NBA Trade Rumors: The Paul George clock has officially started for the Pacers

You express your frustration. You leak your desire to either win now or go to a major market, but never have it attached directly to you. You talk about just wanting to win. You never make commitments when prompted. 

This is how you formulate an exit strategy. 

It's entirely possible that Indiana Pacers wing Paul George has no such intentions to force his way out of the Pacers with a year left on his contract before free agency. But if he was, his actions would be the very model for how to do so. 

The paved road

Following the Cavaliers' sweep of the Pacers on Sunday in a 106-102 Game 4 decision, the next logical question is what the future holds for George. He was asked about that at the postgame press conference, and instead of "I love it here," or "I'm on contract through next season," this was his response:

George did not want to discuss his future with the Pacers. Yet he has already said quite a bit about his team. Some selections ...

Here's George after the trade deadline, in which his name was constantly being mentioned in possible deals: 

Here's George on the team's chemistry in early February:

Here's George in March, on the Celtics, a potential trade partner for George at the deadline:

Here's George on this season compared to the past success of the Pacers when they were an East powerhouse: 

"Maybe I'm just living in the past, of how good we used to be," George told reporters via NBA Columnist/Analyst Shane Young. "All the guys I had around. I'm still living in that moment, maybe. And I got to put myself into a different team. Maybe I have to do more. Maybe that's just what it is. Maybe I have to do more now. But whatever it is, I'm going to figure it out."

The Indy Star has more from George:

"This season hasn't been (fun)," he said. "It's been one of the most frustrating seasons I've been a part of. But I just have to approach it as being myself, to enjoy the process, enjoy the grind. That's only going to show on the court. But more so, it's going to show in the locker room."

To put some of this in context: George had a successful run as a superstar and best player on one of the East's top teams. Then president of basketball operations Larry Bird elected to tear the team down to the ground. He let David West go, traded Roy Hibbert, then shockingly fired Frank Vogel last summer. He tried to force George to move to power forward, which George never wanted to do, and George eventually won that battle. 

Bird remade the roster last summer after installing Nate McMillan as coach. He traded George Hill for Jeff Teague; Hill has had a marvelous season for the Jazz. He brought in Thaddeus Young (a no-show in the series against the Cavaliers) and built around Myles Turner, who looked totally overwhelmed after a strong first-round series last season against Toronto. 

George clearly dislikes this roster, but the Pacers are committed to Young and Monta Ellis for two more seasons. Plus, Teague is an unrestricted free agent this summer, so Indiana either has to retain him at top dollar or try and find an upgrade in a bad free-agency market. 

You see where all this points to?

The exit strategy

Thing is, no one's going to blame George if he asks out with a year left. He has been phenomenal for the franchise, never gotten in trouble and never really spoken out before this season. He's one of the best two-way wings in the league, still entering his prime, and has the talent to be a top-five player in the right situation. 

But the Pacers are a long ways away from being "the right situation." They aren't going to pull in a top-tier free agent, and their trade options are limited. Bird's approach to free agency will be limited by both the Teague situation and Indiana's market vulnerabilities. The Pacers are dangerously close to being stuck in NBA purgatory, good enough to hang in the eighth spot but not good enough to actually challenge. 

At this season's trade deadline, USA Today reported that George wanted to stay with the Pacers, if they can contend. And if not, he would prefer a trade, including being open to being dealt to the Lakers. It makes little to no sense for George to want to be dealt to the Lakers; they are a bottom-feeder franchise with talent that is too young for George to win with and no discernible superstar to put next to him. But George is from California and grew up a Lakers fan. The prospect of being able to become the star to bring them back to relevance might be tempting. The Boston Celtics and their plethora of assets they never actually want to trade away are also said to be in the conversation. 

George is under contract for another season, at which time the Pacers can offer him one more year and more money than another team. There's also the possibility that George earns an all-NBA honor. This would enable the Pacers to offer him the super-max, which would be a difference of up to $70 million versus what other teams can offer. 

Of course, if George doesn't get all-NBA, he can force his way out in a trade, take a season with a one-and-one, and then sign a longer deal as we've seen other stars do. 

George would have to have a talk with Bird and convince him to trade him, and Bird would have to accept such a deal, which seems unlikely. Bird is not going to be pushed around. A deal with his former franchise, the Celtics, might warm his heart. A trade with the Lakers? It might have to be such an overwhelming deal that Bird can't say no. 

And yet, there are so many other teams that would be better for George:

Memphis Grizzlies: A deal is nearly impossible given what the Grizzlies have on the roster to deal, but George joining Mike Conley and Marc Gasol would make for a real threat in the West. Maybe they wouldn't be a top-end challenger, but they would be in the conversation at least. 

Celtics: George is exactly what the Celtics need. He can work off the ball with Isaiah Thomas (or Markelle Fultz) handling, pair with Al Horford in pick-and-rolls and provide the perimeter size that they need. He's just what the Celtics are looking for with all their assets, if they'll ever part with them. 

Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers will have space this summer. What if they manage a sign-and-trade with the Clippers for Blake Griffin, getting Bird a star in return, while getting a more reliable perimeter weapon who can defend? Could be a fit for both sides, but Griffin would have to agree to such a deal, which seems unlikely. 

Houston Rockets: Putting George in Mike D'Antoni's system with James Harden would wreak havoc and give the Rockets a top-level defensive player. Would Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and picks be enough? Probably not, but if George were looking for somewhere new, this is a pretty good destination. 

Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder, too, are low on assets. But George would give Russell Westbrook a running partner. Does George want to deal with Westbrook's dominant personality and ball-dominant game? Or would another small-market environment with a top-tier competitor and a good supporting cast be encouraging?

Cleveland Cavaliers: If the Cavs don't win the NBA Finals and decide to trade Kevin Love ... nah. This one's too crazy. But it's fun to think about. 

The point here is that all the teams where George should go are all low on the assets to get him. He can wait a year and then sign wherever he wants, and that might be the most likely scenario. But after how this Pacers season unfolded, the clock is officially on the Paul George era in Indiana. The only question, barring a miracle from Bird, is whether it runs out this summer or next. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Moore's colleagues have been known to describe him as a "maniac" in terms of his approach to covering the NBA, which he has done for CBS Sports since 2010. Moore prides himself on melding reporting,... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories
    24/7 Scores, News, Highlights
    FREE ON ALL YOUR DEVICES