The post-Paul George era has arrived for the Indiana Pacers, perhaps as soon as everyone should've expected in today's NBA climate. However, that does not make the situation any less disappointing for the fans, especially given the circumstances surrounding (and the diminished returns for) George's departure.
In the waning minutes of Friday night, moments before the start of the NBA free agency period, the Pacers agreed to send perhaps the most talented player in their NBA history to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for two former lottery picks, guard Victor Oladipo and big man Domantas Sabonis.
The trade presumably ends two weeks' worth of rampant speculation about George's landing spot for 2017-18 (the deal won't be officially completed until the end of the NBA's moratorium on signing contracts on June 7, theoretically leaving the door open for another offer for George). George had been linked primarily (and naturally) with the Los Angeles Lakers (his reported preference for when he can become a free agent next summer) and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Boston Celtics. The Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs were also mentioned as being interested in George.
Ironic then that Oklahoma City, who had been sparsely mentioned as a player in the PG-13 sweepstakes, emerged as the winner when the dust settled, especially since it is the antithesis of everything George reportedly craves in his near-hometown LA in terms of market size, branding potential and so forth.
But it's a natural fit for George from a basketball standpoint. He projects as an ideal wingman for newly crowned NBA MVP Russell Westbrook with his abilities to catch and shoot and defend opponents' top scorers. He also won't have to create as much for others or assume as many leadership or late-game responsibilities alongside Westbrook, who surely will handle those duties for OKC. The move projects as a boon for the Thunder, even if the team loses George to the Lakers next summer. OKC didn't forfeit so much that a George departure would leave it devastated (and it would be anyway if Westbrook decided to bolt).
As for the Pacers?
It Could Have Been Worse
All things considered, Indiana should feel OK coming out of this unenviable situation. Pacers President Kevin Pritchard knew from the moment George's agent, Aaron Mintz, informed him George would be leaving the franchise in 2018 -- and especially that George's sights were set on the Lakers -- that the deck was stacked against him as far as getting fair value in return. The Lakers surely would not give up much, if anything, for a player they'd be able to sign outright in a year, and surely no other suitor would sacrifice much for a one-year rental of George.
Pritchard's last hope seemingly was for the Lakers to worry that a contender -- Cleveland and Boston the most common examples -- might try to acquire George and convince him to stay long-term, thus forcing Lakers President Magic Johnson to offer the Pacers a respectable package for George.
However, Johnson didn't flinch and would not budge from his offer of the Lakers' No. 27 and No. 28 picks and a player, likely Jordan Clarkson. That was unacceptable to Pritchard, and understandably so.
The Cavs, who were coming off a decisive loss to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals and thus in serious need of a roster upgrade, were willing to part with Kevin Love to get George. But Love, a fine player, wouldn't have fit well with a post-George rebuilding plan (and though Pritchard has declined to say publicly the Pacers are rebuilding, they are). Any George-Love trade would have had to include a third team. The Denver Nuggets were reportedly in talks to be that third team, but Pritchard thought he could do better than Gary Harris (an Indianapolis native) and a pick.
Many are criticizing the Pacers for not acquiring a future draft pick, but the franchise did get two recent first-round selections who still have upside. Oladipo experienced a dip in overall efficiency in his first season with the Thunder, but he figures to have a more prominent role in Indiana's offense and projects as a willing perimeter defender (career 9.7 defensive win shares), something the Pacers have lacked in their guards since George Hill was traded away. The former Indiana University standout also should be a selling point for Indiana during its rebuild, particularly with the Hoosier fan portion of Pacer Nation. Sabonis, the son of Basketball Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, could become a nice low-post frontcourt complement to Myles Turner, with rookie power forward T.J. Leaf projecting as more of a perimeter big.
While the Pacers' return for George could've been worse than two former lottery picks...
It Could Have Been Better
I'll preface by reiterating the Pacers' hands were tied from the moment George's agent informed Pritchard of his client's plans. But the organization could've seen this coming.
George's comments on a radio show at All-Star weekend should've tipped then-President Larry Bird off on George's intentions. Bird reportedly received lucrative trade offers for George at the trade deadline, including four first-round picks from the Atlanta Hawks and three first-rounders (including the one that became the No. 1 overall pick this year) and two veterans from Boston. The Lakers might have offered their lottery pick (No. 2 overall) and coveted wing prospect Brandon Ingram at that point. All those offers would have set up the Pacers nicely for a rebuild with assets over multiple years.
But Bird wasn't interested in rebuilding. He wanted to make another run with a contending roster around George. On one hand, it's hard to blame Bird, as George is such a rare talent for a small-market franchise like Indiana and there's no guarantee it'll get another on his level anytime soon. That said, it should've been apparent to Bird then and there George was leaving at his first opportunity. In hindsight, Bird left Pritchard in an incredibly difficult position when he stepped down, perhaps with affirmative knowledge the Pacers were going to lose George.
Though the pieces the team got are better than nothing, they aren't without drawbacks, especially Oladipo's large four-year contract worth $84 million and that he already is on his third team.
It's tough to blame Bird for not wanting to essentially give up, but there's no question Indiana would be much better off now had it dealt George at the deadline.
The Rebuilding Begins
It's a shame the Paul George era of Pacers basketball didn't deliver on its enormous early promise. One can't help but wonder if that 2013-14 squad hadn't melted down in the locker room down the stretch, or if George hadn't broken his leg and missed all but five games the following season, costing that core another chance at a run.
It's a shame the Pacers couldn't maximize the value of their return on George. Perhaps George himself exacerbated the problem, but the responsibility ultimately falls on the franchise.
A shame further still that George didn't want to stay and become potentially the greatest Pacer of all-time, though admittedly the organization didn't give him much reason to stick around the last two seasons (Bird's insistence on George playing the four, signing Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey and Al Jefferson to bad deals, unceremoniously dumping George's coach, Frank Vogel, and going against everything Bird said he was looking for in the next coach by promoting Nate McMillan, etc.).
From here, I'm sure Pacers fans are fine with a rebuild so long as it doesn't entail NBA purgatory of the Eastern Conference playoff bubble, where the franchise lay insufferably during the post-Brawl years of Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy and the last three seasons. More of that and the fans probably won't be as patient with the Pacers going forward.
I'm sure Pritchard is cognizant of that. We'll see for sure soon.
And yes ... at least they have Lance.