Jim Ayello and Pacers Insider Cliff Brown break down all the elements surrounding Paul George’ return.
INDIANAPOLIS — The best thing Paul George ever did for this city was leave it.
Lord knows he didn’t do much for Indianapolis while he was here, here in name only, here because the name on the front of his jersey said Pacers, even if all he cared about – in a way that is extreme, even for the modern-day professional athlete – was the name on the back.
The Indiana Pacers reached the Eastern Conference finals twice when George was here, and he played a significant role on those teams in 2013 and ‘14, but they weren’t his teams. He was a piece of a puzzle, a large piece, but he was young and safe in the shadow of leaders like David West and Roy Hibbert, and even a character like Lance Stephenson. It wasn’t until Larry Bird took that team apart and rebuilt it around Paul George after the 2014 season that the Pacers became his team, and Indianapolis became his city.
Only, he didn’t take ownership. He tolerated it here, because the Pacers gave him the max contract he deserved and this market gave him the adulation he craved, but he was always more heavily invested in Paul George than this city or franchise. His view of himself always seemed distorted, PG wanting to be treated like other superstars – LeBron James was his measuring stick – but not producing or winning or even trying to lead like other superstars. He was good here, very good. At his best, like in the 2016 playoffs against Toronto, he was NBA greatness.
The Indiana Pacers spoke about facing former teammate Paul George after practice Tuesday.
But he didn’t want to be here. Not enough cameras at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Not enough votes in the All-Star ballot box. Winning here was going to be difficult, and he didn’t want to work that hard. He wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last NBA player to seek easier pastures – Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, even LeBron left their original franchise for an easier path to a championship – but he’s the only one who did it to us.
Paul George returns to Indianapolis on Wednesday night with the Oklahoma City Thunder, comfortable in the shadow of Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, and the reaction will be all wrong. We’ll boo him, and we’ll hate him, when what we really should do is laugh at him.
Because it’s funny, how this whole thing is turning out.
Clifton Brown, IndyStar Pacers insider, talks about the team’s overtime win against Denver, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017.
* * *
Had the regular season ended when the Pacers last played, a 126-116 victory against Denver on Sunday, they’d be in the playoffs as the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference – and the Oklahoma City Thunder would be in the 2018 NBA Draft lottery.
Imagine that. The Pacers, ruined by the offseason trade demand of their only All-Star, left for dead by analysts near and far after sending Paul George to the Thunder for one decent young player (Victor Oladipo) and one mystery (Domantas Sabonis), are having a better season than 2016 or ’17, when they finished seventh in the East. And the Thunder, who won 47 games a year ago and finished sixth in the tougher Western Conference and then gave MVP Russell Westbrook two more All-NBA talents – Carmelo and Paul George – are under .500 and ninth in the West.
That isn’t funny. That’s hysterical.
But no, the season didn’t end Sunday. It’s barely one-third finished, and teams like the Thunder – Mr. Potato Head teams, a handful of stars thrown together at once – tend to get better as the season rolls along. Odds are they’ll figure it out eventually, though figuring it out in OKC won’t be the same as LeBron and Co. figuring it out in Miami and then Cleveland, or Durant and the Golden State Warriors figuring it out. When those franchises clicked, NBA titles happened.
When OKC figures it out, assuming OKC figures it out, the Thunder will be a playoff team and then we’ll just see what happens. Whatever becomes of the 2017-18 Thunder, whatever they get from the addition of Paul George, it won’t match what the Pacers and even the city of Indianapolis got from the subtraction of Paul George.
In OKC, PG arrived and gave them some small hope for today.
Here in Indianapolis, Paul George left – and gave us tomorrow.
* * *
Before we talk about Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, come with me to a weeknight many years ago in Oxford, Miss. We’re walking into Tad Smith Coliseum, home of the Ole Miss Rebels, a lousy basketball program with long-suffering fans. We didn’t like Mississippi State, those maroon uniforms the color of dried-up blood, and we really didn’t like LSU. The Tigers had all those great players, such as Al Green and Rudy Macklin and Howard Carter, and that great coach – Dale Brown – and they kept coming to Tad Smith and beating my Rebels. Screw LSU.
But more any other team, we loathed Kentucky. Kyle Macy and Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin and Kenny Walker? Shiver. Joe B. Hall was always working the referees, getting calls his team didn’t need against Ole Miss in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I can still hear my dad, standing next to me in the fourth row behind the Ole Miss bench, shouting across the coliseum: “Siddown, Joe B!”
Naturally, fans at Tad Smith booed Kentucky during pregame introductions. One night I joined the angry pregame chorus. Well, I tried to boo. Not sure the second ‘o’ in boo was out of my mouth before Dad grabbed my arm. What he said next informed the way I’ve watched sports ever since.
“We came here to cheer our team,” he said. “Not to boos theirs.”
My dad is a wonderful man.
But he didn’t know about Paul George.
* * *
You’re going to boo him, and I’m not telling you you’re wrong. Because in a way, you’re not. George left this place badly, too soft to say what was on his mind at the 2017 All-Star Break, when he clearly wanted out and the Boston Celtics were offering Bird a bushel of first-round draft picks for him. George lacked the guts to tell Bird he was leaving, and Bird lacked the comprehension that a player of George’s stature would be too damn scared to compete for a title here in small-market Indianapolis.
It wasn’t until the season ended when George, a coward to the end, asked his agent to tell Bird’s replacement, Kevin Pritchard, that he wanted to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. Or somewhere else. Anywhere else. Because he wasn’t going to re-sign with the Pacers when his contract expired after the 2017-18 season.
That was June, and that was George doing the Pacers a favor. Granted, he was doing them a favor after screwing them four months earlier at the trade deadline, and his agent reduced the Pacers’ modicum of leverage to rubble by informing other NBA teams that George had his heart set on the Lakers.
Paul George is not a good guy in this scenario.
But he’s not a bad guy. Not in the real world. This is just basketball, OK? In sports, bad guys are the ones who hit women or take steroids or do any number of illegal or immoral things. A player wanting to play in another city? That doesn’t make Paul bad. Just scared.
And even in basketball terms, PG didn’t hurt the Pacers. Completely inadvertently, he managed to help the Pacers by giving them no choice but to find a trade partner, and from there Kevin Pritchard pulled off a magic trick. He made a problem disappear, and in its place – with no leverage, no realistic chance to do this – he gave the Pacers two foundational building blocks.
And Victor Oladipo, a former IU star who hits big shots at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and then points to the floor – my city – is the happy-to-be-here superstar this franchise hasn’t had since Reggie Miller.
Nate McMillan, Head Coach for the Indiana Pacers, talks about Victor Oladipo, who scored a career high 47 points in their defeat of Denver, Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017.
Again, it’s early, but 27 games is enough to believe that what we’re seeing from Oladipo is what we’re going to get. And what we’re seeing is a player having a season Paul George never had, not according to regular or advanced metrics. At 24.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 steals, and shooting 48.5 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent on 3-pointers, Oladipo is outpacing George’s last and best season as a Pacer (23.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.6 spg; 46.1 percent from the floor, 39.3 percent on 3-pointers). Oladipo’s 23.5 PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is far superior to George’s 20.2 in that NBA analytics benchmark.
And George’s numbers thus far in OKC are much, much worse: 20.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.5 spg; 41.6 percent overall and 40.7 on 3s; PER of 17.5.
Is Victor Oladipo flat-out better than Paul George? No, probably not, but it’s a surprisingly close call – and doesn’t account for Sabonis. He’s averaging 12.1 ppg and 8.5 rpg. He’s shooting 54 percent from the floor. His PER (18.8) is better than Paul George’s (17.5). And Sabonis is just 21 years old.
Don’t forget about Myles Turner (also 21) or Lance Stephenson (still just 27) or the rest of a roster, and a coaching staff, that fits this city perfectly. The Pacers have something special here, no finished product but moving forward after two seasons – Paul George’s last two seasons – when they weren’t going anywhere. This franchise got rid of Paul George, and it got better. So did this city.
We’ll still boo him Wednesday night, and believe me even my dad would understand, but what we really need to do is thank Paul George.
Thank him for going away.
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter: @GreggDoyelStar or at facebook.com/gregg.doyel.
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