How Paul George remains the key to the free agent market

Whatever NBA theatrics do come — once the clock strikes 6 p.m. ET, once free agents can begin contact with prospective teams, once several more trades shake the league’s landscape like a snow globe — this July will present the first case study of just how front offices and agents will navigate the new math and restrictions that come with the imposing second apron of the collective bargaining agreement.

That is the ultimate context of Paul George declining his player option and testing the open market. That is the cold, hard truth underscoring Denver’s plight to retain Kentavious Caldwell-Pope after already losing Bruce Brown a year ago. That is why the Warriors have attempted to find trades — such as landing George — with Chris Paul’s non-guaranteed salary, sources said, as Golden State could still retain his valuable salary slot and further improve the roster around Stephen Curry.

It does not matter if Steve Ballmer or Joe Lacob has limitless pockets and is willing to pay the penalties that come with wading into the NBA’s new second apron like the luxury tax of yesteryear. The ability to front that bill doesn’t hand front offices get-out-of-jail-free cards that suddenly grant access to any mid-level spending power, the ability to aggregate salary in trade, send out cash or use traded player exceptions — let alone the frozen draft picks that loom like the bogeyman. It’s one thing if the Boston Celtics have six of their top eight players all under contract and under the age of 30. The Knicks’ threatening core is even younger and more team-controlled. It’s another thing building around aging star veterans all likely looking at the final contracts of their illustrious careers.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 01:  Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers controls the ball against Dante Exum #0 of the Dallas Mavericks during game five of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Arena on May 01, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Paul George has no shortage of suitors. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Clippers, then, have made it clear to this point they have no intention of awarding any player — not Kawhi Leonard, not George, not James Harden — with a contract beyond three years, league sources told Yahoo Sports, in order to permit Los Angeles the future flexibility to evade the penalties of the second apron. The two sides have had months to find an extension similar to Leonard’s three-year, $153 million agreement in January, exchanging various proposals, sources said, but that critical lack of a fourth year from the Clippers, what could be the difference of some $60 million, is what’s prompted George to listen to offers from the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic once free agency begins, sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports, in addition to George’s incumbent Clippers. The reality that dealing George to Golden State would have netted back 75 cents on the dollar — yet still cost a dollar and would still bring those second-apron challenges — were key deterrents in those fizzled trade discussions.

Both the 76ers and Magic, sources said, are prepared to lavish George with four-year maximum contracts, as were the Warriors if George would have exercised his $48.7 million player option for this upcoming 2024-25 season. There’s another team lingering on the periphery of this situation as well. The Utah Jazz have all the cap space, veteran salaries and exorbitant draft capital to add the type of co-stars — such as Mikal Bridges, once upon a time, whom the team attempted to land this week, sources said, before New York splurged six years of first-round draft assets for the Villanova product — to round out a roster that already features All-Star forward Lauri Markkanen. That appears to have been Utah’s dreamiest plot this summer, according to league figures with knowledge of the situation, trading for one or even two more bonafide pieces to then entice George to flee Los Angeles for Salt Lake City. That mirror to how George landed in Los Angeles back in 2019 — when the Clippers sent a bounty to OKC for his services, and thus signed Leonard in tow — is quite fascinating, although incredibly unlikely George makes it a reality.

George does not want to leave Los Angeles because of some rift with president Lawrence Frank or some disdain for playing with Leonard and Harden, sources said. This seems to simply boil down to a 34-year-old All-Star, already barred from signing a five-year contract, thanks to the NBA’s over-38 rule, cashing in on his last swing standing at the plate of the open market. If George flees the Clippers, Harden is still expected to find his own three-year agreement as Los Angeles has explored avenues to get under the second apron to open access to the $5.2 million tax-payer mid-level, sources said. The Clippers are expected to find an extension agreement with center Ivica Zubac later down their order of operations, sources said.

The Warriors face their own predicament, having already agreed with Paul to move back his contract’s guarantee date for the final year and $30 million on his deal. What big swings are still out there, as Golden State has also put Andrew Wiggins on the trade block, according to league sources. The options range across a spectrum of upside, from sending out picks for Brandon Ingram to potentially acquiring one with Zach LaVine, sources said. But if no deal emerges, and the Warriors indeed lose Klay Thompson as Golden State and league personnel currently believe will occur, the Warriors are considering their best options, sources said, with the full mid-level exception that can become available to Golden State.

That market is one of the more interesting aspects of this offseason, where it appears the majority of NBA teams plan to use less than the entirety of the $12.8 million MLE amount. Another aspect of the new CBA allows front offices to not spend that MLE this summer, and then use it as a traded-player exception to acquire any new piece whose salary falls under that number. A player’s appetite for taking $6 million could even be the difference in someone such as Buddy Hield making above the $5.2 million taxpayer MLE. If Hield were to take that from Golden State, for example, the Warriors could sign another $4 million player above the NBA’s veteran minimum salary, or pocket that leftover space as a TPE.

And it’s shaping to be a fascinating mid-level market, especially with word circulating among league personnel that Thompson could be willing to take that amount in order to join the Lakers or Clippers. That would be a steep drop from the two-year, roughly $50 million offer Thompson declined at the start of this past season. He remains on the list of secondary wing options for Philly should George spurn the Sixers, sources said. Dallas appears to be the one of, if not the strongest suitors for Thompson, sources said.

Dallas has plenty of work it's trying to do on the perimeter. The Mavericks already offloaded Tim Hardaway Jr. 's expiring $16.1 million contract to Detroit with three second-round picks, bringing back 24-year-old swingman Quentin Grimes, who’s entering the final year and $4.3 million of his rookie deal. Adding Grimes, through one lens, could also allow Dallas to part with Josh Green in order to upgrade the Mavericks’ contending roster with more championship-proven talent. A sign-and-trade scenario with Green serving as the outgoing salary could allow Dallas to furnish Thompson with a nice contract.

The Mavericks have been thinking pretty creatively about how to improve the roster surrounding Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving that reached the NBA Finals — while still retaining standout wing defender Derrick Jones Jr. The first step was moving Hardaway. If Caldwell-Pope had opted into his $15.4 million for 2024-25, the Mavericks were waiting at the front of the line to try to swing a trade with Denver to land his services, sources said. Thompson now appears to be the veteran wing most likely to join Dallas at this juncture.

All this tinkering originally had that backdrop of trying to reward Jones off his minimum-salary contract of 2023-24, but that will now feature some complications after the bouncy wing terminated his previous representation on June 26. By letter of the players’ union, Jones technically cannot sign with a new agent until 15 days after filing the paperwork to make a change in agency — which won’t be until after the NBA’s moratorium period is long over. It’s a developing situation worth monitoring.

The Nuggets’ optionality pivoting from the likely loss of Caldwell-Pope connects to all the above. Denver was also a team that weighed how to sneak into the possible opt-in-trade sweepstakes for George, league sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports. Denver is currently prepared to lose the veteran two-way wing, sources said, who was an integral fifth starter for the Nuggets’ 2023 NBA title. Caldwell-Pope is said to have strong interest from both Philadelphia and Orlando, where both teams could give Caldwell-Pope upward of two years and $50 million, according to league personnel.

The Nuggets are also engaged in trade scenarios for backup big man Zeke Nnaji, sources said. Denver had given the 23-year-old out of Arizona an opportunity to claim a clear-cut reserve role behind Nikola Jokić, but traded up in Wednesday’s NBA Draft to select a foreseeable replacement in Dayton center DaRon Holmes II. Nnaji’s $8 million salary could be an outgoing package, for example, to bring back Serbian point guard Vasilije Micić from Charlotte, who’s been a target for Denver, sources said.

If Denver moves Nnaji, that gets the Nuggets under the second apron, and they would have access to that $5.2 million taxpayer MLE. One player the Nuggets were considering for that role was Russell Westbrook, sources said, before the veteran opted into his $4 million with the Clippers.

Another veteran to consider in that ballpark is Dario Šarić, sources said, whom the Nuggets have coveted for some time.

After Denver did not extend Collin Gillespie his qualifying offer, the former Villanova point guard is expected to draw two-way interest from Atlanta, Charlotte, Minnesota and Phoenix, sources said, with an opportunity for two-ways and to eventually earn a roster spot. The Suns have been connected to all kinds of guards for minimum salaries, from Kyle Lowry to Monte Morris — and even a potential reunion with Paul, should he ultimately be waived by the Warriors, according to NBA personnel.