NBA free agency: Paul George to the Warriors? Plus, Klay Thompson's options, more (2024)

NBA free agency: Paul George to the Warriors? Plus, Klay Thompson's options, more (1)

By Sam Amick and Anthony Slater

Jun 28, 2024

The picks are finally done, with the NBA’s inaugural two-day draft coming to a close on Thursday night. And now, with free agency nearing on Sunday, it’s time for Paul George to jumpstart the next phase of the offseason by making a selection of his own.

Is he headed back to the LA Clippers, where the nine-time All-Star can rejoin Kawhi Leonard and (likely) James Harden as they all enter the Intuit Dome in Inglewood, Calif., next season? Or if billionaire owner Steve Ballmer won’t meet the max-years-max-money contract demands that have held up extension negotiations for so many months, does George perhaps head elsewhere?

The 34-year-old has until Saturday to decide on his player option for next season ($48.7 million), and league sources say there is no clarity coming from his camp just yet. But should he decide to leave, either by opting out and entering the free-agency market or opting in and demanding a trade to a destination of his choice, the ripple effects of that move would be significant. And the most compelling possibility of them all, it seems, is the notion of him joining Golden State.

League sources say the Warriors, who have a sensitive free agency situation of their own with Klay Thompson, have legitimate interest in making George part of their new core alongside Steph Curry and Draymond Green. This sort of move would be from the same Joe Lacob playbook we saw on display in mid-February, when the Warriors owner led a failed effort to land LeBron James heading into the trade deadline. So long as Curry is still playing at an elite level, that desire to swing big in the name of title contention will remain. And with all signs pointing to Miami’s Jimmy Butler staying put with the Heat, George appears to be the most plausible star player left in play.

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As is the case with all of the possible George suitors, there’s an understanding that he wants every year and every dollar available to him by way of the league’s collective bargaining agreement. The Clippers, who hoped that George would be willing to accept a similar deal to the one they landed with Leonard in early January (three years, $153 million), have designs on escaping the league’s “second-apron” luxury tax territory by the 2025-26 season and have decided to hold firm in their talks with George as a result.

But would the Warriors be willing to go all-in for a player who would be in his late 30s at the end of his deal, and what else might they have to give up to make a move like that happen? For them and teams like them, it depends on how the situation might unfold.

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League sources say the Denver Nuggets, for example, had serious interest recently in the prospect of adding George by way of a possible extend-and-trade with the Clippers (if he chose to go that route). Yet in addition to giving George the max deal he so desires, they also would have had to give up Michael Porter Jr., Zeke Nnaji and a significant amount of draft capital. The Nuggets value their draft picks perhaps as much as any other contender in the league, and so their interest ended there. But that situation is informative for a team such as the Warriors, who would surely prefer to add George while not giving up any other assets (other than matching money).

Chris Paul’s unusual contract situation is an important and fleeting piece of this puzzle. All $30 million of Paul’s contract with the Warriors next season is non-guaranteed. It becomes guaranteed on Friday, 24 hours before the George deadline.

The Warriors hard-capped themselves at the second apron with a cash-for-pick trade on Thursday. Controlling owner Joe Lacob has expressed a desire to limit costs this summer in somewhat of a financial reset. Releasing Paul before Friday’s deadline would shed that $30 million from the books.

But that Paul contract could be necessary for the Warriors to match salary in a George trade (or any other theoretical swing they’re able to make on the market). The timing of that choice has generated an extra layer of urgency as the weekend nears, though league sources indicate that Paul and the Warriors have discussed pushing back the guarantee deadline. That would give the Warriors more time to search for trade options and Paul a greater chance to pocket the $30 million instead of whatever he’d get as a free agent.

If George opts out, Philadelphia and Orlando have widely been seen as the most logical suitors. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported last week that the Sixers’ interest in George had waned, though one league source close to the situation cautioned to not rule out the possibility entirely. The Clippers, who also have Harden’s free agency to deal with, have some reason for optimism here, as well.

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George is widely known to love living with his family in Los Angeles, where he’s not far from his hometown of Palmdale, Calif. What’s more, his relationship with the Clippers — even with the contract disagreement — is known to be in a very respectful and positive place. The question now, for the Clippers, Warriors and every other team that would like to see him in their jersey, is what factors he’ll prioritize the most in the end.

Is Klay leaving the Bay?

While the Warriors examine the feasibility of the George situation and explore the rest of their options around the league, they’ve left the future of a franchise legend off to the side and increased the risk of losing him. There remains no official contract offer and little contact between Thompson and the Warriors, league sources said, as the potential end of his 13-year run with the franchise becomes more plausible.

A league source said Philadelphia has interest in Thompson. If the Nuggets lose free-agent-to-be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has decided to decline his player option and enter the market, a league source said Denver has pegged Thompson as a possible replacement. Caldwell-Pope, as it were, is believed to be a strong possibility for Orlando. There are a handful of other rival teams also in play for Thompson, depending on his price tag.

Depending on what else the Warriors can get done and how much money they have left over, they’ve maintained a desire to bring Thompson back and an eventual plan to put an offer on the table, believing it’ll be competitive with anything else he’s able to find out there.

But, as The Athletic reported earlier in the week, it has become increasingly conceivable, according to league sources, that Thompson will decide to leave regardless, searching for a fresh start in a different environment, detached from some of the built-up friction of the previous couple seasons and the Warriors’ cold-natured approach to his contract discussions and future.

The Rockets and their perpetual star hunt

If the only Houston Rockets basketball you watched last season was in March, then you might have fancied them a title contender. They won 13 of 14 games from March 2 to March 29 under first-year coach Ime Udoka, with 22-year-old guard Jalen Green starring (28.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game), veteran point guard Fred VanVleet leading (24.4 points, 5.4 assists) and youngsters Amen Thompson (who is 21) and Jabari Smith Jr. (also 21) blossoming along the way.

The Rockets stumbled at the end, losing six of their last nine games to miss out on a Play-In berth. But the stretch, which took place mostly without rising star center Alperen Şengün (also 21) because of a Grade 3 ankle sprain that ended his season, was a clear sign of progress in their youth-infused program.

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Even before then, as The Athletic reported in late January, it was clear the Rockets were on the lookout for a major upgrade to their core. They were, and are, in the star-hunting business (again).

Yet for all the recent focus on 35-year-old Phoenix Suns star Kevin Durant, league sources say the Rockets are only interested in star players whose timelines fit better with their young core. This much was clear last summer, when the Rockets chose against a reunion with a 34-year-old Harden despite his interest in returning to Houston. The same logic, league sources said, applies in the case of Durant. For good measure, Suns owner Mat Ishbia issued a public statement on Thursday indicating that Durant isn’t going anywhere.

NBA Draft night is the best. Everyone talking about the drama and storylines, some are right and some are just wrong.
My turn. Phoenix loves Kevin Durant and Kevin Durant loves Phoenix, and we are competing for a championship this year because we have the team to do it. Gotta…

— Mat Ishbia (@Mishbia15) June 26, 2024

So, who are the Rockets interested in as franchise centerpiece material? League sources say that Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell (who is 27 and widely expected to sign an extension with the Cavs soon), the Suns’ Devin Booker (also 27) and New Orleans’ Zion Williamson (23) would all fit the bill. The only problem, of course, is that none of them are expected to be available anytime soon.

(Top photo of Paul George and Klay Thompson: Gary A. Vasquez/ USA Today)

NBA free agency: Paul George to the Warriors? Plus, Klay Thompson's options, more (2024)

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