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NBA Sunday: It’s Time to Trade Paul George

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The sweat literally on his brow, DeMarcus Cousins didn’t even have time to wipe his face before he received news that seemingly took him by surprise.

“Oh really?” He asked.

The disappointment clearly visible on his face, in an instant, and much to his surprise, Cousins had learned that he had played his final game as a member of the Sacramento Kings. And just like that, in the aftermath of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, he was a member of the New Orleans Pelicans.

The All-Star had recently been assured by the Kings that they wouldn’t trade him, and they did so despite the fact that anyone who saw Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant leave their respective teams for nothing knew that it would be in the best interest of the franchise to do exactly that.

As LaMarcus Aldridge had done with the Portland Trailblazers about 18 months prior, out of fear of alienating their fans or scorching the earth upon which they would have to walk, a superstar simply has to say the right things.

One can only wonder whether or not Larry Bird has been paying attention. Because like it or not, the time has come for the Pacers to trade Paul George.

* * * * * *

The spry 20-year-old sat on the bench, waiting for his opportunity to make a difference.

He saw Tyler Hansbrough play minutes that could have been earmarked for him and saw Josh McRoberts, Brandon Rush and Mike Dunleavy run and gun with Darren Collison and Danny Granger.

Nobody knew back in 2010 that the rookie George would one day emerge as LeBron James’ only peer in the Eastern Conference. Nobody knew that, before Kawhi Leonard, it was he who would appear destined to become the next big thing. Indeed, nobody knew that George would recover so smoothly from what appeared to be a career-altering injury that it would become a mere footnote.

Now, right before his eyes, George has seen his Indiana Pacers go from being a team that challenges James for a right to play in the NBA Finals to one vainly hoping to avoid being swept by him in the first round. The Pacers have taken a few steps backward and seem to be behind scores of teams in the Eastern Conference in the “Who’s Next?” pecking order that is filing as James and his supposed demise inch closer.

Interestingly enough, here and now, the Pacers sit exactly where the Utah Jazz once sat with Deron Williams, and exactly where the Kings recently found themselves with Cousins.

In the end, after Cousins had been alerted of the trade, the pieces of substance he fetched in return for the Kings seemed underwhelming. The most gifted center in the entire league returned Buddy Hield and a protected first round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Sure, Langston Galloway and Tyreke Evans are each serviceable players, but neither would move the needle for the franchise with a playoff drought dating back to 2006.

Had the Kings been a tad bit more proactive and preemptive, they could have received much more. One can only wonder how closely Larry Bird and his Pacers have been watching.

This summer, should the Pacers decide to move on from George, what kind of return could they receive for him? Ask that question again after sifting through the numerous instances in which Magic Johnson, the recently installed president of basketball operations of the Los Angeles Lakers, has let it be known that George will be the apple of his eye the moment the he decides to test the market (George is under contract for the 2017-18 season and has a contract option to become a free agent prior to the 2018-19 season—an option he’s almost certain to exercise).

Magic and Bird have been competing against each other for decades. In some ways, it’s fitting for them to now be competing as executives, especially for Bird’s franchise player.

As has been the case in the past, though, it appears that Magic is destined to emerge the victor. One way or another.

For George, what reason is there to stay?

* * * * * *

Neither London nor Seattle can compete. Many consider rainfall to be a blessing. That being the case, in the aftermath of the NBA’s exploding cap, executives and general managers should be revered as messiahs.

With the NBA’s 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which will take effect on July 1, the rich will get richer. In the April 16 NBA Sunday column, we discussed the Designated Player Exception—a mechanism in the 2017 CBA that will allow an incumbent team like the Pacers to astronomically outbid contenders for one of their qualifying free agents. In short, the exception works like this: if a player accomplishes certain accolades, he will become eligible for a higher cumulative salary under the terms of his subsequent Bird contract. The mechanism became a part of the 2017 CBA as a result of the league wanting to further swing the financial pendulum in favor of an incumbent team wishing to re-sign their franchise player.

In other words, based on both Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant leaving more guaranteed money on the table by opting to take their talents to Houston and Oakland, we have seen that a superstar isn’t afraid of walking away from a few dollars.

Obviously, $30 million isn’t enough to make today’s NBA superstar flinch. That can be recouped. But what about $80 million? With George becoming the first to test the theory, we’re about the find out.

In essence, whether or not George will qualify as a “designated player” hinges on whether or not he makes an All-NBA team this season. He faces stiff competition from the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and Gordon Hayward. George may not qualify, especially since his Pacers barely snuck into the playoffs.

If he doesn’t qualify, the Pacers would still be able to outbid the Lakers for George when the time comes. But again, Howard and Durant have already shown us that the fifth guaranteed year and bigger raises won’t necessarily be enough to keep a free agent home if his heart is truly abroad.

Should George qualify, which doesn’t appear very likely, the Pacers (or whichever team holds his Bird rights, if he’s traded) would be able to offer George a five-year contract that, in total, would exceed $200 million. Other teams wouldn’t be able to offer much more than about $130 million over four years.

The common thought from most would be that the Pacers should sit back and wait and see how the voting shakes out and, if George improbably steals an All-NBA spot from one of the six aforementioned forwards, hold onto him and hold steadfast to the belief that he wouldn’t turn down the extra $75 million.

While possibly true, the truth for the Pacers would be somewhere in the middle. The franchise should hope that George does qualify, and then trade him, anyway. Remember, the NBA is a two-way street.

If Magic Johnson is as hot for George as he has led the public to believe, the prospect of the Pacers being able to offer George such a higher sum would probably make Johnson more desperate to trade for him than attempt to win his services via free agency. Obviously, signing George as a free agent would make the Lakers a stronger team, as they wouldn’t be required to part with any of the members of their young core in receiving him. However, the ability to avoid the bidding war on a 27-year-old player who has already proven capable of shouldering the burden for a franchise would be enticing to Magic. That George is a native of Los Angeles would only bolster the credibility and support that he would have with Lakers fans from day one.

In other words, the Pacers find themselves in an interesting situation. If George fails to qualify for an All-NBA team, they wouldn’t be able to offer him substantially more than any other team, lessening the probability of re-signing him when the time comes. If he does qualify, in theory, it would bolster their ability to re-sign him since they could offer him the highest sum. However, it would increase the potential return they could get by trading him. Magic, as well as any other rival executive that was interested in his services, would be willing to part with more assets out of a desire to avoid being outbid via free agency.

It is the epitome of irony. The mechanism that would allow the Pacers to pay George far more than any competitor is the same mechanism that would allow them to maximize the return that he could fetch. You’ve gotta love the NBA.

With things taking a turn for the worst in Indiana and George entering what will likely be the final year of his contract, it’s simply time for Larry Bird to bite the bullet and trade his franchise player as soon as he can. The longer he waits, the less leverage he has. Between now and then, Bird should hope that George qualifies as a designated player, because interestingly enough, doing so would maximize the return he would net.

* * * * * *

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the Pacers were riding high atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference and had many convinced of their ability to topple the mighty Miami HEAT. Just a few short years later, Frank Vogel is coaching in Orlando, David West is chasing a championship ring in Oakland and Roy Hibbert is playing for his third team since being traded by the Pacers back in 2015.

Two things are promised in the NBA: change and history repeating itself. The Pacers have already seen the changes that go hand-in-hand with running a franchise. Now, with George, as the Rockets saw with Howard and the Kings with Cousins, history is indeed giving us a rerun.

The wise man learns from his own mistakes, but the wiser man learns from the mistakes of others.

By the time next season begins, we will have learned whether Larry Bird is as smart as we have all been led to believe.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.