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Offseason Outlook: Keep an Eye on Paul George

Following the Clippers’ incredible implosion in the Western Conference Semifinals, Jerry West and Lawrence Frank have a major decision to make about Paul George.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Clippers are at a major crossroads following their epic collapse in blowing a 3-1 lead to the never-say-die Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals last week. The Clippers had double-digit leads in all three potential close-out games and struggled mightily in the second half of each game, thanks to especially paltry performances from their closing five.

NBA Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell was brutal defensively. Patrick Beverley was fouling Nuggets as if he had a date with the bench. Lemon Pepper Lou™ averaged more turnovers (1.1) than made 3s (0.6) in the series. Kawhi Leonard shot just 31.3 percent from the floor and 27.3 percent from deep in the second halves of the seven games. But, despite all of that, Paul George came out of the series catching the most flack for his performance.

George averaged a very respectable 21.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.6 assists on 43.5/38.3/87.9 shooting splits for the entire series, but shot just 26.7 percent from the floor and 26.3 percent from downtown in the second halves of the Clippers final three losses of the series. His timid second half performance in Game 7 ultimately sank the title favorites down the stretch, much to the delight of #NBATwitter, who was ready to pounce and unleash all the takes and memes, and pull the receipts on the Clippers into the night.

The Clippers’ choke job culminated with George hurling up this wide open 3 off the side of the backboard:

After PG famously called Damian Lillard’s series-winning buzzer-beater in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs last season “a bad shot,” a fan asked Dame “this a good shot?!” which started the onslaught of jokes that the Clippers, and especially George, became the subject of throughout the night.

His Blazer backcourt mate CJ McCollum got in on the action, too:

The Clippers’ collective body language down the stretch of the game, especially after George’s misses, told you all you need to know about how his teammates view him and his role with the team. In the fourth quarter, Doc Rivers was beside himself on the bench; the one-time champion head coach was unafraid to light into George on the bench in the series, either. PG and Kawhi did not talk on the bench after they were subbed out in the final minute and both wore confused apathetic facial expressions while watching the reserves trot up and down the court until the final buzzer sounded.

Back in January, The Athletic’s Johan Buva and Sam Amick wrote a story airing some chemistry issues: “Off the court, sources say there are some teammates who have struggled with the organization’s preferential treatment that is afforded to Leonard and George.” One would correctly think that if you receive preferential treatment, fail to engage your teammates in the locker room as a vocal leader of the team, carry yourself in a somewhat arrogant manner, and then consistently lay a dud in the second half of close-out playoff games, your teammates would be pretty frustrated.

Then after the game, George was asked about whether or not he felt this season was a championship-or-bust season, and his response contradicted some of his previous statements about the 2019-20 Los Angeles Clippers.

According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, PG tried to make an impassioned speech to his teammates in the post-game locker room about loyalty and unfinished business, but you can imagine how that went.

Charania noted that George and Leonard still want to play together, but that rival teams expect LA to survey the trade market for a playmaking guard.

With that said, Wolves fans should definitely keep an eye on this Paul George/Clippers situation. Both George and Kawhi Leonard can opt-out of their contracts following this upcoming season and become free agents. The major question for the Clippers becomes whether or not they want to run it back with their superstar tandem of LA area natives or try and punt on the experiment and maximize the return they could receive for PG.

In 2017, less than two weeks after hiring him to an advisory role in the front office, Jerry West helped facilitate the Chris Paul trade with Houston, effectively ending the Lob City duo, despite the team’s consistent appearance in the playoffs. That same summer, Lawrence Frank was named President of Basketball Operations and signed Blake Griffin to a max contract and called him a “Clipper for life.” Griffin was traded to the Pistons less than four months later.

When it comes to Frank and West, talk is nothing more than a public facade. This duo is unafraid to make a seismic roster change and I would not be surprised at all to see the franchise part ways with Paul George if they thought it gave them a better chance to A) win a championship next season and/or B) entice Kawhi Leonard to sign a new contract with the Clippers in free agency, whether that is in 2021 or 2022.

While yes, the process of trading Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and a seemingly endless number of first-round picks for one season of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard is a massive failure, there is a very real chance LA could lose both players in free agency next offseason and no NBA Finals appearances to show for it.

If you were the Clippers, would you retool and acquire a player whose personality and play style might pair better with Kawhi’s, or go all-in, let Montrezl Harrell walk, and try and work a trade for a better playmaking point guard? Despite picking the Clippers to win it all this year, I have a hard time believing that this team would come back next season with a chip on their shoulder, or that the roster would be on the same level that it is now. The decision to trade George may very well come down to whether or not Leonard wants him as his running mate or not. At their peak they were incredible, but the playoffs are a different animal. Also keep in mind that Paul George was not Kawhi’s first option; Leonard first contacted Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler about teaming up before settling for George.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Seven Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

There is no doubt that Paul George failed to live up to the lofty expectations that were set for him, Leonard, and the Clippers squad this season. Thanks to his performance in clutch time (especially against the Nuggets) and the evident disconnect between himself, Leonard, and the rest of the Clippers players, you could argue that no established player’s stock has fallen more in the bubble, or even the last calendar year, than Playoff P’s.

Some players are built for the bright lights of Staples Center (or in this season’s case, the Orlando campus) and some need to be in secondary markets where the expectations are lower and the pressure is non-existent. Given his laid back, lead-by-example style of play, George does not pair well with another superstar who leads in the same manner.

The former Fresno State standout unsurprisingly played his best basketball next to Russell Westbrook — who is an unquestionable alpha dog, leader, and heart-and-soul type of player no matter which franchise he suits up for — in a secondary market. Russ is the type of teammate to light a fire inside everyone he plays with and there is no doubt that George fed off that and it elevated him to a much higher level as a legit number one option for a playoff team in the West.

With that in mind, the six-time All-Star is just one season removed from the best season of his career, in which he was a First Team All-NBA and First Team All-Defensive selection; he could very well benefit from a fresh start in a low-pressure environment where he could reassert himself as one of the league’s best two-way stars without the championship expectations that are attached to making another run with Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles next season. George may not agree with it but, from a basketball perspective, the best place for him is a secondary market where he can hoop distraction-free.

If I could take my money to the bank on anything this fall, it is that the Wolves will be one of, if not the most active this offseason. The Timberwolves front office has the Karl-Anthony Towns time bomb strapped to its chest and could be given a very short leash by new management if the team is sold prior to next season. Like it or not, the organization is headed into what may be the most pivotal five-month stretch in franchise history.

Thankfully for Minnesota, EVP of Basketball Operations Sachin Gupta turned down the Sacramento Kings President of Basketball Operations role and is staying put in Minnesota to ride it out with Gersson Rosas and company. The pair form one of the NBA’s most aggressive front office duos on the trade market.

If Paul George is made available, I fully expect Minnesota to be in the conversation in one way or another. George is represented by the same agency (CAA) as Towns and Russell, and PG’s agent, Aaron Mintz, is also D’Angelo Russell’s agent. Agencies love their clients playing together (ask Rich Paul) and Mintz is well-versed in operating with Rosas, who Russell consistently speaks very highly of. It is something to keep in mind as we progress into the offseason.

Following the Clippers’ exit last week, I posed the following question on Twitter:

After nearly 7,000 votes, 50.4 percent of voters selected a form of no and 49.6 percent voted a form of yes. Even a week later, I am shocked by the results here.

The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski asked the question I am still trying to answer.

Recency bias is king (especially on Twitter) and even among NBA teams, it could play a relatively large factor in determining George’s trade value this offseason.

Many asked for my view, which I decided to hold onto until publishing this piece. Despite his age (30) and contract situation (can opt-out after next season), Minnesota should absolutely make a play for Paul George if the opportunity presents itself this fall.

On the floor, George provides exactly what the Timberwolves desperately need: an elite wing scorer that can effectively defend at the point of attack in the halfcourt and slow down the opposing team’s best offensive player on a nightly basis. Although he struggled in clutch moments this year, PG remains one of the league’s most consistent long-range regular season shooters. He is a career 38 percent 3-point shooter who can accurately let it fly in spot-ups, off step-backs and pull-ups, and coming off screens.

George is also a terrific transition player who thrived in an up-and-down system in Oklahoma City where he was free to grab rebounds and immediately push the pace (i.e. “rake and take”). He set a career high in free throw attempts, which was undoubtedly in part due to the team’s propensity to get out and run and attack the rim in transition, which will be a big element of Minnesota’s philosophy next season.

Paul would also fit seamlessly alongside a gifted playmaker and high-gravity shooter in D’Angelo Russell and a 5-man like Towns that would be the perfect PnR partner for PG given his threat as a roller, slipper, and popper. It is hard to find a quasi-imaginable trade partner that could make life easier for Paul George on the offensive end than Minnesota. George, Towns, and Russell would undoubtedly become the league’s most dynamic trio (offensively) and immediately lead the Timberwolves to their second playoff appearance in 17 years; and remember, he is still just one year removed from a season where he put up 28.0 points* on 43.8/38.6/83.9 shooting splits, 8.2 rebounds*, 4.1 assists*, and 2.2 steals* in 36.9 minutes per game (* = career highs).

Los Angeles Clippers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Even though he has a long list of ailments over the past few years, he played 81, 75, 79, and 77 games in regular seasons from 2015-2019 (95% of games) before playing just 48 games this season for a Clippers team focused on conservative injury management processes.

Off the floor, George would find himself in a unique position as a third wheel to Towns and Russell. He has never played alongside rising stars nor played the role of the elder statesman in the locker room. Towns, Russell, and Josh Okogie would still be tasked with being the vocal leaders of the team, but considering the Wolves are still the youngest team in the league, I cannot imagine the team’s rotation players would be turned off by the opportunity to play alongside a player of George’s caliber and sell him on the team’s evident new energy.

Unlike Los Angeles, the 10-year veteran would not have to worry about teammates questioning his leadership because of the foundation that has already been laid by Towns, Russell, Saunders, and Rosas. George would also not be tasked with being the alpha dog, vocal leader of the locker room. This role went unfilled in LA this season, and George struggled to superficially fill the void. In Minnesota, Rosas could present PG with the opportunity to take a franchise to new heights in Minnesota and play for a front office that very clearly goes above and beyond in valuing relationships and prioritizing its players happiness. Outside of Minnesota, there is not another similar low-stakes opportunity for George to restore his image around the league, cash in one last time, and still compete in the playoffs into his mid-30s.

If the Wolves were to deal directly with LA (rather unlikely), I like the idea of trading #1 (LaMelo Ball in this case), #17 (a player the Wolves draft on behalf of the Clippers), Beasley (via sign-and-trade in free agency), and Johnson for George post-draft. Beasley could immediately fill part of the shooting and scoring void that PG leaves behind and LA desperately needs a ball handler like Ball who can step in and make ancillary offensive options Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet, and JaMychal Green more efficient with his high-level vision and passing.

The Clippers are a sneaky dark-horse for Chris Paul, too. This situation is incredibly complex, but could be a way to flank D-Lo and KAT with both Beasley and George, and get the deal done before the draft.

via TradeNBA.com

The Wolves fit in just barely under the salary cap after the trade in this scenario ($1.1M in cap space according to TradeNBA.com) and bring in another excellent perimeter defender in Frank Ntilikina along with PG.

OKC gets moldable young buy-low talent in Jarrett Culver and #17 as a solid return for CP3. New York gets in on this deal to take a salary dump player in Patrick Beverley while also moving up to #1 in the draft and taking its point guard of the future in LaMelo Ball. The Knicks may ask for a future second-round pick here, too, but it is a relatively fair price to jump from 8 to 1.

The Clippers are the wildcard here. Bringing in a 35-year-old Chris Paul is certainly a risky all-in move, but he and Kawhi would be incredible closing playoff games together. The #8 pick and Dallas’s 2021 first are more ammunition for the Clippers to play with to add talent either through the draft or working the trade market for guys like Caris LeVert, Aaron Gordon, or Victor Oladipo. A CP3/Oladipo/Kawhi wing trio would be a sight to behold in the playoffs next season. Would Paul really want to reunite with Doc Rivers in LA? Perhaps not, but it is also his best chance at winning a championship before he retires.

2020 NBA All-Star Game Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images

Now before you tee off in the comments, I understand that this is certainly not a realistic trade; however, something similar to this framework could come into play if the Clippers trade for CP3, and it is fun to imagine different scenarios for all four teams while examining the future for the Wolves.

If Paul George ends up being moved, but not to Minnesota, I would not rule out the Wolves’ involvement on the fringes of the deal, either. Despite missing out on Russell in free agency last summer, Rosas jumped in on the sign-and-trade sending him to Golden State to acquire Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham, players he thought were zero-risk additions that could become assets to use in a trade. Graham was a dud, but Napier was involved in the Malik Beasley trade and was a solid backup point guard before being moved to Denver and then to Washington.

Los Angeles could have its sights on reuniting Fred Van Vleet with Kawhi Leonard in free agency this offseason via a sign-and-trade. If Toronto ends up rebuilding, and knows ahead of the draft that Van Vleet is on his way out, which is very possible, the door opens for Minnesota. The Wolves could dangle the #1 pick for Toronto’s 2021 first-round pick and a rock-solid two-way role player like Norman Powell or package Jarrett Culver with the #1 pick for OG Anunoby and a future first.

Paul George had a crazy, tumultuous year playing back in his home state that could not have ended more poorly for his team or his image around the league. You would have said I was crazy if I suggested before the bubble started that Paul George could be on the move this offseason, but the Clippers implosion may have legitimately put that option on the table.

On the floor, he fits exactly what the Wolves need and off the floor, Minnesota would be a unique setting for him to reassert himself as an elite player and take on a more suitable, hands-off role in the locker room. Whether you still believe in him as a player or not, it is fun to imagine both what he could do alongside KAT and D-Lo, and how a front office dealing with a ticking time bomb strapped to its chest (in more ways than one) could make an all-in move that keeps its franchise cornerstone, potential new owners, and fans happy and excited for a new era of Wolves basketball.