Everyone was wondering whether the Indiana Pacers would arrive at this fork in the road. They have.
Adrian Wojnarowski, by far the most respected and trusted reporter in the NBA media, has reported the Pacers have begun surveying the trade market for their franchise player, Paul George, in advance of the NBA trade deadline Thursday at 3 p.m. It's unclear how seriously the Pacers are considering trading George now; they very well might just be exploring all their options.
George is under contract with Indiana through the 2017-18 season, after which he can opt out of a fifth year and become an unrestricted free agent. Speculation about his future began to rise in Indianapolis and national media after George appeared on ESPN radio during All-Star Game festivities and said that he wants to play for a contender in the long run.
Pacers President Larry Bird obviously would prefer not to trade Paul George and would rather acquire more talent to put around the four-time All-Star. Bird has told George the latter has a maximum contract extension -- even one of the six-year designated player variety that could pay George $212.3 million should he earn All-NBA honors -- ready to be signed if and when he wants to sign it. However, George has declined to commit to signing an extension this coming summer, opting to wait and see what kind of team the Pacers can put together. Wojnarowski mentioned in his report that George was considering staying in Indiana or signing with the Los Angeles Lakers, George's childhood team.
Needless to say, this puts Bird and the Pacers in a difficult position. George very well might be the most talented player in the franchise's history and a bona fide star player in the NBA, something small-market franchises like Indiana don't get or keep too often. Again, Bird would like to keep George and attempt to build a championship contender around him. At the same time, Bird evidently understands reality and recent NBA history. Superstars join forces to win titles. LeBron James left Cleveland to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and that core went to four straight NBA Finals, winning two. Kevin Durant, who already was playing alongside a fellow superstar in Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, bolted last summer to team up with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the Golden State Warriors. In both instances, the former teams received no immediately useful value in return for their lost stars. Cleveland and Miami ultimately agreed on a sign-and-trade deal that netted the Cavaliers future draft picks for James, but none for three seasons after James left. The Thunder received no compensation for the departed Durant.
Contrast those two instances with those of the Denver Nuggets with Carmelo Anthony and the then-New Orleans Hornets with Chris Paul. Realizing midway through the 2010-11 season that Anthony would not re-sign with Denver the following offseason, Denver got proactive, traded him to the New York Knicks, and received four players and three future draft picks. That haul never really amounted to much team success for the Nuggets, but at least they made certain they didn't lose perhaps their most talented player ever for nothing. Similarly, the then-Hornets (now Pelicans) accepted the following preseason that they wouldn't be able to keep Paul long-term, so, with some ethically dubious help from the league office (which controlled the New Orleans franchise at the time), they got a decent package in return from the Los Angeles Clippers that included (at the time) young talents Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu. The timing was nice as well, as New Orleans happened upon the No. 1 pick in the following summer's draft and selected Anthony Davis.
Bird has been watching these and other developments across the NBA in recent years. He knows star-caliber players want to go where they can realistically contend for championships, and Paul George is no different, having essentially said as much. No one knows exactly what George is thinking or planning about his future, but Bird has to at least consider the possibility that George's mind and heart are made up, that he indeed will leave Indiana when he can opt out of his current contract. If that is the case or even has a good chance of being the case, it's reasonable for the Pacers' brass to want to be proactive and ensure their team is prepared for life and promise after George.
Based on some of his remarks, Bird seems to think such promise already in place to a degree. He has said second-year center Myles Turner has the potential to be the best player in Pacers history. Perhaps Bird has a vision in place to rebuild and redesign the Pacers around Turner should George not figure into Indiana's long-term plans. Turner indeed has enormous upside and works hard enough to have a bright future ahead of him, but right now, the Pacers have no other promising young players. If Indiana is going to trade Paul George at any time, it needs to receive at least the chance at acquiring young, high-upside talent, and it's fair to wonder if now is the best opportunity the Pacers will have at striking such a deal. The Lakers, whom Wojnarowski reported George is eyeing in 2018, theoretically could send the Pacers their potential top-3 pick in this summer's draft as well as promising rookie Brandon Ingram and another solid piece, such as a Jordan Clarkson, a Julius Randle, or a D'Angelo Russell. The Boston Celtics, who have been the subject of trade rumors involving George and Chicago's Jimmy Butler, theoretically could offer the 2017 first-round pick they received from Brooklyn, which currently has the highest odds of being the No. 1 overall pick this summer, as well as promising young talent like Jaylen Brown. In either of these cases, Indiana could establish a young, cheap, promising core while having its pick of the litter in a draft class that features Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, and a deep host of others.
It's hard to say there's a right or wrong course of action for the Pacers with respect to keeping or trading Paul George. Indiana certainly wants to keep its star and win a championship with him at the helm. On the other hand, there's real, valid concern that won't be a possibility before George can opt out and become a free agent, and if that appears more and more like a foregone conclusion, the Pacers might decide they need to be proactive and get value in return for him, and their best chance at that might be sooner than later. There's a valid argument either way.
It's probably unlikely George is moved before Thursday's deadline, but the possibility won't disappear entirely after 3 p.m. comes and goes; it only will disappear for the remainder of the league year. However, Pacers fans certainly would breathe more easily for a temporary period if Thursday night comes and George still is a Pacer.