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Pacers Need to Get on Same Page

Plans are one thing on paper —they’re an entirely different thing in practice.

The Indiana Pacers are a team that has talked about some big plans for next season, and last weekend, they had their first chance to test their new experiment on another NBA team. It was messy.

In their first preseason opener on  Saturday, the Pacers hosted the New Orleans Pelicans and fell, 110-105, in a game that was not as close as it looked. Indiana’s reserves had a late-fourth-quarter run to close the gap to a respectable margin after their starters struggled to implement the team’s new “space and pace” style for most of the game.

After the game, the team sounded less ready to bounce back and try again and readier to bag the whole thing and move on. At least, Paul George did.

Once again, George spoke publicly about his reluctance? displeasure? with the team’s ongoing transition, and his comments cut much deeper than some of his other recent statements. From the Indy Star’s Candace Buckner:

“I don’t know if I’m cut out for a four spot,” George said after the Pacers’ 110-105 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, a game in which he started matched up against 6-foot-11 All-Star Anthony Davis.

“I don’t know if this is my position. We’ll sit and watch tape, and I’m sure I’ll talk with coach (Frank Vogel). I’ll talk with Larry (Bird) as well to get both their inputs on how the first game went but…I’m still not comfortable with it regardless of the situation. It’s still something I have to adjust to or maybe not. Or maybe it’s something we can go away from.”

George has been clear and unwavering in his take on the team’s new style: He’s not feeling it. After the preseason opener, he sounded less onboard than ever, which is disconcerting on different levels.

Even if he doesn’t think it’s working, it’s far too early in the transition to be showing this kind of discontent publicly. Players should be, at least publicly, optimistic right now, not discouraged. George has only had four days of practice and one exhibition game to evaluate the new approach. For such a drastic change, that’s simply not enough time to make a constructive judgment.

At the same time, George’s hesitations are understandable. There’s no denying the added rigors of defending larger power forwards on defense, as well as in trying to keep them off the glass at both ends. It’s a big change for a guy who’s hardly played anywhere except the wing and just now seeing his first earnest NBA action in 18 months.

George’s beef becomes more interesting when considering how cavalier team president Larry Bird was this summer about the team’s big switch. In the same press conference that Bird announced the change, he ripped the team’s former centerpiece Roy Hibbert so intensely that David West said it played a role in his decision to leave Indiana. After George first voiced his apprehension publicly, Bird was equally bullish on the opinions of the Pacers’ new centerpiece: “He don’t make the decisions around here.”

That makes George’s lack of enthusiasm a bit more concerning. Sure, the young forward could stand to buy in a little more, but if Bird has been giving people the “my way or the highway” treatment behind the scenes, the bigger worry could be that he’s alienating his star player. George even hinted after the Pelicans game that he’s not the only one who’s struggling with the transition:

“Four other guys out there, it’s an adjustment for them. We all talk. A couple other guys are uncomfortable with how we’re going to run it and things like that. It’s new to everyone.”

Obviously, there’s a lot going on in Indiana right now. Considering the team just opened preseason, George and everyone else could probably stand to take a step back and practice patience. In fact, the new style yielded great success for George against New Orleans, when he hit his first four shots despite being guarded by the all-world Anthony Davis.

Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

Even a prodigious big man like Davis couldn’t stay with George in space, and he hit the Pelicans big man with a pair of drives to the basket as well as consecutive three-pointers. Meanwhile, George struggled to keep Davis away from the offensive glass, and Brow finished with 18 points and eight boards in just one half.

Overall, George was a microcosm of Indiana’s new style: brilliant-but-inconsistent on offense, still with a long way to go on defense.

Patience is the key here for the Pacers. While his objections are valid, the team has been playing this way together for less than a week. There could still be some very interesting and effective possibilities waiting to be discovered for Indiana. Without George’s cooperation, that might never happen.

At the same time, the Pacers are walking a very tenuous line with their franchise player. George’s contract doesn’t end until 2018, but life comes at you fast, especially in the NBA, and the last thing a small market team can afford to do is isolate a home-grown star. Indiana fans are surely praying these comments aren’t a harbinger of worse news regarding George and the team’s direction.

Coach Frank Vogel has also seemed tepid on the switch, however, he’s caught in between the two conflicting desires of George and Bird, so even he’s limited in how much of a difference he can make.

Still, something’s got to change in terms of the team’s public front, because it would be hard for Indiana to walk back its direction now, given the major renovations from the summer.  The Pacers are going to proceed on this path; the only question is to what degree. As the middleman, Vogel needs to help make sure that he, PG, and the Legend all need to get on the same page ASAP.

That allegedly happened on Monday, when the trio sat down and, according to George, he received “clarification” on the Pacers’ new style, which was essentially that the experiment will continue. This shouldn’t be a surprise to George, given the construction of the team as well as Vogel’s comments that the discussion was “nothing we haven’t said in the past.”

Perhaps, this time the message will stick with George enough for him to give the strategy a chance before he speaks out again. Perhaps not. Vogel and Bird have said they are fine with George talking to the media as long as he talks to them as well, but at a certain point, George can’t keep publicly worrying about every step of the transition, at least not in October. He’s got to just play ball and give it a chance.

Based on Vogel’s comments, Indiana’s problem here might be that George simply doesn’t understand that this isn’t just a test, it’s a real change. If that’s the case, this might only be the beginning of the issues between the two sides, especially if neither wants to give an inch. That kind of solidified disconnect could become a serious problem.

Whatever the answer to the Pacers’ strategy becomes, the final decision will hopefully keep George happy. Otherwise, Indiana might find itself without the star player and linchpin of its entire project. It’s not time to panic by any means, but things are not off to a great start.

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