It was largely expected, but doomsday arrived suddenly for the Indiana Pacers this weekend when Paul George’s agent, Aaron Mintz, informed the front office that he will not re-sign when his contract expires following the 17-18 season.
Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical included George’s preference to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers next summer in his report, while Nate Taylor of the Indy Star tweeted that the Pacers were somewhat blindsided by the news. Heading into the weekend, Indiana planned to move forward with offseason plans to build around George.
George hasn’t requested a trade, but the Pacers have quickly turned their focus toward potential matches nonetheless. Kevin Pritchard, who took full control of the front office when Larry Bird stepped down as president of basketball operations in late April, hasn’t ruled out any options for his roster -- including a George trade, trying to win now, or completely rebuilding by trading away everyone except Myles Turner.
After the Pacers’ season ended at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games, I outlined all of the options at play for both sides. The 12th of those options, listed under the realistic category, was George informing the club that he won’t re-sign sometime between the lead up to this week’s draft and next February’s trade deadline.
While waiting to inform the Pacers of his plans until midseason might have bought them some time to convince him that there is a path to a championship, doing so now erases any false hope.
It’s hard to determine exactly when George soured on his future with the team. Maybe it was in December when the Teague-Young-Turner supporting cast showed significant flaws. It could have been when George Hill was traded. It might have even been as far back as when several Pacers, David West most notably, were left unhappy with how Bird treated Roy Hibbert during his final days in blue and gold. Maybe he’s simply a realist and has acknowledged that this team is much further from a title than they were in 2014 when he was just 24.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Barring a significant change in direction, Paul George has played his final game for the Pacers.
So where do they go from here?
With Pritchard making the decisions, while Bird looms despite dropping his title, the endgame seems predictable. Pritchard is aggressive and hasn’t wasted any time setting the market for George. Pritchard has been initiating trade talks with several teams since receiving news of George’s plans.
There are both pros and cons to how the Pacers and George have arrived at this stage. On the plus side, Indiana now has no reservations about placing George on the block and fielding any and all offers. There remains the romantic idea of holding onto him, aggressively retooling and hoping he has a change of heart, but this story won’t have a Hollywood ending.
It might, but not for the Pacers.
The public nature of George’s declaration is the most harmful aspect for the Pacers. If the report is to be taken as fact -- which it is given the name on the byline – the Pacers have lost any leverage they had in extracting the most from an interested team. The package was unlikely to be massive, given that George is only under contract for another season, but now the league’s 28 other teams know that he truly has his eye on playing for the Lakers in 2018 -- at the latest.
There is one aspect to Wojnarowski's initial report, from which details snowballed, that is intriguing. Who was his source? The easy answer is Mintz, but that's still ultimately a guess. It’s certain the leak didn’t come from the Pacers, who could have kept the details to themselves and engaged in negotiations that would have been filed under ‘due diligence’ before word spread.
The Pacers now enter talks with teams aware George is a one-year rental. He could be fall in love with a new city, team and front office, but even if one feels they can dissuade him from signing with the Lakers, that won’t be on the bargaining table. No matter a team’s angle, they all know Indiana’s.
The right trading partner for the Pacers is a team desperate for a star, whether one piece away or three, with enough future assets to spare. The obvious choices are the Lakers, Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns. The Cleveland Cavaliers are also in play with Kevin Love shipped to Indiana or perhaps a third team.
Why would a rebuilding team want Love and his massive contract? For one, he has a long-term deal and acquiring a star is hard especially in a league where teams are fighting to stockpile three and four. Love may not match George’s talent and potential, but he’s still elite and would attract attention.
David Aldridge reported that the Pacers are beginning conversations by asking for two first-round picks and a starter, a package that would amount to a big win for Pritchard considering his lack of leverage. The trick involved in any picks received will be the protection involved. The Celtics, for example, could offer two of the seemingly endless firsts they have accumulated, but protect one of them heavily.
Moving on from Paul George will be difficult for the Pacers as it is for any franchise that loses a player in his prime that already ranks in their top-5 historically. Most of the pressure is now off. They can definitively focus on what they can get for George instead of whether or not they should move him.