When the 76ers played their final home game of the season last week, a loss to the Indiana Pacers in which they lacked offensive firepower to complete a late comeback, it wasn't hard to imagine switching a single player from one side to the other and seeing how different things might be.
Of course, in this game that player was Paul George of the Pacers, who scored 27 points and was in the process of almost single-handedly lifting his team to the postseason. In March and April this year, George averaged 28.5 points and converted an ungodly 42.2 percent of his three-point attempts. That six-week surge from George helped earn the Pacers an opening-round matchup with Cleveland that is not going very well for Indiana and could be over by Saturday.
Losing to LeBron James in the postseason is not a new experience for either George or the Pacers. It happened three times early in George's career when James was in Miami, including twice in the conference finals, and now again as George is on the cusp of turning 27 at the end of his seventh NBA season.
It makes you wonder if George, who will be an unrestricted free agent after next season, is really ready for a change of venue. There has been plenty of speculation, none of it commented on by George, that he would like to return to Southern California. His hometown is Palmdale, separated from Los Angeles by only 60 miles and the San Gabriel Mountains. The call of the Lakers, even as they rebuild, can be a powerful one.
But if George is looking to relocate, well, why not Philadelphia? He would have to be convinced that Joel Embiid will be healthy and that Ben Simmons will be in the backcourt and not threatening minutes at the small forward position. He would have to buy into what might be taking place here before he signs on for five years. But, sure, why not?
Bryan Colangelo indicated last week that the Sixers are weighing their direction in terms of roster building. They can keep getting younger, or they can jump deeply into the trade or free-agent markets to leaven that youth with talented veterans who will potentially speed the process to contending. George would do that on day one.
"At the three, Robert Covington kind of has that position locked up with not a lot of depth at the position currently," Colangelo said. "But we've got some interesting draft prospects in the top 10 that happen to address that situation and that need."
Presumably, the Sixers would spend a top 10 pick on a small forward only if they have two draft picks, meaning that the Lakers pick they are owed lands outside the top three and is conveyed. It seems more likely that with just one pick, it would be used on a guard who can shoot, but maybe the Sixers see their draft board and their needs differently and prefer the potential of a small forward such as Josh Jackson of Kansas, Jayson Tatum of Duke, or Jonathan Isaac of Florida State. We'll find that out in June.
For the moment, however, let's work with the assumption that trading for Paul George would be a good thing and would hasten The Process. There are some weird side issues to this, as if anything could be straightforward with the Sixers.
The strangest is that George's entire contract structure and his desire to stay with Indiana might change in the next several weeks. According to the newest collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified by the players in January and takes effect in July, George could be eligible for approximately an additional $70 million in his next contract but only if he is voted to one of the three all-NBA teams and only if he remains with the Pacers.
The designated veteran player exception is a complicated deal, but it basically allows players in their eighth or ninth season to earn max contract benefits previously restricted to 10-year veterans. The intention is to protect franchises from losing key players, to prevent future "superteam" compilations, and to even out the pay structure a little bit. The designation can be applied to the reigning league MVP, the defensive player of the year, and the 15 players who make the three all-NBA teams. Obviously, there's usually some overlap there, and not all those players are in that eight- or nine-season range, so there are only a limited number who can benefit each year. But Paul George is one of them.
Will George be one of the six forwards chosen for an all-NBA team, and thus have a lot added reason to re-sign with Indiana? Or will he miss out, and the Pacers will be more motivated to trade him this summer rather than see him walk for nothing after next season? Well, that will be decided by the vote of approximately 100 media members and will be announced near the end of May. (We'll leave aside the obvious ethical issues and potential conflicts of interest inherent when the media agree to vote on something that could put $70 million into the pocket of a player. Apparently, no one cares about that stuff anymore.) After you put James, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo on the forward list, who are the other three among George, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant (who missed a month), Jimmy Butler, and, possibly Anthony Davis, who split his time between center and forward? Tough question, and it will probably determine if George stays with the Pacers.
The other thing to consider, if the Sixers get only a single pick in this draft, and if George doesn't get the designated veteran exception, is that keeping him from being traded to the Lakers would have not only an enormous effect on the Sixers immediately but would have a potentially enormous effect on the value of the Lakers draft pick that would be conveyed unprotected in 2018.
That's a lot to calculate and, fortunately, all of it will be known long before Colangelo formulates his final strategy for draft night, whether that entails making the selections they have, packaging them to move up or down, or combining their assets for trades.
We can debate what they might do or what time line they should pursue, but if you watched that last home game, there's no debate about how good Paul George would have looked wearing that other uniform.