INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Now that Paul George has a new contract, the Indiana Pacers can focus on more pressing matters.
Training camp starts Saturday. The regular season opens in a little more than a month. The playoffs come in April, and that’s when the real challenge begins.
“We’re all in this year,” Larry Bird said.
They proved it Wednesday by officially singing George to a five-year max contract extension that guarantees him between $80 and $90 million and could be worth even more if George reaches an escalator clause.
George’s deal comes after David West’s new three-year, $36 million contract, Bird’s offseason spending spree to improve the bench and last year’s expensive deals to keep center Roy Hibbert and point guard George Hill. The Pacers are almost certain to have their core nucleus together for several more years.
And with the Pacers coming off back-to-back playoff runs in which they pushed Miami, the expectations are soaring.
“It’s exciting,” coach Frank Vogel said. “Since I took over here, we’ve been talking about having a similar era to what the Colts had the last seven or eight years, where they had a chance to win it all basically every year. We’re a couple of years into this thing, and to have this guy under contract for five more years gives us that type of confidence, that we can win a championship, our first (NBA) championship.”
Bird gambled by paying the 23-year-old, 6-foot-7 forward before his rookie contract expired at the end of the season. If it had, he could have become a restricted free agent.
George appears to have everything it takes to become the face of Indiana’s franchise. He has improved dramatically in each of his first three years. Last season, he was an All-Star, earned third-team All-NBA and second-team all-defense honors, and won the league’s Most Improved Player Award.
George showed up for the news conference in a nifty gray suit, dapper shoes, trendy eyeglasses and neatly trimmed hair. But he didn’t sound different from the blue-collar guy who has been impressing Pacers coaches and teammates since he was taken 10th in the 2010 draft.
“I did a terrible job — I was supposed to have a poker face through this whole situation, but I really wanted to be here,” George said, drawing laughter. “They gave me a chance and now that I’m in this position, it’s really my job to do everything in my position, in my will, to get us to that next step.”
This will be a different kind of pressure for George.
Last fall, after Hibbert cashed in his first All-Star appearance with a $58 million payday, he struggled early. Playing through a hand injury and dealing with more attention from opponents, he seemed to be trying too hard to live up to the deal. Eventually, Hibbert settled into his new role and showed he was worth every penny when the games mattered most — in the playoffs.
George has thrived when the spotlight is on.
“I think he’s going to be one of the top players in the league. Right now, he’s in the top 15 or 20 players in the league. Do we think he can be a first-teamer? We do, and if he is, then we both benefit from that,” Bird said, referencing the escalator clause that could top $100 million. “You always hear about players letting up after they achieve the money they always dreamed of. Not this kid; he’s the real deal.
“I don’t worry about Paul George. He’s an extremely hard worker. He’s dedicated to his craft, and he’ll be fine.”
The looming question for Indiana is what the Pacers will do with their next two potential free agents — former All-Star swingman Danny Granger and starting shooting guard Lance Stephenson. Both contracts are set to expire after next season.
Aaron Mintz, who represents George, also represents Granger, one of George’s biggest supporters and closest friends.
And Bird opened the news conference by acknowledging that Stephenson, who was standing in the back, would be seated at the front table the next time they hold this sort of gathering.
While it will take some creativity to get Stephenson’s deal done and stay under the league’s luxury tax threshold, Bird believes it can and will get done — and that will make Indiana a perennial title contender.
“Look, the books are never right for us, but we’ll do whatever we can to keep the young man,” Bird said. “He’s worked as hard as anyone that’s ever been here and you’ll see it when he plays this year.”