Paul George will play his first game against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night, and neither the new Oklahoma City Thunder forward nor his former coach are shying away from one reason why he wanted off the team for whom he played his first seven NBA seasons: He wanted less responsibility.
George informed the Pacers in June of his intent to leave in free agency next summer, and the public nature of that report and others suggesting he hoped to play for his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in 2018 severely limited Indiana GM Kevin Pritchard’s leverage in the trade market. The result was a deal with the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis that may or may not prove fruitful.
“Obviously, I’m human. Things could have been done a lot better,” George told reporters at Tuesday’s practice. “The process, that whole ordeal could have been done a lot better. I’ll share some of that responsibility. But at the end of the day, I did what was best for myself, what was best for my family. I had to move on. It was the right decision for myself. I’m happy. I’m happy with what the results were.”
“Things changed for him,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan, who served as an assistant in Indiana for three year prior to being promoted in 2016, told reporters, via The Indianapolis Star. “Some guys just want to play. Having a C (for captain) on their chest doesn’t mean anything to them. They just want to play.
“You have to be yourself, and not try to be something that you’re not. I think Paul just wanted to play. The leadership, and the captain, and all of that? Sometimes people put you in that position because of your status. I think his thing was, ‘You take care of you, and I take care of me. Get yourself ready to play.’ Going to OKC, he’s back in that role of — I play. The leader is going to be Westbrook. I can go here and play.”
McMillan essentially questioned George’s willingness to be a leader. Gone were Danny Granger, David West and others who helped shoulder the burden of expectations that were only increasing after trips to the 2013 and 2014 Eastern Conference finals. In their place were veterans just passing through Indiana (Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis) and young up-and-comers (Myles Tuenr and Glenn Robinson).
And George didn’t necessarily disagree. Take his thought process behind his departure, for example:
“I wanted some assurances of what the team was going to look like,” said George, via The Indianapolis Star. “But then it got to the point where it was on my shoulders, with the guys that were being brought in. I didn’t want that burden, not knowing the certainty of how long I was going to be there. I didn’t want to put anyone in a position where ‘Well, Paul steered them one way, and then he left.’ So, I said, ‘I’ll be up front, I’ll put everything on the table, tell them at the end of my contract, I plan to not re-sign.”’
Specifically asked about McMillan’s comments, George added, via IndyStar.com again:
“I’m not the leader in terms of getting on everyone,” George said. “I know what level I need to play at. I like to lead by people seeing me playing at a certain level. That’s what I expect out of everyone. You’re not going to look at Paul and see him slacking, not carrying his weight.
“All the other stuff, Paul doesn’t lead and all that? That’s fine. Go grab guys that lead, then. Let me help them lead. We didn’t get it done there, for whatever reason. But Paul not being assertive, Paul being a terrible leader?” George smiled with sarcasm. “I’ll take that. I had a great journey there. I tried to do my best. It just didn’t happen.”
Those are remarkably candid comments from a four-time All-Star. And he’s right: Not everybody is built to be a vocal leader. Whether anyone feels less of him for that is an issue for a different day. Most stars, though, wouldn’t be so willing to admit it, and I can think of at least one who might have been better off speaking so frankly on the subject rather than arguing his case with burner accounts.
Also, no amount of leadership from George could have transformed the recent middling Pacers teams into contenders. If he wanted to pursue a championship, he would need more help to get there, and he found that with Westbrook and Anthony in OKC. There’s no shame in admitting that, either.
This revelation is encouraging news for Oklahoma City fans. The Lakers are sorely lacking veteran leadership, and unless George’s urge to return home to L.A. takes precedence over his desire to share the spotlight, he may welcome the opportunity to play with Westbrook — a superstar who seems quite comfortable taking center stage — for the foreseeable future. Unless the Lakers sign LeBron James, in which case George could settle into his shadow there. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
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