Superstar Paul George informed the Indiana Pacers, in no uncertain terms, he will test free agency at the end of the 2017-18 season, prompting the franchise to began shopping the guard over the weekend.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical, George, a Southern California native, would prefer to join the Los Angeles Lakers, but it is possible he could make a stop in Cleveland as a “one-year rental,” giving LeBron James the elite guard he craves in his attempt at defeating the league’s “juggernaut,” the Golden State Warriors, perhaps shipping out Kevin Love in exchange.
The lure of George is obvious. The 27-year-old is a four-time all-star and one of the best two-way players in the league. He averaged 23.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game during the regular season and got even better in the playoffs (28 points, 8.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.8 steals) but his offensive numbers are not far superior to what Love provided this season. In fact, Love’s Player Efficiency Rating (21.1) during the regular season was higher than George’s (20.2) and only slightly worse in the playoffs (19.7 vs. 21.0 for George).
But, George, like most players joining James in his quest for a title, will likely see a decrease in touches, diminishing his offensive impact. For example, in 2013-14, Love led the Minnesota Timberwolves in touches (87.7 per game, 50.1 in the front court) but saw that drop during his first year with Cleveland (64.9 and 37.1). Love touched the ball just 57.2 times per game during the 2017 NBA Finals. A similar reduction for George would translate into a regular-season scoring decline from 23.7 to 17.6 points per game.
The addition of George also doesn’t get the Cavaliers closer to stopping Golden State’s small-ball lineup, otherwise known as the “Hamptons 5,” featuring Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant, more often. In fact, George would allow Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue to use a small-ball lineup more often with George playing increased minutes on the wing, pushing James to the four spot alongside 6-foot-9 Tristan Thompson at center. And that could be disastrous for Cleveland.
The “Hamptons 5″ lineup outscored Cleveland by 23.2 net points per 100 possessions during the regular season and playoffs combined, increasing the domination to 40.1 net points per 100 possessions in the 2017 NBA Finals.
George was better than Love at contesting three-point shots, a key to slowing down the Warriors’ sharpshooters, but even taking into account this defensive superiority, swapping George for Love is not going to be nearly enough to bridge the gap required for a 50-point swing — the Pacers outscored opponents by 2.9 net points per 100 possessions with George on the court and were outscored by 6.5 net points per 100 with him on the bench.
The addition of George also doesn’t fully solve the Cavaliers’ lack of depth. Yes, George would do a better job keeping Cleveland afloat when James takes a breather, but the Cavs were outscored by 17.5 net points per 100 possessions during the regular season and playoffs with James, Love and Irving on the bench.
Two teams that would be better fits for George are the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz, provided free agent forward Gordon Hayward doesn’t bolt Utah to get away from the Western Conference dominance of the Warriors.
In losses this season, the Warriors have been held to an effective field goal percentage of 49.4 percent, while allowing and eFG% of 52.2 to their opponents. Only the Spurs and Jazz have five or more players meeting these benchmarks during the 2016-17 regular season. while playing 1,000 or more minutes. Cleveland had none. And between San Antonio and Utah, the Spurs are the bigger threat to the Warriors in the West.
San Antonio ranked second behind the Warriors in net rating (plus-7.9 compared to plus-12.1) during the regular season and might have given Golden State a more competitive series had Kawhi Leonard, a two-time NBA All-Team selection and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, not been forced to miss most of the series with an ankle injury.
But even with Leonard, the Warriors would still be considered a four-point favorite on a neutral court over the Spurs based on their adjusted scoring margins during the regular season — and that would be the closest matchup among all the NBA teams, signifying just how large the gap is between Golden State and the rest of the league. A gap no one player will be able to bridge by themselves.