Inside the Paul George free agency showdown – How the Philadelphia 76ers landed the nine-time All-Star

IN 2019 THE NBA amended the official start of its free agent negotiating period to begin at a more reasonable hour: 6 p.m. ET on June 30 instead of midnight ET on July 1. The idea was to allow for the first round of calls and meetings to be done in time for everyone to sleep on their decisions.

It was all done with good intentions. But weather-related travel delays have no such empathy. Not even for billionaires with private planes like Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris and franchise legend Julius Erving, who found themselves delayed by two hours for the most important free agent meeting of 2024, sources told ESPN.

The Sixers had religiously protected their salary cap space for this summer to be in position to land a third star to team with 2023 MVP Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, who ascended to All-Star status ahead of his own free agency this summer. Philadelphia had delayed giving Maxey an extension, then endured an uncomfortable three-month standoff with disgruntled star James Harden, all in an attempt to preserve a max cap slot for this moment. They passed on trades at the February deadline that might have helped in the short term, but would have hurt their long-term goal of building a championship roster around Embiid, a generationally talented big man who appeared to be on his way to a second consecutive MVP before injuries derailed his 2023-24 season.

Executives like to talk about “championship windows” when building around homegrown superstars like Embiid. The bare minimum is usually five years, once the player reaches his prime years and a franchise has had time to surround him with complementary players. If you’re lucky, you get 10 years and a patient superstar. If you’re not, you get a trade request or the kind of drama Philadelphia has endured acquiring and dismissing previous co-stars like Harden, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler. Only the chosen few get 15 years to contend in relative peace, like the Golden State Warriors have had with Stephen Curry or the San Antonio Spurs had with Tim Duncan.

Philadelphia is entering Year 10 with the 30-year-old Embiid. He has been patient and shown no indication that would waiver in the future. But everyone involved understands the window to win with him won’t stay open forever.

Whatever the Sixers did with their $60 million in cap space this summer, the thinking went, had better result in a roster that contends for championships, not create a new cycle of organizational drama.

The target: Paul George.

The LA Clippers star had always been Philadelphia’s No. 1 option, but before the Sixers could meet with him, they had to wait for him to actually become a free agent. For weeks they heard rumors that the New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors would try to jump ahead of them by trading for George. For months they monitored the Clippers’ ongoing negotiations with George on an extension and wondered if they’d find a way to keep him in his hometown and continue his partnership with Kawhi Leonard.

In between they watched their Eastern Conference rivals in Boston win an NBA title. They watched New York swing the biggest trade of the offseason by acquiring swingman Mikal Bridges.

Their $60 million in cap space was their best shot to keep up, but they had to use it wisely.

Sunday evening, George invited the Sixers’ brass over to his house in West Los Angeles to make their pitch. The meeting was set for 8:30 p.m. local time, sources said. George was flying back from a vacation in Mexico. Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey was at the ready. So were general manager Elton Brand and executive vice president of basketball operations Peter Dinwiddie, whom George and his family knew well from their time together in Indiana earlier in George’s career.

But the plane carrying Harris and Dr. J was delayed by weather, and a decision had to be made. George’s longtime agent, Aaron Mintz, called him to ask if he wanted to wait.

“Of course,” George told him.

Of course you wait for Dr. J … and the guy who could be paying you only the fourth maximum contract given to a player 34 years and older in league history. (Curry and LeBron James are the only other players to have received such deals.)

Both the Sixers and George had waited so long for this moment, another two hours — and a 10:30 p.m. start time — was a small price to pay.

When the Sixers finally arrived at George’s house around 10:30 p.m., they quite literally had their answer.

George was wearing an Allen Iverson T-shirt.

THE 76ERS FIRST uttered the name Paul George as a potential fit alongside Embiid and Maxey almost exactly one year ago.

In the aftermath of Harden’s very public insistence that he’d never play for the 76ers again, Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank called Morey to inquire about making a deal. Morey asked for George in return.

That was a nonstarter for a Clippers franchise that was facing a similar time pressure to win with Leonard and George, who they’d acquired at great expense and even greater fanfare in 2019. Each year of the partnership had been marked by some unfortunate event: the bubble in 2020, Leonard’s torn ACL that marred the 2021 playoffs and 2022 season, George’s elbow injury in 2022 and knee injury in 2023.

Both players had the potential to become free agents after the 2024 season, which meant the Clippers had to do everything they could to upgrade the talent around them.

As much as Harden had become a polarizing figure around the league, he was still a talent and the Clippers felt coach Tyronn Lue could get the best out of him, just as he had the previous year with another polarizing superstar in Russell Westbrook.

But perhaps most importantly, the Clippers were facing the prospect of going over the second apron of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. Though the restrictions around exceeding the second apron hadn’t fully kicked in at the time the Clippers and Sixers were having their Harden talks, it already loomed large. For executives in the league, it has become as terrifying as the inevitable “winter” falling on the Seven Kingdoms in “Game of Thrones.”

The more the Clippers studied its ramifications, the more determined they were to avoid its harsh restrictions. Teams who went over the wall, to extend the “Game of Thrones” metaphor, had basically no way of coming back. Whichever players you have under contract are the players you have to keep. Trades are nearly impossible to execute. Even small moves, like buying a draft pick, aren’t allowed for second-apron teams.

For a team built around three superstars in their mid-30s, as the Clippers were poised to be after acquiring Harden in December, there would be few avenues to acquire “help” if anything ever went wrong — which it inevitably would with players in that age range.

At first it seemed the Clippers’ gamble on Harden would pay off. After a rough start, Harden adapted his game to Leonard and George and the team went on an incredible 16-3 run over the holidays. Leonard had been healthy and dominant and the Clippers rewarded him with a new three-year, $150 million extension Jan. 10.

It wasn’t the four-year, $221 million extension he could’ve gotten, however. And almost immediately, Leonard’s deal started putting pressure on George to take less in his own negotiations with the team.

Leonard and George had talked generally about signing new contracts with the team and extending their partnership. But they’d never talked specifics, sources said, like taking a year and approximately $70 million less than they were eligible to receive.

Furthermore, the Clippers’ discussions with George were for less than they’d guaranteed Leonard, sources said. George and Leonard remained close throughout the season. At one point this week, George even called Leonard to tell him he was looking at other teams, sources said.

But George’s market was different from Leonard’s. He had opportunities for four-year, maximum extensions elsewhere. And the Clippers stood firm in only offering three years at less than the maximum to preserve their optionality, leaving George disappointed, sources said.

Talks stalled then diminished entirely, both sides waiting for the other to blink. George was betting other teams would offer more money, for longer. The Clippers were betting the pull of home would be too strong to ignore.

In the meantime, some 400 miles north, a major threat was looming. With the Warriors failing to even make the playoffs last season despite paying the most expensive roster in the league, and with veterans Klay Thompson and Chris Paul uncertain to return, Golden State turned to the biggest star on the market. The franchise engaged in a spirited effort to trade for George ahead of Saturday’s deadline for him to pick up or turn down his $48 million player option for next season. While the talks were ongoing, sources said George entertained the notion of joining Curry and the Warriors, so the Clippers had a chance to get some value in return for him.

The Warriors were also facing the prospect of the second apron, but they had a trump card to escape it: Paul’s non-guaranteed $30 million contract.

As negotiations between the Clippers and Warriors escalated, Paul agreed to extend the date the team had to decide on whether to guarantee his contract. The benefit to doing so was an opportunity to guarantee some or all of that $30 million with the Warriors or a trade partner, depending on how negotiations for George went.

The Warriors offered multiple combinations of expiring contracts, young players and an unprotected 2027 first-round pick, sources said. The Clippers countered by asking for prized youngster Jonathan Kuminga, sources said. The Warriors resisted because Kuminga is so important to their own future, sources said, but also because they worried George wouldn’t be as interested in joining them if they gave up too much to get him.

At several points, it seemed the teams might reach a deal as talks took place at both the ownership and executive levels. But they never found common ground on the financial implications for the Clippers. As they did with George, sources said LA held firm on not taking back contracts that would land it over the second apron unless there were compelling reasons to do so.

A spirited debate can be had on what would’ve, or should’ve, been compelling enough for the Clippers, and whether their resistance and discipline about not going over the second apron was wise or worth it.

What’s not up for debate is that the new CBA has altered the futures of two of the NBA’s richest, most high-profile teams. According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the Clippers and Warriors paid $947 million in luxury tax penalties the past four years. As it stands now, both will be under the tax this season.

FIVE YEARS AGO, about 30 miles northwest of where the Sixers’ front office, Dr. J and Harris finally arrived to make their pitch, George was meeting with Leonard at rapper Drake’s house in Hidden Hills, California, to plot how they could play together in their hometown.

They’d been talking since George called Leonard to congratulate him on winning his second NBA Finals championship and MVP, and their relationship “just trickled from there.” Leonard could come as a free agent, but George had to be traded from Oklahoma City. Somehow they kept their plans quiet enough that the Thunder and Clippers were able to work out a massive deal that stunned the league and turned the Clippers into instant title contenders.

But the best-laid plans don’t always turn out like they are drawn up. Which is the lesson the 76ers have learned the past five years, too. Butler seemed like the right co-star for Embiid and Simmons. Then Al Horford did. Then Morey turned Simmons into Harden, who had always been Morey’s answer when they built title contenders together in Houston.

Each experiment ended badly and acrimoniously.

Now it’s George’s turn to try to help the Sixers and Embiid win. And the Sixers’ turn to help George win, after he didn’t in Indiana, Oklahoma City and LA.

In Philly, they like to say “Trust the Process,” a nickname Embiid has fully embraced, too. But when they met with George on Sunday night — just a few weeks after Embiid gave George a side-eyed smile on “NBA Countdown” before Game 4 of the NBA Finals in Dallas — the Sixers said something else.

They told him they believed in him and what he could do for their team.

Dr. J told George how much he enjoyed playing in Philly, and how important it was for him when the team traded for Moses Malone, a move that led to a championship in 1983. The franchise has been waiting for another one ever since.

Then, they all thanked Paul George, again, for waiting.

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