Making an All-NBA team is a big deal—an honor that crystallizes everything you've accomplished as a player over the course of the season. That's true for anyone in the league, but for Paul George, making All-NBA is really important. How important? Important enough that it could single-handedly determine whether he returns to the Pacers next season. Due to the "designated veteran player exception" clause that came with the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement in December, an All-NBA selection would allow the Pacers to offer George a contract that takes up 35 percent of their salary cap, rather than the usual 30 percent.
If that sounds like a small change, consider that if George meets the criteria, he could then receive a projected five-year, $209 million contract extension from the Pacers this summer instead of the four-year, $133 million contract other teams could offer him if and when he opts to become a free agent after the 2017-2018 season. He's going to get paid either way, but if he makes All-NBA, that's a $76 million swing in his (and Indiana's) favor. The clause is designed to help teams keep their homegrown stars by allowing them to offer more money than other teams; it's like the reverse of a hometown discount. Indiana can still offer George more than other teams if he fails to get All-NBA, but the annual difference becomes negligible, especially when you consider his rumored willingness to leave and play for a contender.
So, what has to happen? Here's Tim Bontemps, of the Washington Post, explaining how the exception works:
A player qualifies for the DPE, which can be used either to give a player a contract extension or to sign him as a free agent, if he does one of the following:
1. He makes one of the three all-NBA teams or is named either defensive player of the year or most valuable player for this prior season.
2. He has made one of the three all-NBA teams or has been named the defensive player of the year in two of the prior three seasons or the league's most valuable player in one of the three prior seasons.
And this crucial stipulation: He has to be either on the team that drafted him, or has to have been traded on his rookie deal to another team.
George made All-NBA last season, but only once in the last three, so getting it this year would make him eligible in either scenario. Otherwise he has to roll the dice next season and hope he makes it. Does he deserve an All-NBA spot this year? That's where it gets tricky. Based on the raw numbers, George would absolutely seem worthy. He's averaging 23.5 points per game, while putting up 46/39/90 splits. He's also doing this on a team currently battling for playoff spot. In a normal season, he'd be a no-brainer, but this year, the competition will be brutal, and George might be left on the outside looking in. Six forwards make All-NBA, two for each team. Let's assume that the two first team spots go to LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. Additionally, despite missing a significant amount of time, Kevin Durant still had a phenomenal first season with the Warriors, and he'll likely earn a second-team spot. That leaves three spots left for forwards, and a difficult battle for George.
His direct competition for the spot would be Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Gordon Hayward. There's also the possibility of Blake Griffin getting a third-team nod, despite missing a fair amount of time himself. Unfortunately for George, there are several categories in which George ranks significantly below his contemporaries. Take Butler, to whom George is often compared, perhaps more than anyone else. His PER is 25.1, where George's is a mere 19.9. If we use Win Shares, it's an even bigger difference, as Butler's 13.2 is double George's 6.6. Of course, no one thinks Jimmy Butler is twice as valuable as Paul George—even if you think he's the better of the two—but as a tiebreaker, it doesn't bode well for the Pacers star.
George's play of late, however, could complicate things. After a disappointing February, in which he shot just .387 from the field, George has absolutely turned it on in March and April. Last month, he averaged 26.8 points per game while putting up an eye-popping 48/42/87 split. In four games in April, he's been even better, averaging 34.5 points in 40.5 minutes of playing time. The best version of George has shown up at the right time—in the middle of a playoff run. Voters could be swayed by him finding another gear for the stretch run, but they could also punish him for inconsistency. If nothing else, George's All-NBA case has gotten much stronger since the All-Star break.
At this point, George's All-NBA chances are up in the air. So if he's left off, how likely is he to leave Indiana? Well, we know rumors circulated about him being traded to Boston at the deadline, and there's also the report that the California native was "hell-bent" on joining the Lakers in free agency. For seven seasons, George has been the heart and soul of the Indiana Pacers, but after being LeBron's biggest challengers from 2012 to 2014, the Pacers have settled into a rut of mediocrity, with George being the only thing keeping them out of the lottery. Myles Turner could be a star, but there's no immediate path to contention for the Pacers. With that in mind, if the Pacers are unable to blow other offers out of the water, George may see little reason to return.
As much as Paul George would undoubtedly appreciate an All-NBA selection, it may matter more to the Pacers than to George himself, for the simple reason that it may be the best chance they have to keep him.