Where Do We Go From Here: A Reflection on Paul George, Larry Bird, and the History of the Indiana Pacers (Part One)
Paul George is gone. Larry Bird is gone. What is next for the Pacers? Let’s examine the past to look to the future.
The Indiana Pacers are in trouble. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but Paul George has been traded to Oklahoma City. Yes, he is now a Thunder (Thunderer?). How you would have missed this news is beyond me, as free agency has quickly become the highlight of the NBA each year. Forget the Finals, forget the Draft, forget All-Star weekend. The reporting on player movement, be it by signings or trades, is non-stop and has the addictive qualities of a trashy telenovela: the dumber and weirder it gets, the more enthralling it becomes.
Reaction to Paul George heading west is about what you’d expect from both fans and local media — see here and here for some examples. Hell hath no fury like a Pacers fan scorned, or something like that. Look, everybody knew George was leaving. He was out the door; he was out the door & knocking on Magic Johnson’s window, pleading on his hands and knees to be let in. The only question left was: where? And for what? The answer, shockingly, being the Thunder and for…Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis…yeesh. That is not what I would’ve gone for, but I have love for neither IU basketball nor late-90s Trail Blazers. But that’s the end destination; what of the journey?
How about we take a jaunt down good old memory lane? Let’s look back on three inextricably linked subjects: Paul George’s career as an Indiana Pacer, Larry Bird’s dubious tenure as the Pacers’ GM, and a quick rumination on the history of the Indiana Pacers. Then, and only then, can we look to the future.
Part One: The Rise of the Best Player in Pacers History
Paul George is, bar none, the best player in the fifty-year history of the Indiana Pacers. Not the most beloved, not the most important, not the most personable, not the most controversial, not the most successful…no, George is none of these. No matter what the fans will tell you, he surely is the most talented player to ever put on the blue and gold. There will always be arguments made for the ABA standbys —I hear you George McGinnis, Mel Daniels, and Roger Brown — and the NBA stars — yes, I see you Reggie Miller and Jermaine O’Neal — but Paul George eclipses them all. Leaving in this fashion will cause people to overreact negatively (for example: when multiple people feel, in their bones, that Mark Jackson was the best player to wear #13 for the Pacers) and disparage George as he galavants to the Western Conference.
George is leaving the Pacers without a resume that would ensure adoration from Hoosiers down the line. Surely, he won’t be receiving any fan ovations or a jersey retirement in the future. Hell, six-time NBA All-Star & three-time All-NBA selection Jermaine O’Neal, the best player on the greatest “what-if” team in NBA history (the 2004–2005 Pacers) is all but forgotten by the fanbase entirely. Paul George will leave Indiana with a marred legacy, but a legacy nonetheless. And, honestly, that Paul George will even have a legacy in Indiana might be the most amazing thing about all of this.
Playing his high school ball in Palmdale, California, Paul George was extremely unheralded as a prospect. Unlike other future NBA players (DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, etc.), George garnered little hype despite averaging 23.2 points and 11.2 rebounds a game in his senior year at Knight High School. Rivals.com had George ranked as three-star prospect & the twentieth best recruit and 247Sports had him at a one-star & twenty-third…20th and 23rd in California, that is. Yes, Paul George — future All-NBA player, All-Star, and USA National Team member — didn’t even crack the teens in his own state and went unranked nationally into the college game.
After two seasons at Fresno State University, George entered the 2010 NBA Draft. During those two years at Fresno State, George emerged as an exciting and dynamic player who never had the chance to shine under the bright lights of the NCAA tournament. Scouts took notice and while where he would go was unclear, it was certain that George was a first round pick. Quite a leap, to go from unranked nationally to the first round of the NBA Draft.
Where George would eventually go on draft night was murky; this is not unusual — even draft “experts” have no idea what each team’s draft board looks like. Sports Illustrated put him at 27th on their board, Draft Express and ESPN put him at 10th on theirs, and Bleacher Report had him at 6th.
The Indiana Pacers really hit it out of the park with two of their three picks in that draft, taking George with the 10th pick, Lance Stephenson with the 40th pick, and Magnum Rolle with the 51st pick.
— I have to state for the officially official record, even though Magnum Rolle didn’t pan out, drafting Magnum Rolle was still a win for the Pacers because Magnum Rolle’s name is Magnum Rolle. Also, in other Magnum Rolle news, Magnum Rolle is currently playing for the Nakorn Phantom Mad Goat Basketball Club of the Thailand Basketball League. This has been your Magnum Rolle News Minute, come back next week when we cover how Magnum Rolle’s mother named him Magnum Rolle due to her love of Tom Selleck’s magnum opus, Magnum P.I. Quick Preview: “She’d dress me in Hawaiian shirts so I’d look like him, but I don’t think it worked.” —
Considering the five picks immediately following George were Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry, Ed Davis, Patrick Patterson, and Larry Sanders, it is safe to say the Pacers made the right selection. George is top four player in that draft, though where he lies in that ranking depends on your personal feelings about John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Gordon Hayward. A home run for sure, but that is only because Paul George developed into a star. The beginning of his rookie year did not foretell such heights whatsoever.
Much of George’s mediocre rookie season falls at the feet of Jim O’Brien. Sweet, sweet Jim O’Brien. After coaching the Pacers to a stuttering 17–27 record during the beginning of his fourth year in charge (and a red hot 121–169 record over his tenure), O’Brien was fired on January 30, 2011. Of the 44 games O’Brien was head coach that season, George had 21 DNP-CDs (Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision) and in 8 of the 23 he did play in, he got less than a quarter’s worth of minutes. When Frank Vogel took over, George’s playing time increased and he played in each of the 38 remaining games. When all was said and done, George was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team, not too shabby for a kid with 21 DNP-CDs.
During Frank Vogel’s first full season as head coach, the Pacers finished with the fifth best record in the lockout-shortened, 66-game season. They lost to the eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat in the second round, making it past the first round for the first time in seven years. Go Frank. George’s responsibilities increased during that year as his statistics improved in every major category except two-point field goal percentage. He also competed in the Slam Dunk contest and the Rising Stars Challenge. Not a bad year by any stretch, but it would be George’s third year where he became a big-time player.
Paul George became *Paul George* during the 2012–2013 regular season. He averaged 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in just over 37 minutes per game. He made the Eastern Conference All-Star team, won Most Improved Player, was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team, and was voted onto the All-NBA Third Team. In two short years, George went from DNP-CDs to being named one of the fifteen best players in the NBA. For any other player, that’d be remarkable. But for George, it was just another step in his evolution: the twentieth-best player in California to a top-ten pick in the NBA Draft to an All-NBA superstar. Paul George’s learning curve is different from normal humans.
Now, we will get into the downfall of George’s career in Indiana. There is a lot of gold to mine in them hills: the picture, the leg-break, the firing, the incessant whining…I could go on and on. Shining a spotlight on the bad times here will only serve to denigrate the good times, something our society (read: every newspaper currently on a newsstand) has gotten pretty good at. There will be plenty of time for negativity in parts two, three, and four of this piece. For now, I just want to reflect on joy of the past.
After seven years with the Pacers, George is leaving with a hefty list of accomplishments: four-time All-Star, three-time All-NBAer, three-time All-Defensive team, and Olympic Gold medalist. He took us to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals and ran into a little playoff brick wall known as LeBron *Effing* James in three straight years. Had he stayed with Indiana, who knows how long that list would be? Who knows if he’d even have won another playoff series in a Pacers uniform? It is anyone’s guess how the fanbase would feel about Paul George as a Pacers-lifer. He never would have beaten out Reggie Miller as franchise hero, Miller’s pre-internet mystique and well-documented accolades ensure that role is his for years to come (sorry, Myles).
Paul George is the best player in Pacers history. Unfortunately for him — though I doubt he really cares — he won’t be remembered as the best player in Pacers history.
There is still a lot to cover, and there will be more coming at you soon. Remember the time Larry Bird hired Nate McMillan — a man so milquetoast that he might be the human equivalent of unbuttered whole-grain wheat toast — as head coach for some reason? Remember the time Ron Artest assaulted a fan and Jermaine O’Neal almost decapitated a human being (thank GOD for slippery floors)? Remember the time, in the summer of 2017, when the Pacers decided making the eight-seed with 33 wins would be a good idea…wait…