What Paul George's opt-out really means for his free agency decision

Paul George is now officially one of NBA free agency’s hottest commodities.

The five-time All-Star has informed the Oklahoma City Thunder forward of his plans to decline the $20.7 million option on the final year of his current contract, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

This comes as little surprise to anybody who has been following the past year of George’s career, which began with him informing the Indiana Pacers last summer that he intended to opt out of his deal in June and preferred to join his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. The Pacers found a trade partner in the Thunder, who took a considerable risk betting that a partnership with Russell Westbrook would convince George to stay, sending a future All-Star and recent lottery pick back to Indiana in return.

George indicated on multiple occasions that the bet was paying off, suggesting Westbrook’s longterm commitment to Oklahoma City and his steadfast support throughout the All-Star selection process were only two examples of why “Russ is the reason … this decision is becoming even easier to make.”

All the while, though, George continued to profess his love for the Lakers. Since his trade from Indiana, the Thunder and Lakers have always been considered the heavy favorites for George this summer, with the Philadelphia 76ers lurking as a dark-horse candidate, and that remains true now.

George can also sign a contract starting at $30.3 million for the 2018-19 season in free agency, which is really all we ever needed to know about why his decision to decline his player option was inevitable.

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George grew up a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. (Getty Images)
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George grew up a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. (Getty Images)

What kind of money are we talking about for Paul George?

It’s what happens after that $30.3 million starting salary that may impact George’s decision. OKC can offer him a five-year max deal valued at $175.7 million — almost $50 million more than what L.A. or others can give him (four years, $175.7 million). That deal gets him to age 33 and gives a guy who suffered a gruesome leg injury and who required knee surgery at this season’s end longterm security.

As one agent said, “Longterm security? $140 million vs. $180 million or whatever the numbers are — seriously!” It’s hard to tell what those numbers mean to a star, especially one who’s made more than $80 million in his career already. His decision may come down to fit more than anything — reaching his ceiling with Westbrook, returning home to build something in L.A. or chasing a title elsewhere.

And as New York Times scribe Marc Stein noted last week, there are rumblings that George is leaning toward a return to the Thunder, potentially on a two-year deal with a player option for next summer.

What happens if George re-signs with the Thunder?

This could be the best of all worlds for George. After ending the season with a bad taste in his mouth about what might have been for Oklahoma City, he can give the Thunder at least one more shot, enter free agency again next summer, when his max will be even higher and more potential star partners join him on the market, or ride it out until 2020, when he will be a 10-year veteran eligible for 35 percent of a team’s salary cap (rather than the 30 percent he’s currently up for after eight seasons).

Re-signing raises some issues for the Thunder, too. They will be on the hook for almost a quarter-billion dollars, an unsustainable payroll for a smaller-market team that traded James Harden just to avoid paying the luxury taxes down the line. This is also the team that failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs. While Andre Roberson’s return to health could make them a bigger threat in 2018-19, how willing will ownership be to pay so much for what appears not be a title contender?

What happens if George leaves for the Lakers?

And if George does go to the Lakers with LeBron or other stars, creating yet another contender out West, what do we make of a Thunder team with Westbrook as its lone star, still with little room to build around him? How quickly will Oklahoma City have to consider a rebuild if that happens?

There are those who believe L.A. is still very much on the table for George, perhaps even on his fork. And whichever path he chooses, his decision could send shockwaves through the rest of free agency.

How will George’s decision impact the rest of NBA free agency?

LeBron James is reportedly on the lookout for super-team cohorts, and George would certainly qualify. However, if George returns to OKC and L.A. fails to obtain Kawhi Leonard (they are among teams “fully engaged” in discussions with San Antonio), LeBron may just re-sign with Cleveland or head elsewhere.

In other words, George’s opt-out is merely the first step in what could be a wild week ahead.

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!