NBA

Indiana Pacers should have gotten more for Paul George

Jay Asser 2/07/2017
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Off the Pace: Paul George will head to Oklahoma City. Picture: Getty Images.

There must be something in the air in the Midwest that’s made general managers lose their minds.

Barely a week removed from witnessing the Chicago Bulls get fleeced for Jimmy Butler, the Indiana Pacers decided their Central division rivals shouldn’t have all the fun.

In a shocking move that took the entire NBA by surprise, Indiana pulled the trigger on a trade to ship out Paul George ahead of the start of free agency yesterday, ending their disintegrating relationship with the star swingman.

But it’s where the Pacers sent George and the meagre haul they received in return that’s baffling. After countless rumours linking the All-Star to the Los Angeles Lakers – his preferred destination in free agency next offseason – as well as Boston, Houston and Cleveland, the final destination was a mystery team: Oklahoma City.

Credit to Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who came out of nowhere to bag George for a package of Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and… wait for it… nothing else. That’s right, no draft picks were exchanged. Not even a measly second-rounder.

The Brodie #OKC

A post shared by Paul George (@ygtrece) on

Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard wasn’t in the most enviable spot. The cornerstone of the franchise had made it known he was bolting next summer for the West Coast, thereby forcing Indiana to trade him despite having little to no leverage.

In a vacuum, netting a fairly young scoring guard and a big man prospect who was a lottery pick just a year ago isn’t a horrendous return for a player that already has one foot out the door. Circumstances (and reports), however, suggest Indiana shunned better offers and, if true, Pritchard may have cut off his nose to spite his face.

Boston, who undoubtedly had the best assets to pull off a deal, reportedly offered Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and three non-Brooklyn or non-Lakers/Sacramento picks. That’s not as appealing for the Pacers as a package centred on next year’s Nets or Lakers selection, but it’s still better than what Pritchard settled for.

That’s not even the point, though. Let’s just say this was the final offer put forth by Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. It’s well known that Boston want to first secure Gordon Hayward’s signature before trading for George – for both salary cap and philosophical reasons.

If you’re Pritchard, why wouldn’t you wait to see where Hayward signs and then, if it is with the Celtics, put the pressure on for a better haul, knowing George would complete their ‘superteam’ blueprint? In the meantime, Oklahoma City’s offer wasn’t going anywhere.

Instead, Pritchard either was too inept to weigh up his options or made a decision that wasn’t strictly based on getting the most possible for George.

Maybe he was put off by having to abide by Ainge’s timeline or his resistance to put his best assets on the table, or just wanted to exile George to Oklahoma, which is the antithesis of Los Angeles.

The bigger factor, however, may have been sending George out of the Eastern Conference so as not to strengthen a direct competitor.

All of these reasons are terrible and considering the Pacers may as well go into a full rebuild now, doing anything other than accepting the best possible offer is nothing short of a disaster.

It’s a weird way for this saga to end. Indiana didn’t have the foresight to trade George at February’s deadline, before managing to create somewhat of a bidding war among George suitors this summer.

After all that, they came full circle and made their life more difficult than it had to be.

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NBA

Mason Plumlee hoping to make Denver Nuggets his home

Jay Asser 1/07/2017
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Mile High: Mason Plumlee. Picture: Getty Images.

After playing for three different teams through his first five seasons in the NBA, Mason Plumlee hopes he’s found a more permanent home at his latest stop.

The 27-year-old centre hits restricted free agency today, but the 27 games he played with the Denver Nuggets in the second half of last season could be enough to give Plumlee a sense of belonging amidst a young, budding core that provides the franchise with a bright outlook.

It wasn’t a seamless transition. Mid-season trades rarely are.

Despite enjoying a career year with the Portland Trail Blazers, with whom he was averaging 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0
assists, Plumlee was sent along with a second-round draft pick and cash to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-rounder in February near the trade deadline.

The trade somewhat blew up in the Nuggets’ face, with Nurkic enjoying a rejuvenation in the northwest. Plumlee, meanwhile, played nearly five minutes fewer per game with his new team and saw his role reduced.

It wasn’t the first time Plumlee experienced being shipped to a new city and forcibly started over. In the 2015 offseason, he was dealt from Brooklyn, who drafted him 22nd overall in 2013, to Portland.

The transition was a positive one for the big man as he appeared to find his place in an up-and-coming Trail Blazers squad, only to be on the move once again a season-and-a-half later.

Stability may certainly be a factor, but Plumlee’s eagerness to
remain in Denver stems from a desire to continue developing alongside Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and others.

“It was great. It was unexpected. It was the first time that I’ve experienced being traded in the season – when I went from Brooklyn to Portland it was in the summer – so it was very different,” Plumlee told Sport360° in Dubai earlier this week, while hosting a basketball camp in collaboration with Duplays and East Sports Management.

“But I enjoyed my time in Denver and even though we missed the playoffs, we were a better team after the trade. I enjoyed it and I look forward to growing there.

“There’s a lot of talent there, man. I think we can do some really special things if we keep the core together and grow.”

Plumlee, of course, doesn’t have the final say on where he ends up next season. As a restricted free agent, the Nuggets hold his rights and can match any offer sheet Plumlee signs with another team.

Considering how much the Nuggets parted with to acquire him, especially in hindsight, it’s reasonable to believe the sentiment of his return is mutual between Plumlee and the franchise. That shouldn’t stop him from at least exploring his options and testing the market to extract his first big contract since signing a four-year, $6.4 million (Dh23.5m) rookie deal.

For most 27-year-olds coming off the rookie salary scale, landing the most money would be a priority. Winning is great and all, but there’s still time later in a career to fill any championship void. For Plumlee, however, being part of a successful team is one of the most important factors in his decision-making.

“The biggest thing is winning and the people. It’s such a long season, the NBA is 82 games, and over half the year you’re spending with these people – whether it’s coaches, team-mates, front office – you want to like who you’re working with and feel you have a common goal. You’d think it would be easy to find that but it’s not,” he said. “So I look forward to playing with a team that is trying to win championships and competing for that.”

If Denver do bring Plumlee back, likely at a starting annual salary of at least $10m, they’ll continue to have two of the best passing centres in the league.

Jokic led all NBA centres with a 26.6 per cent assist percentage – a figure which was fractions behind the likes of stars Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee and Golden State’s Draymond Green – while Plumlee ranked sixth at the position at 18.7 per cent.

No player is more important to the Nuggets’ present or long-term prospects than Jokic and after playing alongside the versatile offensive engine, Plumlee is full of admiration for his team-mate’s unique abilities.

“He’s so ball-friendly,” Plumlee said. “When the ball is in his hands, he’s very comfortable whether that’s scoring, passing or handling. You aren’t going to make him unc-omfortable and he’s going to make good decisions for the most part.”

Passing has never been a question for Plumlee. His lack of rim protection and shooting though, are threatening to further diminish  his impact in a league which values floor spacing more than ever.

Despite attempting just 15 3-pointers in total through five years, Plumlee, who also shoots free throws at a lacklustre 58.2 per cent clip for his career, will eventually have to extend his range.

Whether it’s with the Nuggets or another team, more triples should be on the way sooner than later.

“We’ll get some up this season,” Plumlee said of shots from beyond the arc. “Even more important for me is being able to go to the line and be 70 to 80 per cent from the free throw line. I think guys who you can depend on down the stretch in every facet of the game are very valuable and I embrace being on the court at the end of the game, so that’s something that’s going to have to happen if I want to continue being in that position.”

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NBA free agency could hinge on Gordon Hayward's decision

Jay Asser 1/07/2017
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Jazz hands: Gordon Hayward. Picture: Getty Images.

If the NBA offseason has already felt like a whirlwind of chaos less than three weeks in, it’s about to get a whole lot crazier as free agency begins today.

Two stars have already switched teams with Jimmy Butler and Chris Paul traded to Minnesota and Houston, respectively, and more seismic movement could be on the way.

The most coveted player that could realistically find a new home is All-Star Gordon Hayward, who is potentially the first domino in a chain reaction.

For the first time in his seven-year career, the 27-year-old swingman will be an unrestricted free agent with the power to choose his next team. He’s expected to decide between either remaining with Utah, where he’s spent his entire career since being drafted in 2010, or jumping to the Eastern Conference for Miami or Boston.

Hayward will first meet with the Heat today after free agency starts at midnight (UAE: 08:00), before visiting the Celtics tomorrow and the incumbent Jazz on Monday, according to reports.

While Utah can offer a five-year contract at an estimated $180 million (Dh661m) – compared to the maximum four-year deal for $127m (Dh466m) at Miami or Boston – their financial advantage isn’t as staggering as it appears.

Hayward could aim to ink for three years (or four with an opt-out after the third season), regardless of which team he signs with, in order to hit free agency again at the age of 30 when he would have 10 years of experience and be eligible for the largest max contract possible.

In that scenario, Utah’s advantage shrinks to around $3-5m over the next three years, making Hayward’s decision less financially-driven and more about preference.

Hayward’s blossoming with the Jazz has coincided with the team’s upward trajectory, with the franchise in promising position with a young core that also includes Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and Dante Exum.

They won 51 games last season, field one of the league’s best defences and have an up-and-coming coach in Quin Snyder, meaning there are plenty of reasons for Hayward to stick around.

In Utah, however, Hayward is stuck competing in the same conference as Golden State’s budding dynasty, which knocked off the Jazz in the second round of the playoffs, while the Eastern Conference presents an easier path to contention.

That’s what Miami and Boston can provide, as well as their similarly strong organisational stability, two of the best coaches around and a history of winning.

Each team also has its own unique selling points, such as Miami boasting weather, nightlife and no state income tax, while Boston have Brad Stevens – Hayward’s college coach at Butler – rich tradition and a foundation that was already good enough to win 53 games, attain the East’s top seed and reach the conference finals.

The Celtics and general manager Danny Ainge could have an ace up their sleeve though, in the form of Paul George.

Boston are attempting to sign Hayward and then trade for the Indiana star swingman to form their own version of a ‘superteam’ to compete with Cleveland and the Warriors.

A trade likely hinges on Hayward’s commitment, both for salary cap ramifications – the Celtics need to maintain max cap space to bring in Hayward, but not George – and Ainge’s philosophical approach.

As Boston owner Wyc Grousbeck said back in February, the team is still “two significant guys away” from truly contending.

If Hayward does reunite with Stevens, the Celtics would have all the ammunition to acquire George, with any combination of their assets – young players and draft picks – unlikely to be trumped by any other team.

If Hayward stays in Utah or signs with Miami, Boston could pursue Blake Griffin as a back-up plan. The big man could be the next star to exit Los Angeles after the Clippers traded Paul.

Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, meanwhile, despite technically being the top free agents available on the market, are unsurprisingly expected to stay put in the Bay Area and re-sign with defending champions, the Warriors.

TOP FREE AGENTS

1. Kevin Durant, unrestricted

Another offseason, another summer where Durant is on the open market. This time, of course, he’s not going anywhere, other than back to the team he just helped lift the Larry O’Brien trophy.

2. Stephen Curry, unrestricted

This is actually an important free agency period for Curry, not because he has a decision to make as to where he’ll play, but because he’ll finally get a big pay day after being arguably the NBA’s best valued (i.e. cheap) contract.

3. Gordon Hayward, unrestricted

The closer we’ve gotten to free agency, the more it feels like Hayward will leave Utah, which may have everything to do with avoiding the West. If Boston can sell him on also getting Paul George, it could be a done deal.

4. Blake Griffin, unrestricted

There’s no denying his talent and skill, but Griffin is an injury concern and as such, could take a shorter deal than the five years Los Angeles can offer. Wherever he goes, he should be more free to act as a playmaker.

5. Kyle Lowry, unrestricted

At 31, this is likely to be Lowry’s last big payday, but it could depend on the point guard market, which seems oversaturated. He’ll still have options and it’s a case where the team (Toronto) needs the player more than vice versa.

6. Paul Millsap, unrestricted

It would appear shortsighted if Atlanta don’t do everything possible to bring Millsap back, considering they took him off the trade market near the deadline. But he’s also 32 and while still very good, could soon be on the decline.

7. Serge Ibaka, unrestricted

Toronto could watch Ibaka leave after being nothing more than a one-year rental, or they could overpay to retain him. He’s still useful, but his inconsistencies on both ends mean he’s not a max player.

8. Otto Porter Jr, restricted

The swingman took a significant step forward in his development this past season and at 24, is already a good two-way player. His shooting has continually improved and his length makes him suitable for the modern game.

9. JJ Redick, unrestricted

The 33-year-old sharpshooter is just as efficient as ever, meaning he could be a perfect role player for a contender or put up more inflated stats on a middling squad.

10. George Hill

Hill isn’t good enough to be a top point guard, but is overqualified as a role player. Teams with a need at the position could do a whole lot worse than the veteran. A Spurs reunion would make sense.

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