young, injured center staying healthy. Now, the debate can turn to a potential Paul George trade, and the ability to keep him long-term.
The Sixers appear set up to crush the long-term, with two hopeful stars already on the roster, talented complimentary pieces, and a stockpile of draft picks protecting against worst-case scenarios. It is easy to fall in love with the dream of what might be and lose focus on what’s right in front of you. If there is a game-changing acquisition to be made, the Sixers should make it.
Getting George in a deal with the Pacers qualifies. He is perhaps the perfect complement to the young core already in place, an athletic defensive presence who is a capable off-ball player and an excellent three-point shooter. George would give the Sixers the ability to switch heavily on defense, creating a wall of athletes between he, Ben Simmons, and Robert Covington. He is an astronomic upgrade over anything the Sixers have in the scoring department. You couldn’t build many players in a lab who fit better with what they want to do.
“But he might leave,” you say. And sure, I get it. Joel Embiid also might never stay healthy. The Sixers might never win a draft lottery. DeMarcus Cousins might never get traded, and the 2019 Kings pick might end up being a decent, but unspectacular asset.
The probabilities for those events may not be equal, but they are all connected. Every move you make as an NBA franchise carries with it a degree of uncertainty. We see things in binary form — either it’s right or wrong, either a player stays or he doesn’t — when really it is always about chance. Embiid has a chance to be a special player. Simmons has a chance to never hit his ceiling because of his jumper.
It’s important to remember this: uncertainty is built into every style and form of building a team. The Thunder once (perhaps unknowingly) had a Finals team with three MVP-caliber talents under the age of 25 on their roster, flanked by a rim-protecting big to cover for their mistakes. The Rockets once rode a 23-year old Hakeem Olajuwon and 25-year old Ralph Sampson to the NBA Finals, dreaming of a decade-plus of dominance through their front court.
Neither team ever returned to the NBA Finals, with injuries, trade backfires, and free agency departures derailing their momentum. Teams constantly believe their window is open longer than it probably will be; the Boston Celtics are what I would consider a the gold standard of this, as their public refusal to sacrifice any good pieces for a star goes public during yet another trade deadline.
George and his alleged fascination with returning to California is a massive uncertainty, and acquiring him would spurn an understandable level of concern. The Sixers would have to pony up multiple high-value firsts and young players in order to have a real discussion with Indiana. Cutting holes in their safety net should scare anyone.
But the idea that pushing for George is some anti-Process ideal — or that the Sixers should wait for the perfect scenario to fall out of the sky — is nonsense. The Sixers under Sam Hinkie loaded up on future chances at success not because they thought it meant a guarantee of success, but because they acknowledged failure is possible. Recall a passage from his infamous letter:
In some decisions, the uncertainties are savage. You have to find a way to get comfortable with that range of outcomes. If you can’t, you’re forced to live with many fewer options to choose amongst which leads over the long term to lesser and lesser outcomes. The illusion of control is an opiate, though.
Owning so many picks in the future gives Bryan Colangelo (and the Philadelphia fanbase) the illusion of control. So long as they aren’t traded to another team, those picks will come within the next few years, and the players obtained by them will be under team control for nearly a decade. It is no small sacrifice to give those up.
But the best-case scenario for those picks looks something like what George is right now. He’s a two-way star and a young enough player that the Sixers could expect to get prime production from him while younger teammates continue their maturation process. He makes their lives easier, he makes their team better, and he gets to play alongside guys who make him feel better about committing to a franchise long-term.
As an executive, you dream to have the opportunity to sell players of George’s caliber on your program. You have a year and a half to show him what your franchise is all about. While I probably wouldn’t go as far as Michael Levin and trade Simmons for him, I would think long and hard about it, and I would sacrifice most of the team’s future-proofing in order to go get The Guy.
Opportunities like this don’t come around all that often, and the Sixers are as loaded with trade chips as any team in the league. You collect assets for this exact chance — not this trade specifically, not this player specifically, but the ability to get a no doubt about it star who can carry the mantle for your franchise. Put him alongside Embiid and Simmons, along with the guys you can recruit off the strength of your new core, and you are cooking something fierce.
You don’t have to mortgage all of your future, but it’d be a disservice to the franchise not to get involved in discussions for an available star. Dare to dream, baby — go get Paul George.