Paul George remains a Pacer (for now), but message sent to team officials stings

As much as draft night is supposed to be about, you know, the draft, Pacers fans were glued to draft coverage and social media awaiting a solution to the Pacers’ Paul George problem.

Last Friday (June 16), one day after George co-hosted a celebrity softball game to raise money for the Indiana’s Children’s Wish Fund, his agent, Aaron Mintz, informed team president Kevin Pritchard by phone of George’s intentions to look elsewhere next summer when he can become a free agent.

“For me it was a gut-punch,” Pritchard shared early into Friday morning. “It was a total gut-punch because we’d had many conversations over the summer about players that we’d like to add, a little bit of the style that we’d like to play, and I was, in my opinion, very inclusive with him. And the message over the summer, up until this weekend was ‘Let’s build a winning team.’ And so when that came in that he wanted to look at another place, it was a gut-punch for us.

“But I would say this: It’s important for players to want to be here. We built a great organization, we’re building an amazing practice facility right across [the street] that is state-of-the-art, we believe in our culture, we work hard everyday to have a good family atmosphere here, and we want our players to be here. That’s important, it really is. When Paul said he didn’t, it’s a gut-punch.”

That was a difficult message to be on the receiving end on, what Pritchard described as a “very challenging” conversation. He has not spoken with George since. They last talked at Victory Field for that softball game, as Pritchard and his significant other sat in George’s dugout for the seven-inning game. Nothing formal, Pritchard was there to simply support one of his guys.

Before the first pitch was thrown, George spoke with reporters in the first-base dugout for more than seven minutes saying ‘I’m a Pacer’ and that he shared a similar vision with Pritchard.

And the very next day, Pritchard’s phone rang with a 310 area code calling. It was Mintz.

The Pacers know George, a Palmdale, California native, wants to go back home and play for the Lakers. Pritchard says he understands that. But what he doesn’t understand is George’s sudden change of heart.

“I can’t speculate on what changed his mind,” he said. “I don’t know. I didn’t talk to him, I talked to his agent when I was informed. So I’m not sure.

“It felt like we were in vibrant agreement,” Pritchard, who not only shared but discussed the team’s plans with George, continued. “We had conversations with players and how we want to go forward so for me it was a shock — the way I saw it and the way it got into the media.”

Ah yes, the leak. That hurt the situation.

“It couldn’t have come at a worse time for me,” he said. “If we would’ve known this a little longer ago or a few months ago, I think we could have been a little bit more prepared. And then the way it got out … we struggled with that.”

George has a player option in his contract after the 2017-18 that he intends to decline. George, in fact, took less guaranteed money in the contract in order to have the flexibility of a player option.

That will now make him an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2018, with the ability to hit the free market. The advantage for his next team — and there will be a next team, they are confident about it — is that they will have Bird Rights.

Named after Pacers consultant Larry Bird, the team could re-sign George to a five-year deal for an additional $40 million or so, whereas if George doesn’t get traded to the Los Angeles Lakers and treats it as a one-year rental, he is limited to signing for four years.

In addition to the Lakers, the Cavaliers, Celtics, Clippers, Rockets, and Timberwolves have inquired about making a trade, according to reports. What team wouldn’t call to at least check in?

Pacers executives have been forced to pivot after George’s future intentions were made clear.

The Pacers are upset, betrayed, and disappointed in George. They had set out to re-tool the roster to lead to more success, but now must make a sharp pivot.

“You go from a situation where you’re trying to build and you don’t feel like you’re that far away with Paul, Myles [Turner] coming as fast as he’s coming, [Jeff] Teague having a good year — we felt like as the season went on, he got better,” Pritchard said.

“It was a surprise. So now we have to adjust. We have to look at every scenario. I’m confident that we’ll get something, and there’s so many things on the board.”

Oh, and going back to that little thing called the NBA Draft.

The Pacers took an athletic power forward in Round 1 at 18 in UCLA’s T.J. Leaf, who has roots in Indy. His father played at Lawrence North and the University of Evansville, and he was taken by the Pacers in Round 7 of the 1982 draft. He didn’t last too long, though.

“[Leaf’s] agent was adamant about ‘I want to be a Pacer.’ And so at the end of the day does that make a little bit more of a difference when you make these decisions, yeah, maybe today it did.”

[Pacers coach Nate McMillan on T.J. Leaf]

Then, in the second round they believe they lucked out getting first-round talent in Ike Anigbogu, a 6-foot-10, 252-pound center, at No. 47. Leaf is 20, Anigbogu is 18. So these picks are certainly geared towards the future and there is a comfort factor between these two. Not only were they UCLA teammates for a season, but they also played AAU basketball together with the Compton Magic.

While Pritchard was addressing the media, the Pacers also acquired the 52nd pick from New Orleans, which they used to select Xavier guard Edmond Sumner (6-6, 176) in exchange for cash considerations.

To recap, the Pacers kept their hand tight and opted not to trade Paul George, the face of the franchise, away on this night. Not yet, at least. (Twitter was all abuzz Thursday afternoon when a moving truck was spotted outside of his home on Geist.) Then they drafted 18-, 20-, and 21-year-olds, and felt like they got real talent that will benefit from a development program.

“Everybody thought today was a trigger date because drafts picks were involved, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do things into the future — future draft picks, players today, young players, older established players. We’re keeping everything on the board,” Pritchard added.

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