On a night that Paul George had 36 points, 15 rebounds, and nine assists, the Pacers blew a 25-point halftime lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers to lose the third game of the series. They will almost certainly be swept out the first round.
This happened a game after George said that Lance Stephenson needs to control his emotions and body language better, and that Myles Turner, who had a below-average Game 2 with six points and five rebounds, needs to take his game to the next level. These comments were twisted and phrased as attacks on his teammates and seen as further indication that George wants to and will leave the Pacers.
The conclusion has already been drawn. That George will leave Indiana is already determined, so now everything he does, good or bad, becomes a premise for this impending departure.
If he says that his teammates need to be better, whether emotionally or in terms of production, it’s evidence that he sees himself as above them or that he’s throwing them under the bus. He’s also been criticized in the past for not being vocal enough, which at that point meant that he didn’t care. If he plays out of his mind to try and steal a game from the Cavaliers, and somehow the Pacers still lose, then his performance becomes just an audition for his future teams.
No matter what he does, it is twisted into the worst assumptions about his intent.
A missing element in all of this chaos is the simple fact that George wants to win. Right now he wants to win with the Pacers. He wants to beat the Cavaliers. He wants to beat LeBron James. He wants to make it to the NBA Finals and he wants to win a championship.
He started his professional career slow, taking three years to really show what he was capable off. But he’s improved progressively every year, and has now reached the point that he can be talked about as one of the best players in the league. He’s made himself a superstar. He managed to make this transformation even after breaking his leg before the 2014-15 season.
The year after the injury, he didn’t just return to the level that he was at, he got better. And this season, he went up another level. The same story applies to the postseason. The year before he broke his leg, he averaged 22 points, the year after he was at 27, and this year, in the three games against the Cavaliers, he’s been above 30.
George has played his part. He did what was expected of a young player and harnessed his talents to become one of the best two-way players in the league. And he has done what is expected of the star of the team: he shows up when his team needs him and he takes his game to the next level during the playoffs. He has repeatedly shown through his performance that he wants to win with Indiana.
Yet, the suggestion of his apathy or even callousness towards the Pacers remain. That he’s checked out, because he doesn’t want to sign an extension with the team. That he’s ungrateful to the Pacers because he wants to play on a winning team.
Since George has been in the league, he’s lost to LeBron James — his greatest obstacle at this point — three times in the playoffs. This will be the fourth. He’s gone from his team finishing as the first seed and playing in the Eastern Conference Finals — being two games away from the NBA Finals in 2014, a year after winning Most Improved Player — to sneaking into the playoffs and losing in the first round.
Simply put, Paul George can say whatever he wants because he’s the only person in the organization who has done his job. He’s the only hope of the team. If he says that his teammates need to be better, then his teammates need to be better. George himself always steps up. In a game that his team needed to win to remain competitive, he had one of the best performances of the postseason, and yet the Pacers still lost. That’s not on him or because of his statements. It’s because his team is not good enough.
If Paul George is mad, it is because the Pacers are actively making him unhappy. It is because the ambition of the team is not high enough, the front office not smart enough and the players on the team are not good enough to help him win an NBA title.
If he says that he doesn’t want to sign an extension, the blame should fall squarely on the organization that squandered a team that competed in the conference finals two years in a row. That the Pacers can’t build another competent team around one of the best two-way players in the league is not George’s fault. If he wants to leave and find better opportunities elsewhere since the Pacers are stuck in no man’s land competitively, it’s not George’s fault.
Had this situation been reversed, and the Pacers had been great while George came back from his injury regressed to his early career performances, there would hardly be any outrage had the team traded him. It would been unfortunate but smart business from the Pacers. If the team goal was to win, and George wasn’t helping in that regard, divorce would be the only option left.
But when it is the player who is unhappy with the organization, suddenly it becomes a problem. It is ungrateful. When George is not content with wasting great years of his career, for nothing more than a first-round exit in the playoffs, then he’s supposedly detached. When he plays his heart out, does everything that you can ask for from a superstar, and his team still gets crushed after being up double digits against the Cavaliers, his anger is painted as unjustified. He’s earned the privilege of being pissed off. He is well within his rights to call everyone else out, from the executives to the coaches and to his teammates. Because nobody else seems to be trying to win as much as him.
Whether George leaves or stays with the Pacers has nothing to do with what’s happening right now. The current issue is that George is frustrated because he has done everything individually possible to help his team win, and everyone else has let him down. The Pacers will be out of the playoffs because of bad coaching decisions, bad personnel decisions, and bad play from the rest of the team. They will lose because once again, Paul George is the only one performing to the level required.
At this point, he seems to be the only one who really cares at all.