For the fourth time in six seasons, the Indiana Pacers have been eliminated in the postseason by a team led by LeBron James. This result, more than any other, could have a resounding effect on the future of the franchise.
Paul George is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in July 2018. His future with the Pacers is in question as they struggle to return to the level of success they enjoyed in the early part of his career. The landscape of the NBA has changed over the last decade-plus. No longer are teams willing to gamble on free agency with their superstars, they’d much rather trade him to ensure some sort of return.
Donnie Walsh, the architect of the Pacers’ teams that contended in the 1990s, always feared the Knicks or Lakers would try to sign Reggie Miller, but never considered trading the future Hall of Famer. Thirty years since Miller was drafted and more than a decade since he retired as the face of the franchise, the Pacers face a conundrum with their current franchise player.
If he stays, George is on a path to become the best player in Indiana’s history. I ranked him as the fifth-best player historically in November, behind only Roger Brown, Jermaine O’Neal, Mel Daniels and Reggie. Does this matter to him? Only he knows.
The way the collective bargaining agreement is structured, how rosters are constructed and the value of draft picks will make the next 17 months complicated for George, Larry Bird and the Pacers. While the end game is rather cut and dry -- George either signs a long-term deal with the Pacers or leaves -- there are a number of ways in which the future will be determined.
Here are 13 decisions that could determine George’s future, grouped by likelihood:
1. George plays out contract, signs elsewhere.
This would be the absolute worst-case scenario for the Pacers as it would involve Bird thinking he had a very good shot at re-signing George. It wouldn’t matter where he signed, although a destination in the Eastern Conference would certainly add to the pain.
2. George makes All-NBA Third Team
The ability to offer George the supermax is certainly an ace in the hole for the Pacers, but it won’t matter as much as the media would lead you to believe. There is also a very high chance that he is left off the squad with stiff competition among wing players.
3. Lakers offer big package prior to draft or in February
True or not, the Lakers are perceived as the biggest threat to Indiana’s chances at keeping George, but if he’s to exchange blue and gold for purple and gold through a trade I’d expect one is much more likely at midseason than this summer.
The Pacers would then get to see more from the young players the Lakers would include in any package for George. Additionally, if the Sixers end up with the Lakers’ pick this June you can eliminate this as an option this summer entirely.
4. George plays good soldier, but pushes Pacers to move him at trade deadline.
This would play out differently than George informing the Pacers he won’t re-sign because it would involve an offseason of retooling and would rely very heavily on how the first half of the season plays out. This is a complicated two-party dance. If George wants to remain in Indiana, the Pacers will give him the contract he deserves. Conversely, both the team and the player have the power to set the course for a trade.
5. Pacers hold onto George through free agency.
This would take huge guts, but if any league executive has the fortitude to risk losing George while getting nothing in return it is Bird. It would not be a good look in the wake of Oklahoma City watching Kevin Durant walk away, but the Pacers could make the following arguments: a) superstars are hard to come by and b) it maximizes their opportunities to get him to buy in for the long-term.
Holding onto George as long as possible would give Bird another trade deadline to look for help (instead of flip-flopping between that and moving George as he did two months ago) and more time for young talent (Myles Turner, 2018 first-round pick) to mature and prove himself.
6. Pacers spend time trying to impress George only to deal him this summer.
This route could set the Pacers back even further than allowing George to simply sign elsewhere. It would involve moves such as trading a first-round pick for immediate “help” as Bird did last June in acquiring Thaddeus Young for the 20th pick.
7. Pacers make George part of offseason decision-making process.
There is inherent risk here as well, but it might be the easiest way for the Pacers to make sure George is fully invested in the franchise. He complained this past February that the front office didn’t keep him in the loop as rumors swirled, so giving him a seat the at table could go a long way.
The danger, of course, is that you cater even slightly to George and then at some point over the next year he’s gone. This may or may not include discussing Nate McMillan’s future with George. The change from Frank Vogel to McMillian was far from smooth. He struggled in big spots in the postseason and his low salary might be conducive to a change while under contract. This is rated as possible instead of realistic because it wouldn’t be in line with Bird’s style.
8. Sixers offer big package prior to draft.
Philadelphia has the pieces to make a move, but it would seem that any trade would have to come with assurance that he’d remain long-term. If the Sixers end up with two picks near the top of the draft, they’ll look like a much better trade fit.
9. Mystery team offers big package prior to draft.
Denver reportedly made a huge offer for George at the deadline, which leaves open the possibility of another dark horse emerging. The Orlando Magic could be an option as they have two first-round picks this June and it seems like at least one first would have to go to Indiana in any deal. This will depend on how long it takes the Magic to decide on a permanent replacement for Rob Hennigan and who is given the general manager title.
Pat Riley can never be underestimated and Bird has been linked to Goran Dragic in the past. Miami could offer a package that includes a pick, Dragic and Justise Winslow. Such a package would become more attractive if Teague won’t be re-signed.
The Timberwolves (Ricky Rubio) and Suns (Eric Bledsoe) could also enter the fray with a guard/pick baseline offer.
10. Pacers hold onto George through trade deadline.
If Bird remains in control and George doesn’t request a trade, this seems like the most likely option. The Pacers would undoubtedly get the biggest package in return for George this offseason, but they’ll have to balance that while considering that landing a player of his talent is difficult -- especially in their situation.
The Pacers aren’t going to sign an All-Star outright and lack the assets needed to swing a swap for one (which is why they find themselves in this situation). The path to Bird having a superstar on the roster in 2018 and beyond involves either keeping George, drafting one or acquiring a blossoming one in a deal involving PG. The safest option is to grip the incumbent, proven superstar tightly for as a long as possible.
11. Pacers decide to shop and move George between lottery and draft.
Should they decide that trading George is the only end game, moving him sometime between lottery and draft night is absolutely the best window to do so. The return would be maximized and the draft spots for suitors like the Celtics, Lakers and Sixers would be determined.
It didn’t make sense to move George for a 2017 first-round pick at midseason when the Pacers had no idea exactly what they were getting. This isn’t your typical trade -- a few draft slots will make a significant impact on trade talks especially with Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball available.
12. George informs Pacers he won’t re-sign before February 2018 deadline.
While it’s a doomsday scenario for the franchise, George issuing a firm edict would take a good amount of pressure off of the front office and set a clear course going forward. Depending on when the demand would come, it could also save Bird from dragging his feet.
If he knows there is little to no chance he’ll re-sign, George would be doing the franchise a service by pulling the plug on hope and setting in motion a move that will be key to future success.
13. Celtics offer big package prior to draft.
Given that other interested clubs would have to empty the cupboard to make a deal, the Celtics remain in position to make the best offer for George (or any other superstar) while also remaining competitive immediately. A lot will depend on where the Nets’ pick lands. If it’s too high the Celtics may not want to part with it, while the Pacers may be more likely to accept an offer if it is the first or second selection.