INDIANAPOLIS – Paul George got the shot he always wanted, the shot he told teammate C.J. Miles he needed to take in the closing seconds, the shot that he’s clearly rehearsed numerous times, based on his latest sports drink commercial. What George didn’t get was the desired result as his potential game-tying 3-pointer soared over the rim and off the glass, putting an end to the Indiana Pacers’ season – and, possibly, his career with the organization.
Reality rarely lives up to fantasy, and George should take that into consideration as he ponders an uncertain future that hinges on many factors that are beyond his control. Did NBA writers vote him on to one of the three All-NBA teams and give the Pacers a nearly $80 million advantage in hopes of re-signing him to a massive extension? Has Larry Bird seen enough of his team – of George – to determine that the time has come for a franchise averse to rebuilding to move its lone All-Star and start anew? Will the Los Angeles Lakers get the top-three pick in next month’s NBA draft lottery that would likely be needed to deal for a player with whom they have mutual interest?
As a dejected George sat at a podium after the Pacers were swept in a seven-game series for the first time in franchise history, the four-time All-Star was the most measured and coy as he’s been when asked about whether he wants to remain in the same uniform and what it would take for him to be persuaded to stay.
“I ain’t even at that point, yet,” George said after the Pacers lost 106-102 on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Lakers president Magic Johnson jokingly made his desire to have George in a purple and gold uniform known publicly during an interview last week with late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, laughing and winking about how he was well-versed on tampering and couldn’t recruit a player under contract with another team. And one of the league’s worst-kept secrets is that the Lakers have a strong appeal for George given their proximity to his hometown of Palmdale, Calif., and his affinity for Kobe Bryant, even though George actually grew up a fan of the Clippers.
Becoming that star that Los Angeles has desired since before Bryant retired certainly is attractive, but George should pursue winning first, wherever that is. The MVP favorites aside from James Harden – Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard – all play outside the scrutiny of major media markets and have no problem receiving endorsement opportunities. It certainly hasn’t held back George in that department because he stars in commercials and has a signature sneaker while playing in Indiana.
George doesn’t have to look any further than the previous players who established themselves as stars in smaller markets and pushed their way toward a bigger market. Carmelo Anthony lost his prime to a bumbling franchise in New York and hasn’t come close to winning the way he did in Denver. Dwight Howard is now with his third team since forcing his way out of Orlando five years ago. Deron Williams went from being in the debate for best point guard in the league while in Utah, to questioning his desire to play basketball after joining the Nets and now is with his fourth team, in a reserve role, in Cleveland. Chris Paul remains one of the best at his craft but hasn’t gone any further with the Los Angeles Clippers than he did in New Orleans. The grass isn’t always greener. Sometimes the other side is asphalt.
For all George endured to regain his spot among the game’s best players, languishing with an organization that remains a ways from contending would be a waste. Bird did right by George in finding a talent like Myles Turner, who has the makings of a big-time player once he matures. But the remainder of the roster is an ill fit for George, who could use a few more hungry, defensive-minded veterans. When Lance Stephenson, collected off the scrap heap before the end of the regular season, is your second-most impactful player in the playoffs then those other moves didn’t work out so well.
“End of the day, it falls on me. I can always do things better,” George said.
Stephenson took George back to those days before his leg snapped, when the Pacers had a toughness, a grit, and veteran leaders such as David West and George Hill. The Pacers have moved on from their most successful team since Reggie Miller retired. And, George never hid his frustrations with this season, a first in which he was to serve as the unquestioned leader of the team. He no longer had older teammates to motivate others, leaving him to just handle the scoring burden and the shutdown defense. He also had to learn so many new pieces, what made them tick and how he should assert himself without limiting their contributions. The challenge of becoming a leader was a difficult one for George to grasp, littered with moments that he labeled as “dark” – especially after his name wound up in trade speculation at the deadline. He was criticized for being pouty, for being too honest about conversations that he had with teammates. His blunt talk was sometimes misinterpreted as separating himself from the team, but he was just grappling with how to handle all of his new responsibilities.
“Every year isn’t a golden year,” George said. “It’s going to be some ups and downs in a career. I’ve learned that not every year is going to be special. You’ve got to guide your destiny when it comes to that. It was good to learn. This year, I was just able to take everything in, try to grow and try to learn from it.”
The Pacers had to scrap just to earn the seventh seed for the second season in a row. George has been statistically brilliant in both postseason appearances since Bird decided to build around him but he has had to swallow a first-round exit each time. George can opt out of his contract and become a free agent next summer but is eligible for an extension this summer. He has repeatedly put the ball in the court of Bird and Pacers to give him a reason to stay. But now comes the hard part for a franchise not known to bottom out. Small markets have a hard time attracting secondary stars but the Pacers have to decide how far George can take them.
The new collective bargaining agreement puts original teams at an advantage when it comes to paying their star players but it also presents another dilemma for teams to determine whether it’s best to make such a huge financial commitment to a player that’s good enough to lead you to the playoffs but is unable to do much more after that. They have to pay the stars that they develop or risk alienating their fans by not investing in their progression. Sacramento was the first team that determined that the ceiling for a team led by DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t enough to give him $200 million.
There are 15 All-NBA players but there aren’t 15 franchise players in the league. At most, only a third of those players can put a team in contention by his mere presence. James is his own roaming championship contender, as he completed his fifth consecutive first-round sweep. He is perhaps on the tail end of his physical peak – though his chase-down block on Thad Young suggests otherwise – but has entered an unbreakable mental phase of his career. He refuses to provide much hope or be defeated and will find the smallest crack from which to ruin dreams.
“It’s real frustrating to continue losing to the same team, or the same person. It’s what I work hard for in the summer, to try to help lead a team of my own and it’s ultimately who I’m always going to see and face. But again, came up short. Didn’t do enough,” George said. “If we want to win, that’s the team that we have to work towards stacking up against. If we want to be serious, that’s the team we’ve got to look at and figure out how can we match up against them.”
George has had James end his season four times, but never in such emphatic fashion. Granted, the Pacers lost the series by a combined 16 points, the fewest for a four-game sweep in NBA history but they don’t give out awards for that. Before this season began, George stated that he was ready for James. He got his wish. But just like that errant shot, George couldn’t deliver in the moment he requested. If he is given his dream of returning home, George should prepare himself for the less-than-ideal outcome before getting too obsessed with the fantasy.
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