INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Paul George is frustrated, frustrated with the way his Pacers team is struggling, frustrated with the officials – he’s got the $15,000 fine to prove it – frustrated with everything.
Well, I’ll let him say it: "[This season] hasn’t been fun. It hasn’t been. It’s been one of the most frustrating seasons I’ve been a part of."
Is that what you want to be hearing from your star, who just so happens to become a free agent at the end of next year? No. No, it's not. It’s frightening, actually, and it should send off alarm bells with Larry Bird, who needs to build a contender around George if he hopes to retain him.
That’s not to suggest that George himself deserves immunity from criticism. He’s still putting up big numbers, the best numbers on the team, but this was a season when he said he wanted to be an MVP candidate, and he’s fallen woefully short of that mark in every conceivable way. It’s not just the numbers; it’s the effort, as you may have noticed during a Bulls’ possession the other night when George barely moved while Chicago was grabbing three straight offensive rebounds.
Mirror, meet PG.
The Pacers' issue goes far deeper, though, and it suggests that the "new voice’" in the locker room, Nate McMillan, isn’t being heard. There are flaws in the construction of this team – we all were concerned the undersized backcourt would prove to be a defensive liability – but they ought to be far better than 15-18, 10th in the Eastern Conference. Some of us thought the Pacers helped themselves more than any team in the league this offseason, but it’s turning out this group looks a lot better on paper than it does the basketball court.
"We talked this morning with the team, when you’re getting beat the same way most nights, what do you do about it?" Nate McMillan said. "You can work harder at getting better at your weakness or you give in, and we’re not giving in. We lost due to not rebounding, unforced turnovers, bad execution…We’ve got to be more physical in that paint. We’ve got to get more help in that paint to rebound the ball. We’ve got to be more consistent with our offensive execution."
At this point in the season, there are no bigger underachievers in the NBA.
I asked George, "Is there anything this team does exceedingly well?"
He stared a hole through my forehead, then looked toward the floor.
"No," he said.
That, friends, is the inconvenient truth. You know what the Pacers do relatively well? They make free throws, ranking second in the league in free throw percentage, although to listen to them, they don't get to the line nearly often enough. They're third in the league in three-point defense. They’re a reasonable eighth in field goal defense.
This team that was supposed to be the Golden State Warriors on training wheels? They’re 18th in points per game and don’t play the kind of selfless, up-tempo basketball they claimed they would play.
They're 24th in rebounding, an issue that bit them again in recent games.
They're 15th in assists.
They're 19th in turnovers.
They're 20th in points allowed.
Middling or worse in every meaningful statistical category, which explains why they’re in the midst of a four-game losing streak and have fallen far short of every reasonable expectation this season.
"Thirty-something games in, we need to figure it out, and soon," George said.
One area where they DO lead the league? Whining.
After the Bulls game, McMillan groused about the free-throw disparity and the fact that George went to the line just one time while playing 39 minutes. He got fined $10,000.
George, who was in the locker room at the time, was told by Pacers personnel what McMillan had said moments earlier. What he should have told reporters was that the officials had nothing to do with the Pacers’ lack of energy and execution and it was all on the players. Instead, he whined, questioning, in his own way, whether the officiating was part of some vast small-market conspiracy.
Price tag: $15,000 for being a repeat offender.
"I’ve been getting caught up with the officials," George conceded Thursday.
Then Wednesday, Myles Turner tweeted, “It’s unreal when the opposing player even says “damn that’s an awful call’’ on more than 1 occasion as they are shooting their free throws.’’
He later deleted that tweet, but said, “Not making excuses for our lack of wins, but it’s frustrating none the less I’m with PG on this one as a good teammate should be.’’
I will give McMillan a pass for saying how he felt; coaches sometimes have to defend their players and plant a seed with the officials.
I will give Turner a pass because he’s 20 years old, he looks up to George and he was merely trying to be a good teammate.
I will not give George a pass. By now, he should know better. A leader doesn’t bail out his team with weak-kneed excuses. A leader doesn’t suggest that external forces are conspiring to keep his franchise down. A leader doesn’t wallow in victimhood. A leader takes ownership.
To his credit, McMillan knows how his team is sounding, and he plans to have them cease and desist.
“We don’t want to be known as whiners and we’re not going to use that (officiating) as an excuse,’’ McMillan said. “That’s what I told the team today: Officiating had nothing to do with them beating us to those offensive rebounds. Officiating had nothing to do with those turnovers…I want the players to move forward and not use that as an excuse and that’s what it’s kind of sounding like from us this last week.’’
McMillan said he’s already spoken with George, and planned to talk to Turner as soon as he was done with the media.
“I plan to have a conversation with my young center,’’ McMillan said. “I’m sure he’s waiting on me in the back.’’
Meanwhile, George wonders when and if this team will ever truly contend in the Eastern Conference. Because if it doesn’t, if this team is truly as ordinary as it’s looked so far this year, it will be tough to keep George around for the long term.
“Maybe I’m just living in the past of how good we used to be and the guys we had around,’’ he said. “Maybe I’m still living in that moment.’’
It’s the present, and the future, that should worry George and this flailing franchise the most.