The person most upset about Paul George not getting All-NBA honors is definitely Paul George. George missed out on being eligible for an extension worth $70 million more if the media voting had deemed him one of the top six forwards in the league this season.
But almost as upset as George were the people who were going to pay him that extra $70 million. The Pacers seemed to have been dealt a massive blow in their efforts to retain George, which already seemed slim.
Just to review:
- He started off the season by saying there was "no trust, no chemistry."
- He followed up in December, saying the season wasn't any fun and that he missed his old team that competed for conference titles.
- He said there was a "dark cloud" over the Pacers.
- George was unhappy about how communication was handled at the trade deadline when his name was part of talks.
- He said he "wasn't even at that point" to think about his future in Indy when asked about it after the Pacers' season ended, despite being under contract for another season.
- And George was recruited awkwardly by Magic Johnson on national television, and said he would be working out with Kobe Bryant. There are multiple reports linking him to interest in the Lakers.
Then, on top of everything else, Larry Bird stepped down as Indiana's president of basketball operations last month, signaling to many that a true rebuild might be on the way after trading George.
Losing a superstar like George is devastating. There's a reason teams try to avoid losing top players. The Magic traded Dwight Howard in 2012 and still haven't found a way back. It can take a decade to recover. So the Pacers are going to have to get together multiple plans, and fast, and know what they're doing to try and get ahead of the situation.
Option 1: From our cold, dead hands
This strategy follows a simple paradigm -- because you're very unlikely to be able to replace George if you trade him, and that even if you find another star, you're looking at several years until he's ready to compete, your best option is to fight to keep him to the bitter end.
This is where the All-NBA vote hurts. If the Pacers could offer George an extension worth $70 million more, it would have pushed George to the limit of how much money one person can turn down. The Pacers can still offer more money and years than any team, including L.A., but the difference becomes at least easier to walk away from after the All-NBA vote.
The basic plan now starts with doing everything possible to upgrade the roster this summer. Jeff Teague is a free agent, and the Pacers are going to need a starting point guard. Whoever it was that gave George such consternation with his attitude, they need to be gone. Keeping George is worth it. Trading one of Monta Ellis or Thaddeus Young would clear some cap space to add some upgrades ... but the point guard position is pretty bare this summer. Teague is realistically the fourth- or fifth-best player at the position available, even with the fact he's going to demand a huge salary at age 30.
Keep Teague, and you don't have the option of improving the roster.
You put off moving George as long as possible, hope that next season is better and things come together, and try and find deals during the season or at the deadline, then focus on having the most money to throw at George. It's not a great plan, and the conventional wisdom says you need to make sure you get something for George. But if you know you're not getting great return anyway and a rebuild is inevitable, taking that chance is an option.
Option 2: Get ahead of the game
Any conversations with the Lakers start with the No. 2 overall pick in next month's NBA Draft. They just have to. There's no way you can do a deal with the Lakers and not get that selection, particularly since the Lakers don't own their 2018 pick. The Lakers, Lonzo Ball fans that they are, probably balk, but that's why if the Pacers are going to go down this road, they have to establish, and inflate, a market for George. The Celtics will be interested, and have the Nets' 2018 pick.
The backlash is going to be "Why should the Lakers give up assets for a player who wants to come there in a year anyway?"
Well, it's a gamble. If they don't trade for him, he could wind up being traded to Boston, loving it and re-signing there. Or any other team. If the Lakers decide that the No. 2 pick is a non-starter and they're not going to give up anything of real value for a player they could just get in free agency, the Pacers are going to have to make a tough decision. If it's Luol Deng and a second-rounder, you're better off letting him walk. The cap space alone has better value. If it's Julius Randle or D'Angelo Russell and filler? Is that enough?
Let's say the Lakers bite on it, though. Let's say they offer the No. 2 overall pick, Julius Randle and filler contracts in Tarik Black and Corey Brewer for George. (Note: They have to draft Ball and then trade him due to the "Stepien Rule" preventing trading first-round picks in consecutive years.)
In that scenario, the Pacers can acquire Ball, the consensus No. 2 pick in the draft, and rebuild around Ball, Randle and Myles Turner, and have a good team, with the upside of being great. If they can figure out a way to offload Young and Ellis, they basically have a clean slate.
However, here's another idea:
Indiana could make the pre-draft agreement to trade George for Ball, and then swap Ball. The Pacers could send Ball to Sacramento for the fifth and 10th picks, conceivably, giving them theoretically De'Aaron Fox and Zach Collins or Lauri Markkanen, as a stretch-four/five next to Turner. Congratulations, you have successfully rebuilt the Pacers in one fell swoop.
Alternatively, snag the No. 2 pick, and offer Ball to Orlando for the No. 6 pick, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja. Not great return, but moving back four spots still allows you to take one of Josh Jackson, Fox, Malik Monk or Jayson Tatum most likely. Monk, Payton and Hezonja (on a flyer) is pretty good.
Of course, if you're going to go that route, you could just offer George straight up to Orlando, but without a promise of return, it's unlikely the Magic would accept.
The Timberwolves, however...
The Wolves have the No. 7 pick, so you're in range to still get a very talented player, and they have Zach LaVine. LaVine is coming off an ACL injury, so you have to be confident he's going to recover. But before that injury, he looked like he was headed for James Harden territory, a player too good to stay as a third option, but one who was never going to be more with the Wolves. If they could add Paul George to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins? That's a terrifying core. Plus, George gets to play for Tom Thibodeau, a well-respected coach he has worked with at Team USA.
These are all hypotheticals, though. Maybe the Lakers won't offer Ball at all. Maybe the Wolves think LaVine is too valuable to surrender, and certainly not without a pick, and don't believe he'll re-sign. There are always ways these things seem like good ideas on the surface, or at least to one side, and the other side thinks it's a horrific idea they would never do. But for Indiana, these options are not only relatively appealing, they might honestly provide more hope than their current course.
To have two young players and a top-10 pick in a loaded draft is one of the few scenarios that might be better than having a true superstar with little chance of building a contending team around him.
Of course, there's one more team the Pacers can look to make a deal with: the team with the No. 1 pick, the Celtics.
Unfortunately, you're not peeling that No. 1 pick away from Danny Ainge, not even for George. However, they do have good talent and the Nets' 2018 pick. Perhaps the Celtics would part with the Nets' pick in 2018, Avery Bradley (since they can't feasibly pay both Isaiah Thomas and Bradley next summer, especially if they add George), Jae Crowder and maybe throw in one of the two extra picks (Clippers, Grizzlies) they have in 2019 as insurance. Then the Celtics get to keep Thomas, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Al Horford while adding George and Markelle Fultz. Even for Ainge, that's pretty good.
But of course, you run into the same logic problem. Why would the Celtics offer up assets for George when they could just sign him in free agency? Well, for starters, it's not like they can keep everyone from their current core and add George. There's just not enough room in the rotation. Second, as with the Lakers, you run the risk of L.A. swooping in and grabbing him.
The Celtics have the best set of assets for a reasonable trade partner, and have them to spare. But they had them at the trade deadline, too, and opted to wait. It cannot be overstated how the Celtics want to win a trade by large margins.
The leverage problem
All of this feeds into the fact that the Pacers' leverage has been compromised. George is not expected to re-sign, and he has telegraphed a specific destination. For Indiana to re-establish leverage in a deal, it has to take one of two approaches.
- Wait it out, letting the market grow for George between now and the deadline. This comes with risk, if things go south and they improve for the potential suitors, things can go downhill in a hurry. You can wind up with a worse deal.
- Try and get ahead of it. You make a deal unexpectedly early, catch the market off guard with an opportunity to get ahead of a bidding war, and prosper. The Jazz did this with Deron Williams in 2011. No extended drama of trade talks, no distractions, a quick cut of the cord.
In the end, this is the central problem the Pacers will face, and they'll have to sort through all these options, including just letting George walk at season's end. Something is better than nothing in terms of return, but if the return is only marginal impact, and players you have to tie yourself to despite concerns, whatever they might be, it might just not be worth it. The Pacers had a championship-caliber team just a few years ago. But how they manage however long is left of the Paul George era in Indy will have drastic consequence on the future of the franchise.