The Indiana Pacers entered Thursday intent on “gauging the trade market” around the league for superstar swingman Paul George. But after all the intelligence-gathering he could do, when the buzzer sounded on the 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, team president Larry Bird had come to his decision: the four-time All-Star would be staying put.
Indiana has passed on trade offers for Paul George and All-Star forward will remain with the Pacers, league sources tell @TheVertical.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) February 23, 2017
In addition to previously rumored interest from the Boston Celtics that did eventually include discussion of the 2017 Brooklyn Nets first-round draft pick that Boston controls, but that didn’t wind up amounting to much, the Pacers also reportedly fielded an inquiry from the Denver Nuggets …
Denver today made a "monster" offer to Indiana for Paul George, league sources tell @ChrisBHaynes and me, but the talks gained no traction.
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) February 23, 2017
As far as Paul George is concerned, the #Nuggets were not scared away by the prospect of trying to re-sign him. Wanted to get it done anyway
— Chris Dempsey (@chrisadempsey) February 23, 2017
… but Bird didn’t hear anything that dissuaded him from his opinion that keeping his 26-year-old star was the best path forward.
ESPN sources say Indy ownership felt compelled to hear out Paul George suitors but that Larry Bird was determined to swat away all pitches.
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) February 23, 2017
“It’s great for everybody else to put it behind them,” George told reporters on Thursday. “I wasn’t concerned. End of the day, I’m in a good situation.”
Apparently, George was just like the rest of us — waiting to hear what was coming as the clock wound down — and he sure didn’t sound particularly happy about that:
— Clark Wade (@ClarkWade34) February 23, 2017
“I was kind of on the ropes, just like you guys were, on what was about to happen,” George said. “It was kind of a dark moment of uncertainty and that was the frustrating part. You want me to be your guy here, I thought I would have been in the loop a little more on that.”
The Pacers, in fact, made no moves before the final bell, despite what multiple league sources told Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star was Bird’s hope “to make a non-blockbuster trade to bring in a veteran rotational player” to help George, center Myles Turner and point guard Jeff Teague down the stretch. Instead, Indiana will head into the final 25 games of the 2016-17 season with the same roster that logged a 29-28 record before the All-Star break.
“I’m happy that’s behind us. We can move forward,” George told reporters Thursday. “It was on a lot of my teammates’ minds, and they were concerned just as much with what was going forward. We’re in a fight right now. These are my guys, so we’re going to work. We had a good two days of practice. Get ready for the second half.”
That roster’s been good enough to keep the Pacers in position for the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference. The big question, though, is whether what Bird’s built will be good enough to convince George to commit to remaining in Indianapolis for the long haul.
The five-year, $91.6 million maximum-salaried contract extension that George signed in September of 2013 includes a player option for the 2018-19 season. That means that after the end of next season, George — who has called this campaign “one of the most frustrating” of his career — has the right to opt out of the final year of his deal, passing up the $20.7 million he’d earn for that year’s work in favor of pursuing a more lucrative long-term re-up, whether in Indiana or elsewhere.
The quality of the roster Bird’s able to put together around him by then certainly figures to play a role in George’s decision-making.
“As I told Larry, I always want to play on a winning team,” George told ESPN Radio during All-Star Weekend. “I always want to be part of a team that has a chance to win it [all]. That’s important. Say what you want; I want to compete for something. It’s frustrating just playing the game for stats or for numbers or to showcase yourself. Man, I want a chance to play for a chance to win a championship.
“I wanted to be the first and want to be the first to be able to bring a championship to Indiana. So that’s still on my mind … and something I definitely want to achieve in Indiana.”
In addition to the shape of the roster around him, another thing that might be a major factor in George’s decision-making process come the summer of 2018: whether he makes one of the three All-NBA teams after this season.
The new collective bargaining agreement that the NBA and its players reached in December includes a “designated player extension” (DPE) intended to incentivize players to re-sign with their own teams rather than leaving to join other clubs in free agency. (This, as you probably gathered, was almost certainly inspired by Kevin Durant choosing to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder to link up with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors last summer.)
The agreed-upon incentive? Stacks upon stacks of cash … provided you meet some very specific high-end criteria. From Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post:
A player qualifies for the DPE, which can be used to give a player a contract extension or to sign him as a free agent, if he does one of the following:
1. He makes one of the three all-NBA teams or is named either defensive player of the year or most valuable player the previous season.
2. He has made one of the three all-NBA teams or has been named defensive player of the year in two of the prior three seasons or the league’s most valuable player in one of the three prior seasons.
And this crucial stipulation: He has to be on the team that drafted him or has to have been traded on his rookie deal to another team.
[…] Paul George, meanwhile, would become eligible if he makes an all-NBA team this season, because he didn’t make it last season.
The DPE allows a team to give their own player with between seven and nine years of NBA service time (like George) a six-year deal — the final year of their existing contract, plus five more — and pay him a maximum of 35 percent of the salary cap, with 8 percent year-over-year raises. The most a team can offer another team’s free agent with the same number of years in the game? A four-year max at 30 percent of the cap with 5 percent raises. What that means in dollars and cents, per Taylor: “If the exception applies, the Pacers can offer George a contract worth roughly $212.3 million over six seasons; another team could offer approximately $123 million over four.”
If George snags an All-NBA forward slot, then, he could lock in nearly $90 million more guaranteed to stay in Indiana on his next deal than he could guarantee elsewhere. But with only two forward spots available on the All-NBA teams and so much talent clustered at the positions — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, and the list keeps going — it’s looking more likely that George doesn’t crack the top six than that he does, which would shrink the difference between what he could make in Indiana and what he could earn elsewhere … which might open the door to looking elsewhere.
Like — oh, I don’t know — maybe, for example, Los Angeles?
As Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported Wednesday, George has considered re-signing with Indiana “or joining his hometown Los Angeles Lakers” once he reaches unrestricted free agency in 2018, noting that newly installed Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson “has been something of a George family icon going back to George’s childhood in nearby Palmdale, Calif.” Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports went a step further, reporting Wednesday that while George’s preference is to remain with the Pacers and go down as the best player in franchise history, “it’s no secret that the 26-year-old Palmdale, Calif. native would love nothing more than to sign with his hometown Lakers if the future is bleak in Indiana.”
With Indy’s wheeling and dealing coming to naught on Thursday, Amick doubled down:
I repeat: Paul George – barring a title chance in Indy – is hell-bent on heading for Laker Land. This message has been sent throughout NBA.
— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) February 23, 2017
These kinds of things can change, but that is the strong Paul George message being sent around the NBA regarding how he sees his situation.
— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) February 23, 2017
… so, y’know, there’s that.
The passing of the trade deadline means George will remain in Indiana for the rest of the season, but all that really does is kick the can down the road a few months. Now that Bird’s taken the temperature of the league on George’s value, he can revisit the market come the summer, combing for suitors that might be willing to pony up real assets for an All-Star on an expiring contract with the belief that once they’ve got PG in house, they’ll be able to convince him to stick around long-term rather than dreaming of a West Coast return in the summer of 2018.
For now, George remains in a Pacers uniform, ready to lead the squad in a push for another playoff berth and, hopefully, a return to meaningful games in May and perhaps beyond. But he knows the Pacers need to get better to get there … and the Pacers know they might need to get better to keep him around.
“Just, realistically, we have to keep improving,” George said Thursday. “We have to keep getting better. We’ve got to know who’s going to be helpful going forward, and who we’re building around. That’s the only thing we can take away from these next 25 games. We can’t go into the second half, or go into a next season, with any [mediocrity]. We’ve got to just improve. That’s what it comes down to: individuals, team, everybody. We’ve got to improve, and we’ve got to know who’s going to be good with this core.”
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