Paul George is unhappy again. Or still. Either way, the Indiana Pacers are in meltdown mode, and their star — the subject of trade rumors and potential 2018 free agency departure — is straight-up “pissed.”
Once seven games above .500 in early February, the Pacers entered the All-Star break on a six-game losing streak, and then alternated wins and losses for an entire month before losing back-to-back games against the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets last week. A win over the lowly Philadelphia 76ers pushed them to 37-36 over the weekend, and then they blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead to the almost-as-bad Minnesota Timberwolves to fall right back to .500 on Tuesday. Noticing the trend?
The Pacers — owners of the league’s 15th-ranked offensive rating and 18th-ranked defensive rating for a negligible net rating of minus-0.6 — are as inconsistent and mediocre as any team in the NBA, and that’s no place to be. Not when you’ve been stuck there for three years running. George knows this.
Asked to describe the locker room’s tone after their latest loss — the team’s first time losing at home this season when entering the fourth quarter with a lead — George said, via The Indianapolis Star:
A post shared by Ball Don't Lie (@yahooballdontlie) on Mar 29, 2017 at 8:55am PDT
“Pissed. I know I was pissed. It’s the only way to really sum it up.”
“There’s no urgency, no sense of urgency, no winning pride. This locker room is just not pissed off enough.”
If there seems to be a discrepancy between how pissed George was and how pissed he perceived his teammates to be, that’s because there was, even if he didn’t say as much to NUVO.net’s Jon LaFollette:
PG was asked if anyone on the team is at his level of urgency.
PG: "I'm not going to answer that."
— Jon R. LaFollette (@JonFilet) March 29, 2017
George wasn’t done. There’s more, via Indy Sports Legends:
Paul George after the tough loss- pic.twitter.com/WVHUG2zqfY
“We should have a professional approach, man, and defend our home court, especially to a team that’s not even in the playoffs. That’s what it comes down to. As a team, we’ve got to have a grit, and we’ve got to own up, man up.”
Finally, George offered this on how the Pacers blew a 112-106 lead in the final 3:20 of a 115-114 loss:
“To be honest, man, I don’t think I got the ball enough down the stretch. I don’t think I got the ball enough down the stretch.”
Well, then. Tell us how you really feel, Paul George.
Oh, he will, and has — on several occasions this season — striking a division between star and supporting cast the likes of which we haven’t seen since Charlie Sheen left “Two and a Half Men.” That show’s title is an accurate portrayal of these Pacers.
In December, George expressed how bummed he was about showing up for work on the Pacers, saying, “Maybe I’m just living in the past, of how good we used to be,” a shot across the bow of his current crop of teammates compared to the 2012-13 and 2013-14 editions that reached the conference finals.
Last week, it was more of the same from George, lamenting his team’s lack of chemistry in comparison to the group that featured the since-departed Lance Stephenson, George Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert. “I’ve never been on a team without an identity — without a toughness identity,” said George.
Over the weekend, George suggested someone inside his own locker room viewed him as selfish.
“It just seems when I get going or when I go off, I’m looked at as the ball-stopper or the ball hog,” he said after Friday’s loss to the Denver Nuggets, via the Indy Star. “I get labeled as that. Within games I try to move the ball and get other guys involved. When that doesn’t work, that’s when I go as a lone wolf.” Asked if he’d like to identify the individual or individuals, George offered, “No comment.”
He isn’t the only one critical of his own team; Pacers coach Nate McMillan also recently said they’re “not playing the game the right way.” But George has certainly been the most vocal with his criticism.
To be fair, he’s holding this season together with former All-Star Jeff Teague, future All-Star Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, who’s been battling a wrist injury since early February (i.e., “Two and a Half Men”), and a bunch of washed veterans. So, there’s an argument to be made George should be selfish if the Pacers have any hope of salvaging this season, and the Indy Star’s Gregg Doyel made that case:
Frankly, the current Pacers don’t belong in the playoffs. If they’re lucky they’ll fall short, get a shot in the lottery, pick one of the five or six difference-making studs in the upcoming draft, and have something to smile about next season.
But the Pacers aren’t thinking like that. They want the postseason, which is admirable. But the way to get there is for Paul George to take as many shots as he damn well pleases – and for his teammates to get the memo:
This is Paul George’s bus. Hop aboard, or get out of the way.
But taking over on a team that apparently isn’t too wild about your perceived selfishness already — with teammates who you’ve now said don’t have enough urgency, talent and chemistry — will prove difficult.
It actually worked for a while on Tuesday, when George’s jumper with just over three minutes left gave him 37 points and the Pacers a six-point lead. Then, it all went to hell, as George didn’t attempt a shot in the final minute and Teague made what he called “two bad plays on my part,” the second of which was a controversial foul on Ricky Rubio’s 3-point attempt that all but sealed the deal:
— NBA Official (@NBAOfficial) March 29, 2017
The loss dropped the Pacers into seventh place, one game back of the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks, one game up on the Miami Heat for the East’s eighth and final playoff seed, and two games up on the Chicago Bulls in ninth place — with road games against the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers staring them in the face before returning home to play the Raptors again.
“I’m not sure where our head is going to be as a team tomorrow,” George added after Tuesday’s loss. “I’ll make sure to gather these guys around and let them understand, man, that we’ve got to win. That’s the only thing that’s important. The only thing that should be motivational is winning.”
These pleas have fallen on deaf ears for weeks, if not months, so there’s little reason to believe Indiana will be anything other than inconsistent and mediocre moving forward. Whether the Pacers reach the playoffs or not, they’re cooked, George is pissed, and that dynamic will only feed on itself until trade rumors start swirling again around the draft and his 2018 free agency inches closer.
As we enter the regular season’s denouement, George is unlikely to earn an All-NBA nod, given the six available frontcourt spots and the seasons enjoyed by forwards LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler. As a result, the Pacers would not be eligible to offer George the designated player exception worth roughly $212.3 million over the next six years, leaving his future in doubt, since Indiana’s financial advantage over other teams in free agency wouldn’t be as overwhelming as it would’ve been had he qualified for the DPE.
George told ESPN Radio at the All-Star break, “I always want to be part of a team that has a chance to win it [all],” and his preference would still be that the Pacers were that team. But it’s increasingly clear he doesn’t believe the roster as currently constituted is capable of competing for a championship.
Likewise, Pacers president Larry Bird told Bob Ryan’s “Boston Podcast” last week, “I want Paul to be here for the rest of his career. He’s a special kid, and he’s a hard worker. He’s our best player. You don’t give up your best players if you don’t have to.” If you don’t have to being the operative phrase.
If George continues to be “pissed” at the state of affairs in Indiana and Bird doesn’t believe he can satisfy his star’s roster demands (something Larry tried by trading for Teague and Young and signing Al Jefferson this past summer), then at some point the risk of losing George in free agency to a team like the Los Angeles Lakers — who he is reportedly “hell-bent” on signing with — becomes too great, and the Pacers may have to entertain one of the many attractive trade offers they’ll surely receive again.
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