On Thursday morning, ESPN NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski published a podcast with Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell as his guest for the episode.
The two discussed a variety of topics, with one of them near the end being how Mitchell will try to recruit free agents to the Beehive State. Specifically, Wojnarowski asked Mitchell about Paul George, the Oklahoma City Thunder star wing who was a driving force in Mitchell deciding to enter the NBA draft last year, and who has a player option on his contract this summer.
Utah, of course, has historically been an undesirable place for free agents, with Carlos Boozer being the biggest name the Jazz have ever landed. It’ll likely end up being the same story with George, with the prevailing thought being that he’ll go back where he grew up and sign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But there are at least a few factors that make George ending up here an interesting thought. With he and Mitchell’s friendship as a starting point, it also makes sense from a basketball perspective. George knows firsthand after a first-round playoff exit that Utah is an up-and-coming team with Mitchell, center Rudy Gobert and NBA Coach of the Year finalist Quin Snyder.
Nevertheless, the Jazz still have a big need for another player who can create his own offense, even with Mitchell likely being even better next season. Utah finished the 2017-2018 regular season 19th in points per game and 15th in efficiency, which measures points per 100 possessions, and thus factors in pace (Snyder's club finished 25th in pace).
In other words, while the team was moderately successful overall offensively, it had to grind out possessions and manufacture offense because it didn’t have much in the way of players who could get their own shot beyond Mitchell. Scenes were often replayed of him getting the ball at the end of the shot clock after the offense had stalled to try to make something happen.
If George was in the fold, so much pressure would be taken off Mitchell, and the two would seemingly be able to play off each other offensively. Additionally, unlike some other excellent scorers, George is also an incredibly good defender, which would go in line with the Jazz’s identity on that end of the floor.
Imagine Mitchell, George and Rudy Gobert as Utah’s core, to go along with guys such as Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder. That’s an incredibly good group, led by Snyder. It would seem that George would find such a situation desirable from the combination of having a starring role while also having the chance to make serious playoff runs.
Could the Jazz make it happen from a financial standpoint? That becomes a bit of a tricky question. George will command a contract somewhere in the ballpark of $30 million annually. If Utah essentially stands pat, it wouldn’t have the salary cap space to sign him, but there are some reasonable things general manager Dennis Lindsey could do to open up that space.
First, he could free about $13 million by opting to not bring back the trio of Thabo Sefolosha, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh, who all have nonguaranteed deals for next year (although the guarantee dates for all three are in early July).
The next logical step would be to try to trade Alec Burks, who was out of Snyder’s rotation for much of the season. Burks is due to make $11.5 million next season, the final year of his deal. The thought earlier in the year was that Lindsey would have to attach a first-round pick in order for a team to want to take on Burks’ salary, but he did have a nice postseason. Perhaps a team would want to have him for a year?
After those two moves, the Jazz would have about $25 million in cap space, and nearing the luxury tax would seem like something the team would be willing to do if it meant landing a player of George’s caliber.
Lindsey said at exit interviews that he anticipates his roster will be largely the same next season as it was this year, and landing a player such as George in free agency seems like a longshot for Utah, but with Mitchell in the fold as a budding superstar, it’s more of a realistic possibility than it has ever been.
"I'm definitely going to have that conversation," Mitchell told Wojnarowski at one point, adding later, "You can only imagine what we’d be able to do if we had that one big piece. It would be great. If not, like I said, we trust our abilities to do well, but it would be great to have that one piece like you’re talking about.”