For Paul George and the Pacers, the future remains murky

The Pacers did not trade Paul George at the deadline last month. But they have a difficult task ahead if they want to show him he can win in Indiana.

So, was Paul George looking a little longingly over at the Celtics’ locker room at TD Garden Wednesday night?

After the Pacers lost in Boston to slip to the No. 7 seed in the East playoff race, and just one game ahead of the eighth seed, George said, “If you look at their roster, everybody knows what to expect out of everybody. There’s never a moment where a guy is like, ‘What kind of shot are you taking?’ Or, ‘What are you doing?’ They’re beyond that. And that’s the chemistry we’re trying to make—where guys are playing, and we’re comfortable with their play style, and we know what they’re going to do within our offense. We’ve got a little way to go.”

A month ago, there had been a chance—slight, according to some around the league and virtually nil according to others—that George would wind up in Boston at the trade deadline, as the Pacers listened to offers for their star forward. The consensus was that the Pacers were simply feeling out the market for George, perhaps to make more serious inquiries ahead of this year’s draft, but the rumor mill around George churned in earnest for a few days.

The Pacers hung onto George. But, now what?

Before the season began, the Pacers looked to be about a .500 team. With three weeks to go in the season, they’re a game above .500. This is just what they are, and perhaps will remain for the foreseeable future.

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They followed a seven-game winning streak in late January and early February with a six-game losing streak, and in their 14 games since the All-Star break, they’re a flat 7-7. They can score enough, especially at home where they are 25-10, to beat bad-to-mediocre teams, but they don’t defend enough to win tough games. They’re 2-9 against the East’s Top 4, their potential first-round playoff foes. Their last such win came on December 19.

There were two factors pushing the Pacers to contemplate a George trade: his impending 2018 free-agency, which already has teams around the league lining up the cap space to make a charge at him, and his desire to win a championship as he hits the back end of his prime years (George turns 27 in May).

The Pacers at least wanted to see how the stretch run of this year developed, to see what kind of progress could be made to returning the team to Eastern Conference prominence. Remember, it was only three years ago that the Pacers were a self-described “smashmouth” team and the No. 1 seed in the East, losing in the conference finals to the Heat.

That team is long gone, rebuilt in an effort keep up with the offense-heavy modern NBA, where perimeter finesse wins out over the smashing of mouths. Only George remains—except now he needs to be not just the featured player on both ends, but the leader in the locker room and on the court. On Wednesday, George sounded wistful for those simpler days in Indiana.

“It’s been different,” George said. “Like I said, it’s been very different for me. Actually being a leader, being the last Pacer with the group I came in with, the last guy on that roster. It’s been different, I have grown into a different role, becoming a different leader. And you always relive the glory days when they’re gone, and it’s the last little bit that you remember. I’m trying to bring that to this team, and that edge. But it’s taken some time.”

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Let’s assume George stays put in Indiana next season, and that the Pacers continue to ask him to be the best player on both ends and the team leader. We can grouse about whether George ought to stay put and try to build his own Indiana legacy rather than hunting for a better roster, but that’s pointless. If competitiveness is what George is seeking, the Pacers will have a lot to get done in the next year to persuade him to stay.

They’ll have to sign point guard Jeff Teague, who has been a key to reconfiguring the team around offense. Teague is a free agent this summer, and a league source estimated he would seek a contract near the max, or similar to the five-year, $150 million deal signed by Mike Conley in Memphis last year. Teague grew up in Indianapolis, though, and would like to stay with the Pacers, leaving open the possibility of a hometown discount.

But if the Pacers want to keep George, they’ll have to keep Teague. If Teague gets away, Indiana is likely looking at a full-scale rebuild, and George does not want to be part of that.

They’ll also need a remake of the bench, which has been one of the worst in the league this season. They’ll be limited, because they owe $28 million to Monta Ellis, Al Jefferson and Rodney Stuckey (unless Stuckey opts out), and this year’s bench gambles, like Kevin Seraphin and Aaron Brooks, did not work out particularly well.

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The biggest factor in getting the Pacers back to relevance quickly, though, will have to come from the improvement of Myles Turner, who turns 21 Friday. Improvement from guys such asGlenn Robinson III and Joe Young could help. But it is Turner whohas shown flashes of brilliance, the ability to be the kind of inside-out big man who could anchor the Pacers’ move to a higher-tempo, 3-point-gunning team. Turner is averaging 14.6 points and7.1 rebounds. He'sshooting 34percent from the 3-point lineon just 1.5 attempts per game.

But Turner’s biggest challenge is building himself up physically. Since the Pacers have hit the stretch run kicked in, he has been gassed. In the Pacers’ last 10 games, he’s averaging 8.7 points, shooting 39.8 percent from the field and 11.1 percent from the 3-point line. He’s young, but considering the Pacers’ situation, considering the desire to show George he can win in Indiana, they can’t afford that kind of utter deflation from a key piece.

A big third-year leap from Turner is not out of the question. It typically takes longer for big men to have their breakthrough, but Turner has already, at times, shown that he’s not a typical young big man. But keeping Teague, getting improvement from Turner and finding more effective bench pieces are critical to any hope the Pacers have of convincing George they’re going in the right direction.

Of course, that could unravel quickly. There’s no room for an injury, there’s no guarantee that any of the Pacers’ youngsters will make leaps and there’s always volatility in free agency. Indiana will continue to ask George to do more to help the team win. But if he is still a Pacer in a year, the question he will ask is whether the Pacers have done enough to help the team win.

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