It's not often that a player somewhat unexpectedly joins the ranks of the superstars, but that might just have happened with Paul George this past season. The former 10th overall pick from Fresno State stepped into Indiana's spotlight with Danny Granger injured, and transformed from a 12.1 points-per-game scorer who played slightly less than 30 minutes a night into an All-Star, a third-team All-NBA selection, and a second-team All-Defensive player. He backed it up when he took the team a round farther in the playoffs than it had been with Granger as the No. 1 option the year before, challenging LeBron James nose-to-nose in seven stirring games.
The question that remains is just how George's emergence changes Pacers president Larry Bird's long-range plans for the team. Bird sat out this past season, turning the club over to venerable executive Donnie Walsh, but Larry Legend has returned to a small-market team with an unusual wealth of talent. Bird and GM Kevin Pritchard kept a key piece of that talent around with a new three-year deal for David West, and made necessary upgrades to the bench with the signings of Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson and the trade for Luis Scola. Either Granger or Lance Stephenson will join that second unit next season, further strengthening what had been the team's major weakness in 2012/13.
All of the team's major moves this summer look like winners, but it's the last big decision of the offseason that could have the greatest long-term impact on the franchise. Comparative value would dictate a five-year, maximum salary extension for George after the Wizards handed out such a deal to John Wall last month. Even though George has only played at his current level for one season, he seems at least as deserving of a max deal as Wall, who showed his brilliance only in stretches during an injury-shortened 2012/13 campaign. The idea that Wall could win the MVP this season, triggering a higher maximum salary via the Derrick Rose Rule, is generally dismissed as unattainable. Yet nearly 40% of Hoops Rumors readers voted in June to indicate their belief that George will someday win the MVP award.
Wall's extension was done by the end of July, after Wizards owner Ted Leonsis made it clear early in the process that Wall was a priority. Blake Griffin's max extension last summer came together just as the negotiating period began. James Harden signed his max extension with the Rockets two days after they acquired him from the Thunder. The Pacers have left George hanging to some degree, forcing him to bat down speculation that he'll sign with his hometown Lakers in free agency. It's clear that George wants to remain with the Pacers, and Bird would obviously like to see him in Indiana long-term, saying last month on radio that the team is prepared to make Paul a "major offer." A "major offer" doesn't necessarily add up to the max, and George indicated in June that he thought of himself as a max player, so perhaps there is a financial gulf between the Pacers and Aaron Mintz, George's agent.
I predicted back in June that George would wind up with a four-year, $50MM extension, and that was based on the notion that the Pacers would hesitate to do the max. That would add up to about $10MM less than the max over the course of the deal, and roughly $25MM less than a five-year max extension would entail. The savings could allow the Pacers a chance to re-sign Granger, who'll be a free agent next summer, without going into the tax. Of course, Mintz and George could reject such an offer and wait until George becomes a restricted free agent in 2014, when he'd be free to sign an offer sheet with another team. It seems reasonable to expect that some team would float a max offer George's way in that scenario, barring a major regression this coming season, leaving the Pacers to either match and reduce their flexibility with other players, or watch their young superstar walk away.
It could be that Bird is content to go all in on this year, let Granger go after this season, and sign a cheaper replacement in the summer of 2014 to accommodate a max deal for George. In that scenario, it would behoove George to get a deal done this summer, giving him the opportunity to make another All-NBA team — or win the MVP — and trigger the Rose rule, which would afford him a more lucrative contract than the Pacers or anyone could give him next year. Bird and the Pacers, then, would be the ones preferring to wait past the extension deadline so they can avoid the possibility of getting stuck with a more expensive max deal for George.
The idea that George could hit the open market next year, even as a restricted free agent, merely adds to the intrigue already surrounding the summer of 2014. Bird was never short on confidence as a player, so I'm sure he'd be willing to let George hit free agency and take his chances on re-signing him to a team-friendly deal. Similarly, I'm sure Mintz would relish the opportunity to hock a young superstar to the highest bidder. Ultimately, the decision may come down to George, a 23-year-old with a short track record of success. He could be willing to compromise and take less money as a hedge against a decline in performance. He may be ready to get into a staredown with Bird and put pressure on the Pacers to equal the deal that the Wizards gave Wall. George's financial future, and that of the team he wants to stay with for years to come, is at stake.