INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Paul George wanted to keep playing in Indiana. Larry Bird made sure he wasn’t going anywhere.
The Pacers star forward agreed Tuesday to a long-term contract, according to a person with knowledge of the deal who spoke on condition of anonymity because it won’t be officially announced until Wednesday. Terms were not immediately available, but he is eligible for a five-year deal worth between $80 million to $90 million, depending on the salary cap.
George’s rookie deal was set to expire after next season and the 23-year-old All-Star almost certainly would have been one of most attractive players on the free-agent market. There was speculation the Los Angeles area native might return to California and team up with Kobe Bryant to restore the luster to the Lakers proud franchise.
But publicly and behind the scenes, George repeatedly said his sole intention was to win a championship with the Pacers.
Bird was so determined to get the deal done before training camp opened Saturday that he left his golf clubs at home Monday instead of playing in the annual Pacers Foundation outing. Instead, he returned to the office to continue negotiating.
“It’s always good to have the leverage, but the number has got to be the number we both like and that’s what it’s all about,” Bird said then. “It’s all about money. Yes, he wants to be here. He’s told me that a million times. We want him here, so let’s just find a number for both.”
By Tuesday afternoon, everything fell into place and the Pacers get a cornerstone player for the future.
The 6-foot-8 forward has made dramatic improvement in each of his first three NBA seasons.
He was a key player off the bench as a rookie, then emerged as a solid starter in his second season and last year averaged career-highs of 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists. George’s numbers actually increased during the playoffs as he led Indiana past Atlanta and New York and into the Eastern Conference finals. The Pacers pushed the defending champs to Game 7 before eventually losing at Miami.
He was a third-team All-NBA selection, a second-team all-defensive pick, was named the league’s most improved player and earned a second straight trip to USA Basketball camp this summer. But all he really wanted to do keep was win a title with the team that brought him into the league and is convinced he’s going to become one of the game’s most complete stars.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of upside,” coach Frank Vogel said Monday. “He’s probably the best wing defender in the game already and he’s only 23, and when you have the work ethic and drive he has, there’s tremendous upside there.”
Signing George also means the Pacers will keep their core group for at least three more years.
Last summer, center Roy Hibbert and point guard George Hill both signed lucrative, long-term deals. Power forward David West joined the club this summer when he agreed to a three-year, $36 million deal. Now George is locked up, too.
The contracts of two other key players — shooting guard Lance Stephenson and former NBA All-Star Danny Granger — are set to expire after next season. Stephenson will become a restricted free agent because he’s still on his rookie deal.
But for a team that came within two games of taking out Miami in the 2012 playoffs and one win last year and now believes it significantly upgraded its bench, getting the George deal might be the last big piece to the championship puzzle.
“There’s no doubt we’ve got a great core here,” Vogel said. “Roy is going to be here, George (Hill) is going to be here, David West is going to be here, hopefully, Lance and Danny will be here for years to come. But when you have Paul as one of your core pieces, that’s a pretty good place to start.”