The Indiana Pacers fought like hell to make the 2017 postseason — to give themselves a chance to win a title.
After Sunday, that seemed like a lot of work for nothing.
The Pacers were eliminated in four hard-fought, relatively close, and at times comically sloppy games by the Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday afternoon, ending their up-and-down season at its lowest point.
Despite the games being close — the average margin of victory for the Cavs was four points — the sweep was an embarrassment to the Pacers, who not that long ago were viewed as possible title contenders.
But that era is past now, and even after some bold moves this past offseason, the Pacers are still also-rans in the Eastern Conference.
This summer is a critical one to the Pacers' franchise — Indiana will effectively have to decide if they're going to effort to keep All-Star forward Paul George in Indianapolis.
And after the four-game defeat in this postseason, the answer should be obvious to Larry Bird and the rest of the Pacers' basketball operations crew: Move him.
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George is an exceptional player — there was a time when he was considered one of the best players in the league and a perennial MVP candidate.
Perhaps George could get back to those levels soon, but it's unlikely that he'll make All-NBA this year, so clearly he's fallen off that standard.
In the Cavs' four-game sweep, George averaged a career-best 28, 8 and 7, but he never rivaled LeBron James (a tall task, but one George should be able to undertake at times) and was not unquestionably the second-best player on the court in the series — though that might be recency bias from Game 4 and the memory of that horrific miss crossing over.
Nonetheless, George played as well as any reasonable person could expect. This is a player who is 0-for-15 in potential go-ahead or game-winning baskets with 20 seconds or less left, after all — 28, 8 and 7 is a great line.
And that is the crux of the Pacers' issue. George is a great player, but he's not a transcendent one — not like James, or Stephen Curry, or Kevin Durant, or Kawhi Leonard.
George sits firmly near the top of the second tier of superstar, but there doesn't seem to be much room for his game to grow. The Paul George the Pacers had this year is the Paul George they can likely expect for the next few years, and while that's excellent, it's not good enough.
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The Pacers need to move George this summer, while they can sell high and capitalize on a marketplace that is likely to have two excellent suitors.
George is clearly the best player on a team that is stuck in the middle, and so long as he's in Indiana, the Pacers will live in that limbo.
If George was a transcendent star, this wouldn't be an issue — he would be able to take the Pacers to the next level, true title contention. But right now, George is the best player on a team with two really good players, the second of which, center Myles Turner, is nowhere near fully developed.
If the Pacers were to add a third All-Star caliber player alongside him and Turner, Indiana might have something going, but they don't have that player right now and they'll be hard-pressed to find him.
The Pacers tried to find that third star by moving George Hill for Jeff Teague — thinking (astutely) that a true point guard and not an off-ball wizard like Hill would help improve the pace and explosiveness of the Pacers' offense. It was a good idea, but Teague just isn't anything more than an average starting point guard in the league — he's definitely not the third star the Pacers need to keep pace in the East.
The Pacers were so desperate for a viable, developed secondary (or tertiary) option that they signed Lance Stephenson to a deal just before the playoffs started — that's the act of a desperate team. It, of course, didn't work out.
The Pacers can't sign a third star in free agency — Indianapolis isn't a destination, they're unlikely to be able to trade for one, and so long as they keep contending for the postseason, they're unlikely to be in a position to draft one either.
So they have George, soon to be 27, and Turner, soon to be 22 — players whose peaks are unlikely to ever coincide — and a good-but-not-great roster that's unlikely to make any leaps in the coming years.
That's a perfect recipe to be a 7 seed for the next decade, and I can't imagine that's something that interests Larry Bird.
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Seeing as George is a longshot to make All-NBA this year, he's also unlikely to be eligible for the league's designated player extension in Indiana.
Should George miss out on All-NBA, the Pacers will still likely be able to offer him a six-year deal once his current deal (likely) ends at the end of the 2018 season, but without the All-NBA nod, the Pacers won't be able to pay him the max of 35 percent of the salary cap. They'd be more or less in the same pool as every other team when it came to offering George in free agency.
The Pacers viewed the new designated player contract rules as a coup — had George made All-NBA (and should he still be a Pacer and make the team next year, the same truth applies), no one would have been able to offer George more money than Indiana. That goes a long way in keeping your superstar.
But without that bargaining chip in play a year ahead of time, the Pacers would be entering the final year of George's contract (he's a lock to opt out of his player option for 2018-19) without knowing if they'd be able to offer him more money annually than the competition.
That would put too much on the line for a team that isn't in a position to quickly turn around mistakes. The Pacers can't afford to let George leave for nothing.
That's why the Pacers need to trade George this summer. And Larry Bird's first call should be to his old nemesis — Magic Johnson.
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The Pacers aren't going to compete for a title in the next three years — which would take George to age 30. Not while LeBron is in the Eastern Conference and not while the Pacers lack a third star player. Seeing as neither of those things are likely to change — LeBron spends a million dollars a year to keep himself young and invincible — it's incumbent on the Pacers to get ahead of the curve for the next era of play.
There's no value in being a fringe playoff team in the Eastern Conference for years on end — this is about championships. If Indiana bites the bullet now, they can put themselves in a position to win in 2020 and beyond.
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The Lakers have picked in the top 2 for the last two years, top 10 for the last three, and have a 47 percent chance of landing a top 3 pick in this year's loaded draft. They have collateral to move, particularly if the ping-pong balls bounce their way in May.
But ask yourself this question: as of right now, which team has a better chance of winning the 2020 title, the Lakers or Pacers?
Despite having George and already being a playoff team, it's probably the Lakers — though they stink now, they have a much higher upside. We know what the Pacers are capable of doing.
The Pacers can flip that formula, though.
The Lakers' new president, Magic Johnson, has all but outright said that he wants George on the Lakers — the teams engaged in trade talks surrounding George around the deadline (nothing came of it, obviously), and the Lakers are fully expected to go after George in free agency in 2018.
The Pacers would be able to command a lot from the Lakers in exchange for George — as you'd expect — but there might not be a price too high for the Lakers, who can't be poor for much longer. The fans are getting restless.
Brandon Ingram and D'Angelo Russell would almost certainly be on the table in a trade, and the top 3 pick — should the Lakers get it and avoid having to give their first-round selection to the Sixers — would have to be in any deal.
The Pacers could command two or even three recent top picks in exchange for George — and while that might not be enough to equal the value of the All-Star forward in the present, it does give Indiana a chance to have a more complete team and one whose star players should simultaneously peak at the end of the decade.
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The other possible trade suitor for the Pacers would be the Celtics. Boston opted to stand pat at the trade deadline this year, either because they drastically overvalued their role players or because they don't believe they can beat LeBron in the next few years, so they decided to not burn assets to go on a quixotic title quest.
If the former reasoning was the case, then a playoff failure (see: defeated by anyone but the Cavs) could recalibrate Boston's thinking. And armed with the Nets first-round picks for the next two years and those role players, Boston could strike a deal for any available star this summer.
Having two big-market teams with strong assets to push in exchange for a star player is a dream — Indiana can play them off each other to help drive up the price.
Then again, if you're not going to move George for two extremely high (if not No. 1) picks and Jaylen Brown, then George isn't going anywhere.
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George's best years in Indiana are behind him.
Yes, he might make that All-NBA team yet, but the Pacers aren't going to be the No. 1 seed next season, and they're unlikely to be title contenders should George sign a big contract to remain in Indiana.
There's no value in mediocrity in the NBA, and while George is anything but a mediocre player, he's not the kind of player who can change a team's middle-ground fate alone.
In 2013 the Knicks were a 53-win playoff team. A year later, Carmelo Anthony signed a five-year, $124 million deal.
We know what happened to that team from there.
Melo, like George, is a star, but not one that can take a team to the next level without significant help. And while New York's failures are much deeper than Indiana's, the handicap the Pacers have in free agency shouldn't be overlooked.
Indiana will have at least two detours to the path they're heading down right now. If one winds up being paved, they should take it.