Gravity’s Rainbow: Tracing the Arc of Paul George’s future

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.” that’s how Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel “Gravity’s Rainbow.” It refers to the V-2 rockets that Germany fired at England during World War II. It’s a sentence that could also describe the feeling an opponent gets when Steph Curry launches one of his devastating three pointers. It’s also a feeling Pacers fans experienced on Sunday when The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted “Sources: All-Star- Paul George tells Pacers he plans to leave franchise in 2018 free agency, prefers Lakers.”

Wojnarowski’s tweets of this nature are colloquially referred to as Woj Bombs and they — like the weapons of war they suggest — can have an explosive impact.

In this instance, it’s the trade value of Paul George, already diminished from not being moved during the trade deadline of the 2016–17 NBA season.

With the news that George, 27, prefers to play for Lakers, any team that trades for him would only be getting a rental. It seems like a pretty dire situation, but things are quite as bad as they seem. The Pacers missed out on the best return they could have gotten for George by turning down all offers, including the Boston Celtics who dangled at least one of the Nets picks in trade discussion or the Atlanta Hawks who offered four first-round picks for the talented small forward.

Though those picks probably wouldn’t have translated to high draft position. A team doesn’t expend assets to snag a player like Paul George without intending to contend. In theory those picks could have been used for other moves: trading up on draft night or trading for young assets that could be developed.

Though the Pacers have less leverage since George’s preference was leaked to the press, there’s still a chance the Pacers could get a some type of return on George, particularly if they can get other teams into a bidding war if there’s worry that George might not leave the to which is he is traded if that team is a contender: enter the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers lost in five games to the Warriors, despite LeBron James averaging a triple double. The Cavaliers got crushed when James sat and they lacked the lineup versatility of Golden State. George would bolster the Cavalier’s perimeter defense and has enough overlapping skillsets with Kevin Love that the Cavaliers won’t suffer too much from trading Love.
 
 This would likely require the involvement of a third team as the Pacers ideally want young players and picks. Kevin Love would just lead the Pacers to tread water and would be unlikely to resign with the Pacers.

There’s certainly concern that George could leave whatever team trades for him as a rental, but if he gets a taste of what playing in a Finals is alike, assuming the Cavaliers return for a fourth-straight year, that could entice him to sign on, at least for a little bit longer.

If the Lakers fear that they would lose out on him instead of just waiting for free agency, they might try to cut a deal with the Pacers to guarantee seeing the Palmdale-native in gold and purple.

Whatever team George is traded to also gets his Bird rights go with him, meaning a team can exceed their salary cap to resign him

That Paul George would be moving and a rebuild on the horizon is not entirely surprising. The Pacers have been mediocre for the last three seasons, compiling a 125–121 record, not the type of results that inspires a player of George’s caliber to stick around during his prime. Particularly when the measure of an NBA player’s career is predicated on championship rings, MVP awards and other hallmarks of success.

The Pacers were on the clock as soon as George signed a contract extension in September 2013. George lived up to his end of the bargain, he improved each season and even returned for the final six games of the 2014–15 campaign to give the team an emotional lift as it made a playoff push.

That failed and the Pacers wound up in the lottery that netted them a player that is now the future of the franchise: Myles Turner. Low playoff seeding is purgatory for an NBA team: there’s not a realistic shot of winning a championship or even making a deep playoff run and the type of players available in the low teens in the first round of the draft generally aren’t franchise changers.

When it comes to small market teams, the draft is crucial. High draft picks alone aren’t going to be a franchise savior, but it gives teams a better shot at finding players who have the potential to develop into something.

Larry Bird stepping down and Kevin Pritchard taking over indicates that the franchise will take a different approach to team building. Since 1988, the Pacers have never won less than 33 games in a season and since 1994 have the most Eastern Conference Finals appearances.

That’s all likely going to change in the next couple years. It’s unlikely the Pacers delve into the depths of basketball nihilism of the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers under Sam Hinkie. It’s much more enjoyable as a fan to cheer for a group of young guys with potential than to cheer for mediocre players with a well-defined ceiling. The Pacers can’t afford a repeat of the post-Brawl era of competitiveness.

Paul George must be traded before the season begins, hopefully on draft night, dragging this out will only make the divorce that much uglier. It’s not going to be pleasant on opening night for anyone involved if George is in the starting lineup and he gets booed during introductions.

General Manager Kevin Pritchard has a difficult task ahead of him as the draft night draws close, but if anyone has a shot at wringing something valuable out of this situation, it’s Pritchard.

A decade ago as part of the Portland front office, Pritchard developed a reputation for winning trades. A phrase punning on that ability to win trades was coined: the Pritch Slap. He rebuilt the Blazers on the fly and if not for injuries to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, they might have been Western Conference contenders for a long time.

The Pacers are likely better off with Pritchard in the driver seat. Bird hated to lose and was pretty stubborn when he made up his mind. Pritchard will likely be more flexible and with his guiding hand, could help navigate the Pacers through the franchise’s most turbulent era since the Brawl.

What could possibly go wrong? Not like Pritchard’s ever had bad luck with a Nate McMillan-coached team featuring a frontcourt player who played college ball at Texas.

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