Pacers deal Paul George to the Thunder, keep him out of the Eastern Conference

When Paul George’s agent, Aaron Mintz, dialed up Kevin Pritchard the weekend before the 2017 NBA Draft, he informed the Pacers’ president of basketball operations that George did not plan to exercise his player option — negotiated by Mintz in 2013 by taking a lower percentage of the salary cap — following the 2017-18 season and would move elsewhere in free agency.

Los Angeles being the obvious destination being just 64 miles south of where George grew up in Palmdale.

“It couldn’t have come at a worse time for me,” Pritchard said during during a candid 17-minute press conference on draft night. “The way it got out … we struggled with that.”

That was a “gut-punch” to Pacers officials, who then had to work down to Plan C, D, E… You get the point. Many thought that giving the Pacers a heads-up was best for the franchise so they could avoid being left for nothing, as Kevin Durant did to Oklahoma City one year earlier.

In a strange twist of events and a move that observers around the league did not see foresee, the Pacers dealt George to Oklahoma City in exchange for Indiana University graduate Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft, and Domantas Sabonis, the 11th overall pick in 2016.

Paul George was presented his 2017 All-Star jersey by then-team president Larry Bird. [Frank McGrath/PS&E]

By sending George to the Thunder, it almost guarantees that he will play the rest of his career in the Western Conference — meaning he’ll play the Pacers, who drafted him 10th overall in 2010, just twice per year. He would not visit Bankers Life Fieldhouse more than once a season and they wouldn’t have to go through him in the postseason.

They also did not grant his wish of being moved to the Lakers right now, allowing them to own his Bird Rights. That would enable George to sign a five-year extension with the Magic Johnson-led franchise on July 1, 2018.

[Paul George says goodbye, thanks Indiana]

Boston and Cleveland had serious interest in acquiring the four-time NBA All-Star, but they didn’t pony up enough assets to make the Pacers pull the trigger. The Pacers wanted young players and/or draft picks. They received the former in this deal.

Plus, the thought of George landing comfortably, having success, and remaining the East for years to come would have been a sour taste for the organization.

George’s change of heart — Why? It’s not immediately clear. — and decision to inform the Pacers (and public) signaled a massive shift in offseason plans for the team. The Pacers were ready to re-tool the roster, make a pitch to local product Gordon Hayward, who is a free agent, and build a team that could challenge Cleveland and Boston in the East.

They had to scratch that, and have gone young. They drafted a 20-, 18-, and 21-year-old with three picks in last week’s draft. (That seems like two months ago, doesn’t it?) One of those picks may need a redshirt year, the other is not yet healthy after two surgeries (knee and shoulder) over the last year.

They declined a team option on Lavoy Allen for a reasonable $4 million, this after losing C.J. Miles to free agency weeks earlier. (And, Pritchard hired his right-hand man.)

Starting point guard Jeff Teague was one and done in his hometown, agreeing to a three-year deal with Minnesota shortly after the start of free agency.

The leader of the team becomes 21-year-old Myles Turner, who is entering his third season. He embraces it, and both teammates and coaches have already witnessed forms of leadership from their center. He asked to join the Summer League team down in Orlando to support them. (It helps that team trainers and strength coaches are down there, too.)

Oladipo, a tireless worker, can also help in that regard.

Last season, it was leadership-by-committee for the 42-40 Pacers, and that did not work out well. They were swept in Round 1 by LeBron James’ Cavaliers.

[George’s ex-teammates react to PG-13 being traded]

Back on May 1st, when Larry Bird passed the role of president down to Pritchard, he stressed the need to find tough guys who fight every single game.

“Overall toughness is the one thing I want to add to this team,” Pritchard said. “We used to be a hard hat and lunch pale kind of a team. That’s what we were known for.”

Oladipo drives on George. [Photo: Frank McGrath/PS&E]

One thing Pritchard knows for sure is that a backcourt duo of Lance Stephenson and Oladipo will compete every single night. He knows they’ll come to play, defend their man, and leave it all on the floor. Vic received All-Defensive Team votes in two of the last three seasons.

Oladipo — who averaged 15.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.2 steals per game last season — signed a contract extension with the Thunder in October (2016) so he’s set to earn $21 million annually over the next four years. A sweet deal for the 25-year-old.

And because Paul George is on the backend of a contract he signed in 2013, Oladipo will actually make more than PG ($19.5 million) this upcoming season.

As for Sabonis, he’s coming off his rookie season where he played more than 20 minutes per game and started in 66 of 81 games for a playoff team. That’s good experience for the 6-11, 240-pound rookie. With Westbrook dominating the ball, averaging a triple-double for the season during his MVP season, Sabonis, son of former Trail Blazers big man, Arvydas, averaged 5.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.

And he’s just 21.

He was a lottery pick and has played one season in the league. It typically takes at least three years for players to adapt and understand the game, and for the team to know exactly what type of player he can be…

“Intriguing,” is how one league scout described his potential.

Oladipo, meanwhile, was a fan favorite at IU and receives love across the country from IU fans when his team is in town. So much so that he came back to Indiana to host a five-day summer basketball camp in Greenwood … just two weeks ago! As the Pacers rebuild their roster, he’s an exciting player that will excel on the court and off of it.

Oladipo is excellent in the community and will be a great representative of the franchise.

Victor Oladipo, who played three years at IU, calls Indiana his second home.

The Thunder, meanwhile, are taking on the chance of not only Westbrook leaving in free agency next year, but George as well. But they do get Oladipo’s $84 million off their books. They turned Serge Ibaka, traded to Orlando for Oladipo and Sabonis one year ago, into Paul George.

The Pacers had to get a deal done knowing George would leave in a year and it would now be awkward for him to suit up in the Blue & Gold ever again. Instead of waiting to see if Boston sweetened their offer after potentially landing Gordon Hayward, Pritchard agreed on a deal just a few hours before free agency madness.

Now George, who became PG-13 in Indy, is in the Western Conference, closer to home and where he wants to end up: Los Angeles.

George loved his time in Indiana and he sincerely appreciated the love fans showed him. They embraced him when he took the reigns from Danny Granger. They embraced him as he led the team to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals. And they rallied behind him after his leg injury with USA Basketball that cost him nearly the entire 2013-14 season and put an end to that squad.

Despite some love lost over the last few weeks for how the whole situation was handled — how one day he said he shares the same vision with Pritchard and “it’s all about trying to bring a championship to Indiana,” to the next day having his agent inform the Pacers of his intentions — PG grew up in Indy and made his name in Indy.

For that, he says, thank you.

“… INDIANA,” he wrote in an Instagram post early Saturday, “THANK YOU for all that you’ve been for my family and I! I’ve met and worked with some of the most unbelievable human beings I think I will ever meet! You all know who you are.. Indy you’ll be in great hands with the future! Love you all”

One Response to Pacers deal Paul George to the Thunder, keep him out of the Eastern Conference
  1. Risk Prof
    July 1, 2017 | 10:06 am

    Keep the faith Pacer fans, this may not be as bad as it looks. PG was Danny Granger with a little better defense. He was never going to take IND to the promised land. PG will be lucky to average 14 a game playing alongside Westbrook.

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