Our yearly look at who made the playoffs, and ONLY the playoffs …
The Pacers’ problem turns 27 in early May, and he’s demonstrably upset that he won’t be playing past his birthday. Paul George’s season ended Sunday, with Cleveland’s unsteady-yet-good-enough 106-102 Game 4 win over Indiana, in Indianapolis. George was not as masterful as he’s been of late in defeat, his Pacers were patterned after something we can’t quite explain yet, and Larry Bird was not amused:
The loss marked the second consecutive first-round exit for the Pacers, in the team’s first season under new coach Nate McMillan. McMillan, who found success at times leading exacting outfits in Seattle and Portland from 2001 through 2012, helped push the Pacers into a 42-40 record and playoff berth, but the team ended its regular season as confused as it began it, with the squad failing to establish an identity despite 82 games worth of opportunities.
Next to nothing was answered, in spite of a nearly-six month stretch of games and what should have been an uncomfortably close sweep of the Indy skyscrapers (such as they are) by the champs.
George’s uneasiness with his station dominated the season storyline. Outsiders could reliably expect a story showing up on their feed of choice, every six weeks or so, detailing the All-Star’s continued frustration with either his teammates or how his teammates were working or the media’s coverage of how and why, exactly, Paul George decided to dig in on these teammates while on record from time to time.
The setup was not unique to Indianapolis in 2016-17. Paul George is a star and near-superstar that has proven he can not only carry a so-so team to the postseason, but be a part of a championship contender. Disgruntled (to whatever deserved extent) stars are routine in this league.
George is in his prime and can be a free agent in 2018, and unfortunately (in a collectively-bargained agreement the NBA and its players will later move to rue) George’s image as the carping leader of a so-so, first-round loser could keep his 23.7-point, 6.6-assist, 3.3-rebound (28 points, 7.2 assists, 8.7 rebounds and seven total steals in the playoffs – against LeBron) averages out of the All-NBA First or Second or Third Team.
Such a vote would leave George ineligible for a super-max extension, which the Pacers could offer starting this summer, and cost the star a sum total that could exceed $70 million. Whether or not any of us think George deserves the All-NBA placement is not the point: $70 million used to stand as a max extension on its own for a Hall of Fame, top-three player. It’s a chunk of changing worth fighting for. Paul George’s urgency to win as he stares down his prime years, and to desperation to impress with a potential $70 million on the table, is understandable.
This is what took a boilerplate batch of NBA star kvetching and turned it into something more palatable. We don’t regard George with the same concern we had for Dwight Howard’s treatment of the Orlando Magic in 2012, or Phil Jackson’s ultra-avoidable excoriations of Carmelo Anthony. President Larry Bird hasn’t turned into the arch-villain as team president either, and not just because of his sainthood status in the state.
The state knows that while it is tough and admirable to put together a championship contender, a Finals winner seems like a realm best suited for high-minded outfits in Cleveland, San Antonio and Detroit. Nobody excoriates Larry Bird for the same reason that Paul George hasn’t damned his own media-guided torpedoes in his attempt to work his way through all the trade discussions.
Not until the All-NBA teams hit, at least, and when the Pacers’ potential contract extension offer is snipped significantly.
For Sunday? Though? Nah:
Pacers' Paul George on whether he wants to stay in Indiana: "I ain't even at that point yet, Bob. Next question." pic.twitter.com/A85CPLtkVA
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 23, 2017
Each of Bird’s moves can be explained away, which is something you know George (eyeing that extra cash) has considered through gritted teeth.
Bird never had a chance to hire his own head coach, and that itch mixed with his insistence that NBA coaches should only stay in one spot for three years encouraged McMillan’s ascension from associate head coach to head coach. None of the prior appointments were full-Bird selections – though Bird signed off on a series of well-meaning head men like Rick Carlisle, Jim O’Brien and former Obie assistant Frank Vogel (let go after 2015-16), none of those capable three were as noticeably hand-picked by the Pacer president.
Nate McMillan infamously looked to be amongst the worst-suited coach for Bird’s attempts at an up-tempo Pacer attack, Nate’s PDX and SEA squads were routinely in the bottom five in terms of pace during his first 12 years as a head coach, but nothing McMillan did in 2016-17 appeared to be damning enough for a small-market squad to want to excuse themselves of the coach they gave a three-year contract to in 2016. Not after just one season.
Then again, Myles Turner didn’t really seem to establish himself as anything more than a supremely-talented bit player in Year Two, in ways that don’t especially seem to be the fault of the 21-year old center/forward.
After missing 23-34 shots through the first three games (and watching as George called him out mid-series), Turner rebounded with an 8-10 shooting performance in the Game 4 loss, but the impact came a week too late. The big man won plenty of games for Indiana in 2016-17, and the frustration over his failure to ascend survives a second-look, more charitable look at an early-20s kid still burdened by the expectations of becoming the NBA’s next great thing at 6-10 and above. It could be the system.
Turner wasn’t supposed to act as George’s best helper, though. Veteran point guard and local product Jeff Teague was brought in on the hunch that his presence could help what was perceived as a lacking Indiana team (led by fellow Indy-area product George Hill) turn the corner.
Teague played well in his first season back home, 15 points and eight assists and sound postseason play despite some turnover missteps, but George lamented the fact that Hill and the similarly-dismissed Ian Mahinmi were not in the Pacer locker room to lend guidance following the Game 4 loss, even though the Pacer locker room (on paper) was replete with what George called “veterans.”
Veterans that Hill (now in Utah) wasn’t afraid to call out, as Lance Stephenson stumbles to the front of the line.
The Pacer community’s abiding love for Lance is not yet another instance of Indiana residents voting against their own interests, as Stephenson played fantastic basketball in Indy’s Game 4 loss, and he was the would-be tipping point in the squad’s Game 3 defeat. Stephenson was the biggest part of what at one point was a 26-point Pacer lead in Game 3, but also perhaps the biggest part of the squad’s offensive and defensive meltdowns during the Cavalier comeback.
Stephenson’s status is assured, if he plays well next year the team will no doubt pick up the $4.3 million option for 2018-19, and if Stephenson dips in 2017-18 at age 28 (after a series of nagging injuries helped limit his effectiveness in the FIVE stops between leaving Indy in 2014 and his 2017 return) the Pacers will have to be quick on not only the rotation but contract-trigger if Stephenson (at just $4.1 million next year) makes more of a clatter than he should.
Thaddeus Young and Monta Ellis will combine to earn over $26 million from the Pacers next season, though Ellis (by then nearing 33) could see himself waived toward the end of 2017-18 if Bird determines that his $11.69 option for 2018-19 isn’t worth the team’s time. Barring a career turnaround – Bird essentially hired Ellis in 2014 in the hopes that he could engineer a late-career rebirth not unlike that of Jamal Crawford. It hasn’t happened. – Monta won’t be worth that much. The Pacers could stare down the uneasy task of banishing one of the team’s top reserves during a 2017-18 playoff push in order to save for the summer of 2018.
A summer that could see George push his way out as a free agent, destined for any number of clubs that have been stashing away cash for the star in the hopes that the swingman would tire of the Pacers, or Indianapolis, or both.
The problem with that hope is that George wants to see a winner in Indiana for reasons that go beyond wanting the extra tens of millions that Indiana could offer him ahead of other teams. George remains no dummy, though – midseason trade chatter suggested he wasn’t as keen to sit out his prime on a plug-away Pacer team just for the sake of being nice to Indiana.
Paul George would like to have his cake and eat it too, a notion he deserves the ability to chase after. It’s a message the team’s lead owner already acknowledged before pledging to help surround George with teammates best suited for a star in his prime.
The issue is that the Pacers don’t have much room to move. Jeff Teague will be a free agent, and the Pacers can’t let an asset of his caliber walk for nothing. The removal of Aaron Brooks (free agent) and Kevin Seraphin (team option)’s contracts from the ledger won’t do much for the franchise’s cap level this summer.
No, internal development will have to be key, and Larry Bird has already whiffed on his major attempts at restructuring on the fly and on the cheap. Nate McMillan didn’t establish himself as a Coach of the Year candidate, and Jeff Teague wasn’t the missing piece. Al Jefferson, a low-post holdover hired with the best intentions last summer, didn’t play a second in April and probably couldn’t have helped much against Cleveland even if the 32-year old had been healthy.
This is why George’s frustration hardly scans as calculating or too off-putting. The guy watched his career flash before his eyes in 2014, when that right leg buckled under the pressure of a basket stanchion in the wrong place, and his sniping sense of security can’t be compared to, say, John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins or other members of his 2010 draft class.
Larry Bird will be the first to tell you that Paul George has talked plenty this year, but Larry Bird also talked plenty during his playing career, and they gave him millions for that. He earned those championships, though while positioned next to a series of superb, championship-level teammates. No Pacer beside Turner and George, however, looks like it could crack the rotation of the Golden State Warriors, and Paul George wants to compete with that bunch. Soon. Already. Before Sunday.
George reminded his followers after Game for that “not everyone is programmed the same or built the same,” a reference to who is best left talking, left listening, left following and charged with leading. It’s that level of nuance that doesn’t leave either Paul George (even after shooting 5-21 in the Game 4 loss, even after pitching objection all season) and Larry Bird (the guy that turned in the McMillan, Jefferson and Teague deals) looking the part of the bad guy.
Maybe this is what Paul George can forward to, in his next career. As the league’s next great superstar general manager, springing from an Indiana franchise that couldn’t build a certifiable contender due to a heinous mix of career-altering injuries, personal fallout, and shifting league trends. Stopping short in spite of a rule created (with players like Paul George in mind) to keep homegrown, All-NBA talent in small markets.
Paul George doesn’t want to be GM, just yet. He’d prefer to not resume the armchair politicking he saw fit to work into 2016-17’s approach, and he’d really like to cash in on the next few years of his prime.
Those are just the basketball terms. He’d like to make as much money as possible, too, and nothing short of the full hometown discount would allow the Pacers the room needed (with what could be five players, including Al Jefferson, making near or over eight figures) to surrounded George with similarly-celebrated stars.
So far, he’s been forced to play alongside Larry Bird’s attempts at the home run, and mostly as a result the Pacers are out in the first round again. We won’t see this club play basketball again until November, but you can click assured knowing the talk obsessing over Paul George’s future with the club will spark up again once news of those All-NBA teams hits.
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