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NBA Sunday: It’s Time to Trade Paul George

The title window has closed. It’s time for Larry Bird to trade his superstar, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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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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PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More

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Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.

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Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia

Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.

Dennis Chambers

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After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.

On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.

Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.

When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.

“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”

While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.

“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”

The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.

Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.

Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.

So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.

“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”

In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.

Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.

“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”

On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.

“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”

After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.

“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”

Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.

“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”

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NBA PM: Marcus Morris’ Return Bolsters The Celtics

With the Boston Celtics riding high with a league-best 16-game win streak, the return of forward Marcus Morris has provided a lift.

Buddy Grizzard

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Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge made a huge personnel gamble this summer that changed four starters from a roster that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. One of the less-heralded among the new starters — forward Marcus Morris, who arrived from the Pistons in a surprise trade for starting shooting guard Avery Bradley — has proven to be a key component in Boston’s early success.

After missing the first eight games of the season due to lingering knee soreness, Morris has scored in double figures in six of nine appearances. Following Saturday’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta — the 15th of the current 16-game win streak — Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Morris’ contributions have been vital, even as Stevens continues to monitor his minutes.

“We need Marcus quite a bit,” said Stevens. “We’re still managing his minutes appropriately as he comes back. Hopefully, that continues to be more and more and more.”

Morris was plus-18 against the Hawks, 10 points better than any other starter, despite being the only starter with single-digit shot attempts. Stevens added that Morris’ offense has been a boost despite few plays being run for him.

“He brings us scoring, he brings us defense [and] he brings us toughness,” said Stevens. “I think we really need his scoring, like his ability to shoot the ball both off broken plays and off movement.”

Morris’ emergence as an offensive threat was noted in the offseason by an Eastern Conference forward in an anonymously-sourced piece on underrated players by HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy.

“I think Marcus Morris is really underrated,” the forward told Kennedy. “He can play multiple positions and he went from being a role player to someone who scores the ball really well. When other players have made that leap, they got more attention. Take Chandler Parsons, for example. When Chandler made big strides, he got a ton of attention and a huge contract. Marcus hasn’t gotten the recognition or the payday that he deserves.”

While some questioned the wisdom of trading Bradley, a starter for a team that had a lot of success and remained on the rise, Celtics center Al Horford — the sole remaining starter from last season — said he was looking forward to playing with Morris once the trade was announced.

“He’s one of the guys that really excited me once we got him this offseason, just because of everything he’s going to be able to bring,” said Horford. “I don’t think he’s at his best yet. He’s doing okay. But he’s just going to keep getting better. So that’s a good thing for us.”

With the knee injury that lingered after the start of the season, Horford said the team is still getting accustomed to the diverse set of tools Morris brings to the court.

“Marcus is great,” said Horford. “Defensively, his presence is felt. On offense I think he’s finally starting to get into a rhythm. He’s getting more comfortable [and] we’re getting more comfortable with him. It’s a matter of time.”

While Stevens and Horford both feel that we haven’t seen Morris at his best, his return to action was timely as it bolstered the lineup during the current win streak. Horford, who was part of a 19-game win streak for the Hawks during the 2014-15 season, was asked how Boston is approaching its current prosperity. Horford said that, like his former Hawks team, the Celtics are avoiding the subject in the locker room.

“We’re not honestly really talking about it much,” said Horford. “That winning streak here was pretty special. We were playing at a high level. We didn’t talk about it here either and we’re taking that type of approach. We’re just playing and enjoying the game out there.”

With Boston carrying the current streak into a Wednesday visit to Miami, Ainge’s surprising trade for Marcus Morris is looking more and more prescient. If his best is yet to come, as his coach and teammates maintain, the recognition that has elluded Morris could be just around the corner.

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