Let’s trace this. June 2017: Paul George, entering the final year of his contract with the Pacers, doesn’t look like he’s going to stay in Indiana long-term. The broad consensus is that George, who grew up in Palmdale, just north of Los Angeles, idolizing Kobe Bryant in his youth, wants to play for the Lakers. But privately, within the Pacers’ front office, there’s some optimism that George might stick around. President of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard keeps in close touch with George and they’re positively discussing plans for the upcoming season. A week before the NBA draft, George announces he won't re-sign with Indiana in 2018. They can keep him around for another year or trade him, but either way, he’s walking eventually. Pritchard describes this announcement, five different times in a 20-minute press conference, as “a gut-punch.”
The Pacers nearly send him to Cleveland in a three-way trade with the Nuggets on draft night, but Pritchard backs out at the last minute. In early July, they strike a deal with the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The reaction: the Pacers took a bath and George should be an interesting, if obviously temporary, fit with the Thunder. Having also acquired a rapidly declining Carmelo Anthony, the quasi-star-studded Thunder struggle over the first couple months of the season, even things out—10th in offensive rating, 10th in defensive rating, a four seed in the West—then lose to the Jazz in six in the first round of the playoffs. With that disappointing result and LeBron James carrying a busted Cavs team to a Finals sweep, it seems pretty likely that George and LeBron are going to team up in Los Angeles next year.
And then Paul George just... re-signed with the Thunder. He didn’t wait for LeBron to make his decision; he didn’t take a meeting with the Lakers—or anybody else, for that matter. He made it official as soon as he could, on July 1st, smoking cigars with Russell Westbrook in an Instagram post, not a little cornily claiming unfinished business, but more than that, four years and $137 million. It’s going to be him and Russ in Oklahoma City for the foreseeable future.
Does this reveal anything interesting about George? Some might call it flightiness, but it’s not extraordinary for a person to have a dream job, work someplace else for a while and decide that—y’know what?—they’re happy and comfortable where they are. George intensely admires Westbrook. The Thunder are famous—infamous among the media—for zealously protecting their stars from criticism. George is reserved, to the point that he seems almost embarrassed sometimes, to constantly have a bouquet of microphones and recording devices hovering near his chin. It makes sense that he would find a home in a small market. Or it would make sense, anyway, if we hadn’t all spent the last year reading stories about how he was definitely going to be a Laker.
The press screws up sometimes, and that’s forgivable. Journalists get duped or misled, or what they report on Monday is no longer true by Wednesday because circumstances have changed. But there’s this relatively new thing that reporters do that’s troubling: in an effort to feed the content monster, they report things over and over again. June: Paul George isn’t renewing with the Pacers; he wants to go to the Lakers. July: Paul George traded to the Thunder, still going to the Lakers. November: Thunder struggling, George leaving for Lakers. May: Thunder out of the playoffs, George to Los Angeles. This drumbeat of last I heard… repeats throughout the calendar, and really, there is no new information, just an unwavering assumption that what’s probably going to happen will happen, expressed so many times, so habitually, that it becomes barely distinguishable from fact. A few sourced up dudes saying the same thing, and the rolling waves of blogs and podcasts and columns based off that reporting, have enormous, overwhelming persuasive power.
And what doesn’t get expressed enough, because it sounds, against the roaring discourse, like you’re priggishly playing devil’s advocate in a philosophy class: maybe we’re wrong? Or more precisely, maybe we’re not close enough to the decision date to credibly claim to know anything. We’ve got ideas and evidence, but the simple thing that makes those ideas and evidence sort of useless is that athletes, like everybody else, are prone to changing their minds. Is Kawhi Leonard going to the Lakers next summer? It’s very likely, but perhaps he’ll fall in love with the Raptors, or join another team. A whole season’s worth of events is yet to unfold.
The amount of news we consume, about sports and everything else, speaks to some society-wide anxiety that important things are happening all the time that we’re not privy to. Are we sure that’s the case? Most of the time, we are merely living, running through a daily routine without thinking about what we’re going to be doing six months from now. So is everybody else. Athletes in particular tend to be committedly process-oriented people. They don’t zoom out too often. This isn’t to say Paul George rolled out of bed in late June, thought about his future for the first time, and chose to stay in Oklahoma City, but for all the conjecture and reports and photoshop jobs of him in a Lakers jersey, that might as well have been what he did.
Obsessing over the pointless is part of the joy of following sports, but coverage of the Paul George saga poses a depressing question: do we like the noise more than the signal? Because the story died as soon as he signed a new contract, which is to say where George will play basketball seems to matter more than him, like, actually playing. It’s Front Office Brain, or perhaps a fixation on secret knowledge. Whatever it is, it’s remarkably backwards, as if the game itself were a way into caring about business concerns, rather than the other way around.