The long-discussed contract extension for Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George is in place. The budding star will receive what could amount to a five-year, (over) $90 million contract if he meets certain and likely performance benchmarks, as the Pacers are committing a significant chunk of their small market payroll to a player that just three and a half years ago was a relatively anonymous fringe prospect in the days leading up to the NBA draft.
George is a star now, or at least close to it after a season that saw him lead the Indiana Pacers to within a game of the NBA Finals, despite losing their top scorer in Danny Granger for most of the season and the entirety of the playoffs. It was in that realm that George impressed those who hadn’t paid close attention to the plucky Pacers before the postseason, standing toe to toe with both Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James in 13 playoff contests, holding his own despite turning just 23 before the start of Indiana’s three-round run.
Now, he’s set for life, and set for nearly nine figures if things continue apace. Is this the best news for Pacer fans considering that George shot only 41.9 percent in Granger’s absence, while offering an above average Player Efficiency Rating of 16.8?
It hardly matters. Because the Pacers, and by extension Pacer fans, didn’t really have any choice in the matter.
The time for Indiana is now. It’s true that George may not even enter his prime until the end of this particular contract, and fellow young defensive titan Roy Hibbert isn’t exactly graying in the temples, but the team has to strike quickly in order to take advantage of Granger’s last year as a Pacer (Granger, who is wrapping up a five-year, $60 million deal this season, almost certainly won’t be back in Indiana after next summer unless he agrees to a significant cut in pay). It’s true that in Hibbert and George the Pacers boast two of the more enviable young talents in the game, but their talents won’t be able to do much without support from a strong rotation, and Indiana’s rotation (with Granger and an aging Luis Scola) will probably be at its best in 2013-14, as opposed to the luxury tax-averse years that will follow.
How good is “at its best?” Championship-level good, it’s safe to say. Don’t agree with me? Then you disagree with Larry Bird.
“Does this team have the potential to win a world championship?’’
He never blinked.
“Yes,” he said. “We’re all in.”
“Anything less than (a Finals appearance or a conference finals appearance) would be a disappointment,” he said. “I think anything over 50 wins is a good season, but I believe we’re built more for the playoffs than we are for the regular season. Because we’re deep and we’ll have time to prepare. It’s hard to beat 10 or 11 guys.”
The Pacers followed what in a retrospect was a pretty poor 2012 offseason with a trip to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. With Bird back in charge of the team’s front office, their 2013 offseason has been lauded as one of the league’s best summers, with the addition of Scola, C.J. Watson, and Chris Copeland alongside the shushing of the “Paul George wants to be a Laker”-nonsense and the retaining of David West.
Of course, West’s re-signing (for three-years and $36.6 million, appropriate pay but a lot to stomach for a player in his early 30s, working in a small market) and this George extension means that the Pacers are just about done making big moves for now. They’ll entertain trade offers for Granger, but likely for players on small contracts, and possibly for contracts that also expire in 2014. The team is handcuffed in how much it can re-sign Lance Stephenson to when he becomes a free agent next summer, and though the franchise has wiggle room under the luxury tax next year even with George, Hibbert and West making eight figures a year, but there’s not a ton of space to work with in the face of a penalty Bird promises the Pacers will never pay.
This why you commit to George, to that full amount, now. So you know what you have in place, so there’s no tension between player and team as he possibly heads into a restricted free agent turn next summer, and so you can treat yourself to one final fabulous year with George making a relatively paltry $3.2 million in the final year of his rookie scale contract.
That isn’t to say George is without limitations. He still struggled at times to create his own shots in the Pacer offense last year, despite the reps of 98 combined regular season and playoff games as the team’s go-to threat on that end. Paul plays all-world defense, but that didn’t prevent Roy Hibbert from massive criticism from some Pacer fans early in 2012-13, as he struggled out of the gate offensively while dealing with injuries and the fallout from having signed his own giant contract extension during the offseason.
George saw firsthand what Hibbert went through last year, and even more will be expected of Paul in his fourth season. Even with Granger back, to whatever extent, George will be asked to provide a significant uptick from the 17.4 points per game he contributed, on that 41.9 percent shooting. Paul’s defense allowed him to be an All-Star in his third season, but now he’s getting paid like an MVP candidate, and Pacer fans will (and should) demand some heightened box score stats.
The positive kicker here is that George, like Hibbert, is an incredibly well-rounded young man. Whether he struggles or not (remember, Hibbert also had a wrist injury to blame), George will be able to handle the noise.
What a wonderful prospect for Pacer fans to consider. They’re in for a fantastic season.