In the entire history of teams trading superstars in their prime, only once has the trading team won a championship as a direct consequence of the deal. That would be the Los Angeles Lakers, who used the 2004 trade of Shaquille O’Neal as a springboard towards their eventual titles in 2009 and 2010.
The circumstances surrounding that trade were rare. Specifically, the Lakers had leverage. The case is often that the star in question—Carmelo Anthony in 2011, for example—is threatening to leave as a free agent in the immediate future. O’Neal wanted to be a Laker, and in fact asked the team to extend his contract.
True, the Lakers were in a position where keeping O’Neal likely meant losing Kobe Bryant. But if they really wanted to, they could’ve taken O’Neal off the market and tried to find a replacement for Bryant instead. Tracy McGrady was traded that same summer. Vince Carter was moved for peanuts only months later. Ray Allen was set to become a free agent in 2005. Credible options existed.
And frankly, every team in the league could have used prime Shaq. There was never going to be a shortage of suitors, and Los Angeles used that to drive the price up. The Lakers were able to get Lamar Odom, who became the third-best player on their championship teams, because they were trading from a position of strength.
That’s where the Pacers were until Thursday. They had Paul George under contract for the rest of this season and next year as well. Any team in the league could use Paul George and were prepared to pay up for him. The Celtics put their 2017 Brooklyn pick on the table. Denver made a “monster” offer. Half a dozen other teams had the assets to do the same. And the Lakers—who we’ll get to in a bit—are in a state of flux. If there was ever a moment Indiana could have put George out there, created a bidding war and sold him off at an exorbitant price, it was now.
And now that chance is gone.
Boston was willing to offer so much for George for three key reasons: they felt like they could challenge for the championship this season, they still don’t know what number the Brooklyn pick is going to be, and they don’t know how likely Gordon Hayward is to leave Utah.
Well, George can no longer impact Boston’s title chances this season. They’ll know what number the Brooklyn pick is before their next chance to trade for George, and if it’s No. 1 or No. 2 it might be more valuable than George by itself. And once they see how Utah fares in the playoffs, they’ll have a much better sense of how available Hayward will be. A first round knock out along with a deep Boston playoff run might be enough to make him a Celtic.
Denver is in a similar boat. They were willing to offer so much for George for three key reasons as well: they want to make the playoffs this season, they don’t have Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler locked up past next season, and they don’t know exactly how good their young players are going to become yet.
Well, George can no longer help Denver make the playoffs this season. Denver will have a better sense of how much they’ll need to pay to keep Gallo and/or Chandler. And with the rest of the season, they’ll at least have a larger sample to evaluate their young players from.
George is still a superstar, and trading for a superstar will always be desirable. But the specific circumstances that were pushing a deal before the deadline suddenly no longer exist. The same could be said for almost every other team with potential interest in George. And the biggest advantage of trading for George now died with those potential deals.
George is going to be a free agent in 2018. Recent leaks indicate that his team of choice is the Lakers. The words “hell bent” have been thrown around. At this point, I think the idea that George will at least seriously consider Los Angeles can be taken as fact.
But the Lakers are an unmitigated disaster right now. The best chance any team had at retaining George was bringing him in this season, showing him the team culture, making sure he enjoyed his time there and ideally going on a deep playoff run. Then, after the season ended, that team could point to the dysfunction in Los Angeles and say “we’ve proven to you that we know how to operate a team, and we can offer you a bigger contract than the Lakers or anyone else.” It was never a guarantee that he’d sign such a deal, but that chance was the advantage of getting him right away.
That advantage is gone now, and every team in the league knows it. They know that the big bad Lakers are looming. And more importantly, they have an extra year to get their act together. They know that should George not enjoy playing for their team, the option to trade him a year ahead of that inevitable Lakers signing would no longer exist.
Trading for George on Thursday would’ve represented a chance to capitalize on the chaos in Lakerland. Doing so in June might very well be a favor to Magic and the Buss clan. After all, any new team trading for PG-13 wouldn’t have the history with him that Indiana does. Leaving a team you’ve spent your entire career with, who you’ve come one game away from the Finals with, is difficult. Leaving a team you’ve spent one year with? Not so much.
Other teams will still ask about George. But the prices will be so much lower than they were this week that Indiana would be better off riding it out and hoping George stays. Because at this point, almost every team in the league feels as though George is going to become a Laker. So they won’t want to give up assets to be a one-year stop on his journey there. The Pacers are no longer dealing from a position of strength.
And if they want to trade George now? It’s probably going to have to be to the Lakers. There’s a reason monopolies are illegal. They drive down cost. And if the Lakers are the only team George wants to stay with, they’ll be able to get him for pennies on the dollar. Considering how many teams seemed prepared to pay actual dollars for the dollar, keeping George is likely going to turn out to be a massive mistake for Indiana.