"Our window," Larry Bird, the team's president, told ESPN.com, "closed fast."
The Pacers pushed LeBron's Miami Heat to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, and blitzed to a 33-7 start the next season. They smothered opponents with what looked like perhaps the stingiest defense in league history, and sported three potential All-Stars in George, Roy Hibbert, and Lance Stephenson -- plus George Hill, the underappreciated two-way orchestrator.
Hibbert changed the rules of rim protection, and the world's greatest scorers, including LeBron, changed their games to account for him.
"I thought we would be together five, six, seven years, making conference finals," Frank Vogel, now the coach of the Orlando Magic, told ESPN.com.
Cracks opened in the second half of that 2013-14 season. The offense collapsed. Chemistry frayed. Stephenson bristled at his All-Star exclusion, and maybe at Hibbert making it over him. Swapping Danny Granger for Evan Turner upset the locker room, and unnerved Stephenson, who may have seen Turner as a threat to his minutes ahead of free agency.
"There were issues with Lance not making the All-Star team," Vogel said. "The addition of Evan kind of screwed him up. Evan's a great guy. The moves totally made sense. They just messed us up a little." (Hibbert, Turner, and Granger all either declined comment, or did not respond to inquiries. Stephenson could not be reached).
The Pacers probably weren't as good as that 33-7 record. Pristine roster continuity gave them a head start on everyone else. They never won 50 games in any other season. Scoring was often a struggle, and they could feel the league's tectonic plates shifting beneath them.
Few watched the Pacers-Hawks first-round series that season, but everyone within the team will always remember it as the moment they began to worry about Hibbert's future -- and the future of their defense. They still curse the name of Pero Antic, a little-known "stretch center" who forced Hibbert to chase him around the 3-point arc. The Pacers barely survived in seven games.
"The league had changed," Bird said. "Roy wasn't as effective as he had been."
Stephenson turned down a five-year, $44 million deal that July and bolted to Charlotte. Hibbert hasn't been an All-Star since, and sliding from two All-Stars to one would shake any franchise. George broke his leg playing for Team USA in August. Like that, it was over.
The Pacers are still finding their way back. They are 36-34, barely clinging to a playoff spot in the sad East, a mish-mash of parts that haven't quite fit. They are a puzzling 11-24 on the road. George is 16 months from unrestricted free agency, and he can't help but compare the present to the past.
"This season has been a reality check," George told ESPN.com last week in New York. "You think you are gonna be in those playoff battles, playing alongside those guys forever. You have to try and recapture that moment. And that moment for us was having a strong chemistry and identity. We don't have one now. I've never been on a team without an identity -- without a toughness identity."
Bird knows he is on the clock with George. The Lakers loom as a threat in free agency. The Pacers engaged at least the Celtics, Sixers, Hawks and Nuggets in trade talks for George at the deadline, though they never appeared serious about moving him, per league sources. (Bird has called the George rumors "fake news"). They explored trading Rodney Stuckey for a backup rim protector, including John Henson, sources say, and Bird will dangle Indy's first-round pick again this summer in search of veteran help. Bird has been aggressive trading picks for Luis Scola and Thaddeus Young.
"Our pick is in play," Bird said.
Indiana could also have about $20 million in cap space, though it's unclear how much it'll spend. The Pacers are below the cap this season, and it is set to jump again -- to $102 million -- next season.
"I have a budget," Bird said. "Whatever that budget is, I'll spend it. Sometimes, we can't go after max guys, or players we really think could help us, because of our budget." The Pacers spent up to, and over, the cap in recent summers when they had room.
George wants to play for a contender, and the Pacers seem miles from there. "Paul wants to compete for a title," Bird said. "We want Paul here. He has expressed that he wants to be here. That could change overnight. You never know. But whatever I can spend, I'm going to spend."
Managing the abrupt transition of the past two years would have been hard for any franchise, doubly so in a small market that doesn't draw superstar free agents. Bird is realistic about what the standards should be so soon after the break-up. "Everyone wants to win championships, and we hope there are a lot of years we can do that," Bird said. "But in some years, you have to compete. The goals are different -- maybe to win a first-round series, and go from there."
They've again survived without tanking; Indiana hasn't won fewer than 32 games or drafted higher than 10th since 1989. "We can't do that around here," Bird said of bottoming out.
They've drafted so well in the late lottery and beyond -- George, Myles Turner, Stephenson, Granger, Hibbert -- they might have been better off keeping the 20-something picks they flipped for Young and Scola.
Their veteran acquisitions haven't moved the needle, or followed much of a pattern. Young is a league-average starting power forward. Their deal for Ellis was fine at the time, but he declined fast. They invested a lot in two players -- Jeff Teague and Stuckey -- that mimic Ellis' slashing style. Put any two on on the floor with a pair of paint-bound bigs, and the Pacers can't open any spacing -- a key reason their bench has been terrible:
Each move was fine on its own, though Indy underestimated how good Hill is. Taken together, the Pacers didn't add a difference-maker, or ignite some powerful chemical reaction. Only bargain deals for C.J. Miles and Glenn Robinson III really hit. Beyond George and the untouchable Turner, they are short on trade chips and upside. They'd be in better shape going forward had they kept Kawhi Leonard or traded Hibbert at the peak of his value, but neither move was realistic. Without Hibbert and Hill -- acquired on draft night in exchange for the pick that became Leonard -- there are no Game 7s against LeBron, no era of winning big from which to transition.
Still: zoom out, and it's hard to tell what this team is trying to be. The Pacers aborted a plan to remake George into a small-ball power forward after George pushed back. "Paul is not a [power forward], and we will not play him there," Nate McMillan, their head coach, told ESPN.com.
They fired Vogel and exchanged Hill for Teague with the stated goal of playing faster. They're playing a hair slower than they did last season. They promoted McMillan even though he had almost no history of pushing the pace. That's not to say McMillan was a bad choice; he's a smart basketball mind with a good track record.
But hiring him without interviewing anyone else is a failure of due diligence. A team seeking a vision should expose itself to lots of potential visionaries.
Regardless of who succeeded Vogel, Teague would ignite a drive-and-kick machine and free George to work more off the ball. Nope. Their shot selection profile hasn't budged: They're 19th in total drives, 28th in shots within the restricted area, 27th in 3s, and toward the top in mid-range jumpers. They're 15th in offensive efficiency, and 17th on defense. They might be the most average team in the league.
"We ask ourselves all the time: What kind of team do we want to be?" George said.
"Sometimes we look like a playoff team," Al Jefferson said. "And sometimes we look like a team that has no business being together."
The offense can bog down into a stuttered, lifeless set of screening actions that don't get anywhere good:
Teague and George got off to a rocky start, and they're still learning how to split ball-handling duties. (Teague is a free agent this summer, and has not made any decision regarding his future, according to sources). Turner is ready to do more, and Ellis needs the ball when he takes Miles' spot alongside the four core starters. "We have a bunch of guys who play with the ball in their hands, and now they have to share," McMillan said. "That takes time."
When George rockets off screens, defenders dart away from any nearby Pacers to cloud his vision:
Turner will be an All-Star, and there will come a day, probably soon, when leaving him open from deep is a no-go. George may not want to wait for that day. Turner is more comfortable popping for long 2s, and cutting for buckets around the rim. That is Young's territory, so the paint naturally gets overcrowded.
George is so damned good, he can get buckets anyway:
Teams work around cramped spacing with constant movement and smart passing. If bodies are in the way, at least make them skitter until an alley opens. The Pacers have the goods for that, especially with Turner making huge progress as a passer:
Young is an expert at knifing under the hoop during Turner pick-and-rolls, catching the ball, and making weird stuff happen:
But playing this way for 48 minutes is taxing. It takes a relentlessness the Pacers just haven't shown.
"We have good moments," George said. "But we always resort to B.S."
Indiana's old defense was good enough to carry a mediocre offense. Not anymore. The Pacers don't even know precisely how they want to play on that end. They started in the same drop-back conservative scheme of those Hibbert-era teams, only to find it didn't work as well.
"That identity is gone," McMillan said. "We don't have players whose strength is playing that style."
They've switched more lately, and Young can hang with most perimeter players.
Even that feels ad hoc. Sometimes they switch in emergencies only. Against some opponents, they don't switch at all. Turner is way ahead of the curve for a 20-year-old starting center, but he can get turned around venturing beyond the the 3-point arc. Ian Mahinmi is gone, and Teague is a steep downgrade from Hill on defense. They're 29th in defensive rebounding, a predictable consequence of pairing Young and Turner up front.
And yet: they produce bursts of real brilliance in which you can see the damage a team with such collective speed can do:
Turner is already smart about ignoring false action to barricade the rim. George remains one of the premier wing stoppers alive. He is a proven big-game player. A blah resume may be hiding a dangerous playoff team; Indiana's 5-11 record on back-to-backs is dragging down its overall mark, and back-to-backs vanish in the postseason. They're 16-11 against the West, with sweeps over the Rockets, Clippers, and Thunder. They've been a top-5 defense since the All-Star break.
The Pacers' non-Ellis starting lineups -- with Miles or Robinson III in his place -- have destroyed opponents, and their bench is a sinkhole. Shrink the rotation, and the Pacers are a different beast.
It all makes you wonder if the Pacers are one player away from being really good, and if they might be able to find that player this summer. George would love to play with hometown boy Gordon Hayward, according to sources, but that would appear unlikely. Even so: bring back Teague and Miles, get expected Year 3 improvement from Turner, add a couple of bench pieces, and the Pacers might be able to give George a road map back to the No. 2 seed.
It's a long-ish shot, but it might be their best. They probably won't have the hammer: a five-year, $200 million-plus "designated player" mega-extension they can offer only if George makes an All-NBA team. Even with Kevin Durant's injury, George is likely behind LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, and Draymond Green for one of the six All-NBA forward spots -- with Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap lurking.
But you never know. A lot of voters prioritize winning, and if Indy makes the playoffs over the Bucks and Bulls, something funny might happen. The possibility of that extension made trading George at the deadline tricky. Only the Pacers can offer it, meaning any team that acquired George risked alienating him by costing him tens of millions. The same issue chilled the market for DeMarcus Cousins, and the low price New Orleans paid temporarily distorted the broader trade climate for stars.
Without the extra leverage of that extension, the Pacers would face the very real threat of losing George for nothing next summer. If they flame out this season, George would be dispirited. Indiana would have to at least test the market for him again.
George will be on an expiring contract by then, and everyone involved -- George's representatives, potential suitors, the Pacers -- recalls the cautionary tale of New York gutting its roster to trade for Carmelo Anthony instead of waiting to sign him.
Boston has enough picks to strike the right balance, but it'd have to worry about re-signing George. Ditto for Denver.
The Lakers? They might be the one team confident enough to wait for George's free agency. George's interest in L.A. is real, and widely known. But nothing is certain until you get that signature, and every day between now and that July 2018 day brings the risk of some unknown variable messing up your plans.
If the pingpong balls bounce L.A.'s way in the lottery, the Lakers could approach Indy with an offer built around Brandon Ingram and a top-3 pick. That's a lot, but it wouldn't represent a Melo-style roster ravaging from George's standpoint. He's ready to win now; Ingram and a teenaged rookie won't be ready to win for years.
Meanwhile, the Lakers are integrating new front-office leadership, and Kevin Pritchard, the Pacers GM and Bird's top deputy, is working under a contract that expires after the season, sources say.
It could be a wild summer. Bird is ready. "We want Paul," he said. "And we are always going to do what is best for the franchise."
George still hopes this remade team can come together in time to influence his thinking about the future -- and help him put the past to bed. "That team is gone," George said of those old Pacers. "It happens. Players move on, organizations move on. You deal with it. You keep playing. We've yet to see what this team can be."