INDIANAPOLIS — There are so many questions surrounding Paul George’s future with the Pacers now that their 2016-17 season has ended, but there’s one person it doesn’t really help to ask: Paul George.
A few tried, anyway, during a press conference with George that followed a 106-102 loss to the Cavaliers that swept the Pacers out of the NBA playoffs after the first round.
First up was Bob Kravitz of Indianapolis’ WTHR-TV: “With free agency pending for you, do you want to stay in Indiana and how do you proceed at this point?”
George: “I ain’t even at that point yet, Bob. Next question.”
There were several different topics broached in the next several minutes, some of them regarding the season just completed, how the team and organization performed, how LeBron James keeps knocking the Pacers out of the playoffs in whatever uniform he’s wearing, and George answered all of them thoughtfully.
Then came Pacers beat writer Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star: “Paul, you said earlier this year in regards to your future that you need to see the organization do more, convince you that they’re headed in the right direction. What would you like to see, or what do you need to see or be told this offseason?”
George: “Again, I’ll wait for that time. I’ll wait for that time. Exit meeting’s tomorrow; I’ll wait for that time.”
So it seems fair to infer George is only a bit more committed to Indiana at this moment than Aaron Rodgers is to Olivia Munn.
This could be a challenging offseason for the Pacers organization.
George’s contract runs until 2017-18. He could be eligible for a “designated player exception” if he is selected to one of the three All-NBA teams that will be announced in May. He fits the criteria of an original Indiana draft choice and now must be included among the league’s top 15 performers for a second time in three years. He was excluded in 2015, when he was injured during the summer and missed all but a few games, but made it last year averaging 23.1 points and 7.0 rebounds. Another honor seems likely, but it’s not automatic.
If it happens, the Pacers could offer George more than $200 million over six years a full year before George hits free agency.
It could be that George doesn’t want to commit to the Pacers until they show that they’re committed to him.
“I think we are close,” coach Nate McMillan said following Sunday’s loss. “As I told the team, we are better than a .500 team, and I thought we played .500 basketball all season long. We did some good things. We can and will be better … We never really got that consistency.”
McMillan said he believed George was “worn down” in Sunday’s game from “the last month leading this team.” George finished with 15 points on 5-of-21 shooting. Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue again aggressively attacked George with double-teams and forced opportunities toward other Pacers perimeter players. Only Lance Stephenson, with 22 points, responded emphatically.
“I guess every year isn’t a golden year,” George said. “There’s going to be some ups and downs in a career. I’ve learned not every year is going to be special. It’s good to learn. This year, I was able to take everything in, tried to learn, tried to grow.”
The Pacers were smart enough to draft George with the 10th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, and he blossomed into a four-time All-Star in their organization who helped them reach the playoffs in six of their seven seasons, including the Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and 2014. However, the team that came so close to the NBA Finals began to break down around him, and Indiana has tried over the past couple years to build something new with George as the centerpiece.
It hasn’t gone beautifully. The team expected George would embrace a move to a stretch-4 role, but he demurred. Monta Ellis and C.J. Miles had marginal seasons. Jeff Teague was an improvement over George Hill at point guard, but the Pacers seemed to miss Hill’s leadership more than they benefited from Teague’s points and assists.
“It falls on me. I could always do things better,” George said. “But again, this is the first time being in this position. Years past, even last year, George (Hill) and Ian (Mahinmi), those guys took a lot of load off me as far as rallying the team, keeping guys together, being the voice in the locker room. Those guys win. They’re winning players, been in winning programs.
“For me, I got veterans and stuff like that. But those guys were the guys that had been in that position. So this year was kind of hard, trying to figure that out: how to keep everybody together, stay positive. But of course I could have done a lot of things better.”
One of those things: hit a game-winning shot given the opportunity. We do love stats that shrink superstars, and the anvil that keeps falling upon George involves shots that could tie or give his team a lead in the final 20 seconds.
Sunday, with 1.9 seconds left following a foolish turnover by Cleveland’s J.R. Smith — he tried a behind-the-back pass after picking up a steal with 7.9 seconds left and George intercepted — there was another chance for George to hit that big shot. He missed. It was the 16th time in his career he failed in that situation. Out of 16 tries.
“I was pleased with the opportunity. I saw a wide-open shot,” George said. “I had a good look. I may have rushed it. I should have taken my time in that moment. Definitely one I wish I could have back.”
Pacers fans likely feel the same.