Paul George’s free agency begins in the summer of 2018, so it’s easy to see why there is so much urgency with the Pacers front office to create a winning team now. As the Pacers trail the Cleveland Cavaliers 0-3 in their first round series, Paul George’s future becomes more and more unclear. Sure, it’s virtually impossible to beat LeBron in the first round of the playoffs. But Paul George has been so good, the Pacers could be up 2-1 if some things went differently here and there. If he had a better roster around him to push them over the hump, maybe they would have a chance in this series.
It’s been an odd season for George, as the Pacers spent the final hours of the 2017 trade deadline mulling trade offers for their All-Star. This series, or the failed attempts at the trade deadline aren’t what failed Paul George. The Pacers started doing that long ago.
Paul George is 26 years old, still in his prime (despite his leg injury), and one of the best two-way players in the game. He’s grown up with the Pacers since they drafted him No. 10 in the NBA draft in 2010.
Since he recovered in sparkling fashion from an awful leg injury in the summer of 2014, the Pacers have spent the past three years trying to surround George with talent. But while trying to develop an identity, they’ve continuously failed, putting groups of mismatched players with mismatched styles around George.
This is how they failed him.
In 2015 when George returned from his leg injury, the Pacers vowed to be a faster team. David West, the team’s vocal leader, took an $11 million pay cut to walk away. On the way out, he said he wanted to win now (hence, joining the Spurs) and didn’t like how Larry Bird treated Roy Hibbert in Bird’s postseason press conference. The Pacers then traded Hibbert to the Lakers.
The moves signaled a complete departure from the successful smash-mouth style that got the Pacers so far. That’s Bird prerogative and it’s fair to wonder if that style had run its course. The problem is that the Pacers didn’t do much else to help George accomplish this team-wide transition. They signed an aging Monta Ellis, Chase Budinger, and Jordan Hill, none of which moved the needle. Only Ellis remains, and he was benched earlier this season.
That same season, without much discussion, they tried to force George to play power forward in an attempt to modernize their style. Coming off a serious leg injury, George was understandably hesitant to bang with bigger players in the post. Who can blame him?
“I don't think I'm at that point in my career where I should be changing positions. I think guys do that later in their career,” George said. “They put on weight, (begin) lacking physical attributes as far as being quick, so I don’t necessarily feel the need to play a different position, especially coming back into a new season and starting fresh again. So it’s a change, it’s definitely a change. We’ll see how it goes.”
Larry Bird, who has never been shy to express his feelings, responded flippantly.
“Well, he don't make the decisions around here. I'm not going to get in a battle with Paul George on where he wants to play. He's a basketball player. He can play any position you put him out there."
Because of that rocky start, there was a constant struggle between George, the front office, and the coaching staff. They ultimately reached a truce: George played small forward and fellow wing C.J. Miles stepped up to try and fill the interior position. Miles missed several games throughout the course of the season with a back injury and fell into a shooting slump, both of which were certainly related to the toll playing the position took on him.
That ultimately resulted in an uneven season where the Pacers limped into seventh place in the Eastern Conference. In the 2016 playoffs, the Pacers somehow pushed the Raptors to seven games thanks to George’s brilliance. He singlehandedly pushed a flawed team to the brink of the second round of the playoffs.
When it proved to not be enough, the Pacers fired beloved and highly successful coach Frank Vogel. The same Frank Vogel who had been there every step of the way for the Pacers as they tried to climb to the top of the East. Vogel was also the coach who took over when Larry Bird fired Jim O’Brien in 2011. He dug George out from the end of the bench where O’Brien had left him and let him turn into the player he has now become.
Vogel’s inability to make the new roster work with Larry Bird’s preferred style eventually caused his demise. But whose fault was that really?
Once again, Bird vowed there would be change and a faster tempo for Pacers in the 2016-2017 season. His first move was to hire Pacers assistant coach Nate McMillan without much of a public coaching search. The problem is, McMillan has never been known as a coach who excelled in pace. As a head coach, his teams finished 24th, 27th, 15th, 27th, 28th, 29th, 29th, 30th, 30th, and 30th respectively in pace. His teams have always been quite slow, in fact. Why was Nate McMillan the choice to coach a faster-paced team?
Bird then traded George’s best friend, George Hill, for a more traditional point guard in Jeff Teague. George and Hill fished together at their homes in Indiana. They even carpooled to practice together. But it’s a business, so George accepted it and moved on the best he could, won a Gold Medal in Rio, and repped the Pacers the entire time.
Heading into the 2016-2017 season, the Pacers also added Thaddeus Young via a trade, Al Jefferson, Aaron Brooks, and Kevin Seraphin. It’s hard enough for the Pacers to draw big time free agents, but it doesn’t help when the additions they do make don’t fit the desired style the front office is preaching. George has continuously said this season that he’s not having fun, and you can’t blame him with such a massive rebuild happening around him.
"This season hasn't been fun. We're trying to work through it. It's been one of the most frustrating seasons I've been a part of,” George said to NBA.com
As the Pacers fell out of the playoff race in late in the 2016-2017 season, Larry Bird went a did something dramatic. He brought back Lance Stephenson. And to some degree it actually worked. Stephenson brought an energy to the team that the Pacers lacked all season. The fun Paul George wasn’t having? Lance Stephenson had that. The Pacers went on a five game win streak to end the season, sliding into the seventh seed in the playoffs. While Lance brought the fun back, Paul George won Eastern Conference Player of the Month averaging 32.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists through the final six games. For a brief moment in time, maybe Paul George’s future in Indiana would have a happy ending.
But here we are, once again, with Paul George looking at elimination at the hands of LeBron James. The Pacers had a chance to win Game 1 on the road but came up short. They also blew a 26-point lead in Game 3 at home. Neither of those things were Paul George’s fault. He’s one of the best two-way players in the game who has given everything to Indiana. But have they given it back to him?
We’re only 15 months away from George’s free agency, yet the Pacers have no real positive momentum. They still don’t know who they are as they build around George, Teague, and young big man Myles Turner. They pledged to provide George more help at this trade deadline and came up empty handed. They added Lance Stephenson, but you can’t count on him to save a franchise.
While the Pacers are guaranteed to have George through the end of next season, Pacers fans know barring a huge change that it’s a matter of when, not if, Paul George will leave.
In retrospect, maybe the Pacers really lost George in 2014 when they couldn’t beat a tired Miami Heat team that had been to the NBA Finals three straight times. Maybe their window closed then. But the Pacers have still failed to do right by their superstar since he returned from his horrific injury nearly three years ago.
It’s in Paul George’s best interests personally if he can be successful in Indiana. If he is able to receive the Designated Player Extension from the Pacers, he’ll make more money in Indiana than he could anywhere else. But even additional money won’t turn the Pacers into the contender George wants.
Paul George on extension: "I want to play on a winning team." https://t.co/bMXhhKMtVC— Nate Taylor (@ByNateTaylor) February 17, 2017
George has never been the Pacers’ problem. The Pacers have been Paul George’s problem. And unless the Pacers somehow build a contender by the end of next season, they’ll continue to be his problem. George does not want to leave, but unless something drastic changes, he won’t have any other choice if he wants to win.
That’s the Pacers’ fault, not Paul George’s.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 22 and was updated with new information on April 20.