INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The questions started less than an hour after the Indiana Pacers season officially ended.
Will Paul George commit to playing for the Pacers beyond next season? Will Jeff Teague re-sign with his hometown team? What does Indiana really need to become a championship contender?
Nobody wants to learn the answers more than George.
“If we want to win, (Cleveland is) a team that we have to work toward stacking up against,” he said following Sunday’s 106-102 loss to the defending champion Cavaliers. “At some point, if we want to be serious as a team, we’ve got to look at how we can match up against them.”
Obviously, that starts with George. At 26, the four-time All-Star has already played in two conference finals, won an Olympic gold medal — and been eliminated in the playoffs by LeBron James’ team four of the last six years. George is signed through next season and Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird has already promised George would get a max deal.
If George makes an all-NBA team, as expected, the value of that deal could jump by roughly $75 million.
That’s a lot of money to leave on the table if he decides to test free agency when his contract expires following the 2017-18 season.
But there was enough concern that George might go anyway that there were rumors he could be dealt at the trade deadline. And lingering uncertainty could affect what the Pacers do this offseason and there will certainly be more trade speculation about George, with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers likely in any discussion.
So far, George isn’t saying anything about his thoughts.
“I’m not even at that point yet,” he said.
The one thing Indiana can’t afford — getting nothing in return for their best player.
Bird declined to discuss George on Monday while in New York to deliver the Pacers’ bid to host the 2021 All-Star Game. Bird’s problem is this: He can’t do much until the NBA draft, which is two months away, or until free agency opens in July.
That gives George roughly two months to produce an answer.
While George hasn’t said what he wants to see from the organization, he seemed to enjoy being reunited with longtime friend and 2010 draft mate Lance Stephenson. And re-signing Teague may help, too.
But will it be enough to convince George the Pacers are moving in the right direction?
“You take a year like last year, with that group, we felt like if you added a couple pieces to that group we’d have something again,” George said. “We’ll see what moves the team makes and how it stacks up going forward.”
Teague has repeatedly told reporters all season how much he’s enjoyed playing in his hometown. He was the only player on the Pacers roster to start all 86 games this season.
Bird made it clear last summer after acquiring Teague that the Pacers were trying to sign him to a contract extension. But there’s still no deal and now Teague is on the verge of becoming a free agent and getting a lucrative contract because of changes to the salary cap.
“I love Indiana, man, you know me — born and raised. I’ve got the tattoos on my arm. I’ve wanted to play for the Pacers my whole life,” he said.
Many expected the Pacers to be one of the top four teams in the East after making so many moves last season.
Instead, under first-year coach Nate McMillan, Indiana never really got in sync with the exception of a seven-game winning streak at midseason and the five-game winning streak that got them into the playoffs. He doesn’t anticipate going anywhere this off-season.
“I do have a contract for next season,” he said.
The Cavs’ series exposed one significant flaw in Myles Turner’s game — strength. Turner got shoved around inside through each of the first three games before finishing the series with a flurry Sunday.
McMillan made it clear even before Indiana’s final playoff game that Turner must get stronger so he can be a more physical player next season.