LOS ANGELES — When Paul George decided that after seven seasons he no longer wished to player for the Indiana Pacers, he approached the team’s management and asked them to trade him to the Lakers.
“I wanted to go home,” George said Wednesday morning, hours before leading the Oklahoma City Thunder into Staples Center. “Simple as that.”
With George speaking wistfully about what might have been last summer, his hometown is holding out hope for what could still be. The Lakers have failed to recruit top free agents each of the last four summers, but they have built their strategy for the 2018 offseason around signing two superstars to lead a young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma.
They hope one of those stars will be George, who grew up an hour from downtown Los Angeles.
For the more than 150,000 residents of Palmdale, on the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains, the Lakers’ pursuit of George is a constant source of local gossip.
“Obviously living in the middle of Laker nation I get that a lot,” said George’s coach at Knight High School, Tom Hegre. “People saying, ‘Man, I hope he’s a Laker next year.’”
It goes to the highest levels of city government, with a mayor who identifies as a Lakers fan.
“The anticipation is something that people are kind of watching,” Mayor Jim Ledford said this week, “hoping that this thing unfolds the way we hope it does.”
The Lakers made their pitch for George last year, but hours before the opening of free agency on July 1, the Pacers traded him to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
“My reaction was surprised and also excited for him that he gets to play with Russ (Russell Westbrook),” said George’s high school teammate Olando Miller, “but it sucked he didn’t come to L.A.”
George has maintained his All-Star play alongside Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony in Oklahoma City, averaging 20.6 points and 5.5 rebounds, helping the surging Thunder to a 20-17 record and fifth place in the Western Conference.
He is widely expected to exercise his player option this summer, however, with the Lakers expected to be his most aggressive suitor, even after the NBA fined the franchise $500,000 for tampering in August.
The Thunder, of course, will fight to keep the four-time All-Star. Westbrook was long expected to consider the Lakers in free agency, too, but in September he signed a $205 million contract extension that will keep him with the Thunder through…