Paul George said he wants to stay with the Indiana Pacers and it looks like he will get his wish — the Pacers, a disappointing 29-28 this season, sixth-best in the Eastern Conference, were willing to listen to trade offers ahead of Thursday’s deadline but didn’t find any worth pursuing.
It was a tough position to be in, but the Pacers did the right thing, because losing a superstar is the exact opposite of a successful strategy in the NBA.
George, a three-time all-NBA selection and the league’s most improved player in 2013, is averaging 22.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game this season. The Pacers outscore opponents by 1.8 net points per 100 possessions when he is on the court, but are outscored by 5.9 points per 100 when he is on the bench. Extrapolate that to the team level and it equates to the difference between a 34-win team like the Memphis Grizzlies (plus-1.4 net rating) and a lottery team like the Philadelphia 76ers (21 wins, minus-5.9 net rating). According to ESPN’s Real Plus minus, which adjusts for teammates and opponents, George is worth more than five wins this season, 12th most among small forwards. He finished the 2015-16 season at No. 10 (14.7 wins).
George is a career 36.7 percent shooter from beyond the three-point line and is hitting above that this season (38.3 percent), pushing his true shooting percentage to a career-high 57 percent.
George is at his best with the ball in his hands, and it’s hard to find a better wing at running the pick and roll, a trait that is essential to succeeding in the modern NBA. Among swing players with at least 300 possessions in the pick and roll this season, only Deron Williams, LeBron James and Bradley Beal score more points per possession than George. He can also hit the shot off a screen and make a defense pay with his no-dribble jumper from distance, scoring a lethal 1.33 points per shot, good enough to put him in the top 10 percent of the NBA.
It’s not all about offense with George. The three-time all-defensive team member allows opponents to score less than a third of the time in isolation (32.5 percent, league average is 41.6 percent) and holds them to 39.5 percent shooting around the basket, not including post-ups, ninth best in the NBA this season. His 8.6 contested shots per game is the third-highest on the team and only five players contest more three-point shots per game (4.3) than George this season.
Getting a player of George’s caliber is hard, which is why you don’t get rid of them unless you’re certain you’re going to get an equal star in return. Since he was drafted in 2010, just seven players have been named to more all-NBA teams: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Just three of those — James, Paul and Howard — also were all-defensive team selections.
James dictated where he will go, and chose to go back home to the team that drafted him. Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. And that behavior is true for any elite free agent. Would any free agent pick the Pacers if George is elsewhere? Probably not. That leaves finding a superstar in the draft, which is difficult to do.
According to FiveThirtyEight, there were four prospects in the 2016 draft that had better than a 20 percent chance at playing at an all-star level, with all four carrying a higher probability of becoming a bust. Since 2010, only one player, Damian Lillard, has produced as many win shares per 48 minutes while playing at least as many minutes (14,000) as George. If we cut the minutes requirement to a third (4,700) of that we have a pool of 16 players, or less than three players per draft class. Finding a star of any caliber is rare, finding one as good as George is exceedingly so. As such, George shouldn’t be a commodity dealt away carelessly.