David Murphy: The argument for the Sixers signing Paul George actually makes some sense

David Murphy, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Basketball

PHILADELPHIA — The argument for handing Paul George a four-year, $216 million-plus contract is a lot of things.

It is compelling. It is sensible. It is rational.

It is also extremely difficult for me to accept.

But I’m getting there.

When the Sixers first floated the idea of making George their primary target this offseason, my reaction was one that many readers shared.

They can’t possibly be serious, can they?

After watching James Harden wheeze his way through two straight postseasons and then force his way out of town, the Sixers were really going to put the fate of the Joel Embiid era in the hands of another aging superstar with a perpetual wandering eye? A superstar who has missed more regular-season games than Embiid himself over the last five seasons? A superstar who has played in six playoff games over the last three years?

The only scenario in which George would even consider signing with the Sixers was one in which the Clippers refused to give him the maximum four-year, $221 million contract that he is eligible to sign. If the Clippers, a team that had seen George up close and personal for five years, a team in win-now mode with a new arena to fill, a team with the richest owner in the league, did not think it wise to guarantee him $50 million a year through his 37-year-old season, how could it possibly make sense for the Sixers?

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks asking a variety of people that question, including several with direct knowledge of the Sixers’ thinking. The more I listened, the more I thought it through, the more logical the argument became.

It goes something like this:

1) The Sixers do not have the option of building the sort of team that would enter a season as a Celtics-level title contender without a player like the one Paul George was this season and has been throughout his career.


2) While the odds that George will continue to be that player at age 34 are less than 100%, and will fall with each additional year of his contract, they are higher than the odds that any other free agent or trade acquisition will be that player, which are close to zero.

3) Whether the Sixers spend their $60 million-plus in salary-cap room on George or some other combination of free agents, there is a high probability that they will enter a rebuilding phase by the end of this next four-year window. As long as Embiid is healthy and playing at his current level, and Tyrese Maxey is next to him, the Sixers will be able to cobble together a team that can hope to compete at the level of this year’s team, regardless of the other contracts it is carrying. The moment Embiid isn’t healthy or playing at his current level, it won’t matter if the Sixers have a 36- or 37-year-old Paul George or a 28- or 29-year-old Malik Monk. They will be a lottery team either way.

4) Unless the Sixers think they can pay a 26-year-old Monk and whoever else $50 million per year and get a team that has significant title odds, they might as well pay a 34-year-old Paul George $50 million. In other words, the worst potential outcome of paying Paul George is negated by the best potential outcome of Plan B, because the best potential outcome of Plan B is still a team that is highly unlikely to win a title.

5) The correct strategic decision is to sign George and hope for the best. Even if it fails, the Sixers are likely to end up in the same place they’d be if they signed whomever they would sign instead of George. That is, without a title.

There is plenty of sense in the rationale outlined above. I’ve done enough digging into the free-agent market to conclude that there is not a viable Plan B that would leave the Sixers with a markedly improved team over last year. So, I agree with their thinking there.

Take Monk, for instance. There’s a decent chance he ends up signing a contract that has negative value the moment the ink is dry. At 26, he could conceivably evolve into something greater than the dynamic sixth-man-type scorer he has been in Sacramento. But there is also a chance he ends up in the same situation as Tobias Harris: good player, but not good enough, and overpaid to the point of competitive disadvantage.

At this point, my greatest skepticism involves George’s interest in the Sixers. The appearance with Embiid on NBA Countdown felt too staged to accept the obvious conclusion. The likeliest outcome of the thing is still George leveraging the Clippers for all that he desires. Like the Sixers, L.A. does not have many other options.

The Sixers are well aware of this. While signing George is their ideal scenario, the most important variables are out of their control, and more than likely to swing against them. It will be interesting to see what, exactly, they have in mind as their next-best alternative. The worst-case scenario is a fun, interesting team that has as good of a shot at contending for a title in 2024-25 as any other team they’ve fielded to date (outside of the Jimmy Butler year). That, plus the optionality to take another big swing should the opportunity arise.

And if George really is willing to head East?

It really might be the least worst choice. By a significant margin.

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