Paul George has reportedly reached an agreement with the Pacers to sign the designated player max extension, a five-year, $90 million-plus contract that can only be extended to one player. George had a great year last season and while he doesn't seem to be in the same level as other players who have received the same contract (Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin and James Harden), he is young enough that developing into a legitimate superstar is not out of the question. But we will let Pacers fans worry about that. I'm more interested in what this means for the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard.
The comparison has been made a few times before but look at these numbers:
Per 36 minutes
George clearly had a better 2012/13 season, but there are similarities. George is the better playmaker but Leonard is more efficient. They are comparable rebounders and defenders, and Kawhi had a higher WS48 while George had a slightly higher PER.
The biggest difference between Kawhi's numbers and George's is obviously their role as reflected by their respective usage percentages. Paul George had to become the Indiana's first offensive option once Danny Granger was injured as George Hill is not equipped to do it and Roy Hibbert had a down year until the playoffs. George wasn't as efficient as other first options in the league but he could handle the burden adequately at age 23, and seems to have the tools to be able to grow into the role. That and the fact that they couldn't afford to lose him were enough reasons for the Pacers to max him out.
Kawhi Leonard, on the other hand, has not been a featured offensive player. While teams game-planned for George, Leonard was always a third option at best in pretty much every lineup the Spurs used. He didn't have any playmaking duties, as his assist percentage shows. He didn't create for himself as much either, as 65.4% of his makes were assisted to George's 57.6%. When it comes to the playoffs, the difference is starker, as George created more than half his makes. Basically, Kawhi was a quintessential role player for the Spurs while George had all the responsibilities and perks of a star.
But now look at these numbers:
Per 36 minutes:
Those are Leonard's and George's second seasons compared. Sure, George still had a slightly higher usage rate and assisted a bit better but the numbers are even more eerily similar, with Kawhi again having the edge in scoring efficiency. What allowed George to shine in his third season was mostly the opportunity to do so. A couple of events conspired to make George a bigger part of the Pacers' offense and he took advantage of that opportunity. Can that happen to Leonard? It's possible.
Parker just finished winning Eurobasket with France and is understandably tired. So he could very possibly play less than those 30+ minutes a game he received last season--especially if a combination of Joseph and De Colo can hold down the fort. Pop will likely be extra cautious with Manu and Tim, as he always has been. The team will likely need someone to have his offensive role expanded and Leonard seems to be a prime candidate, as Pop himself has said that they will start running some plays for him next season.
I personally believe there will be some growing pains along the way, as Kawhi doesn't have the tight ball-handling and court vision necessary to be the focal point of an offense yet. But George wasn't exactly a model of efficiency last season and it didn't affect his prospects.If he gets the minutes and the touches, Kawhi could realistically make a George-like jump in per-minute production. "That would be awesome!" you may say and I agree.
If Leonard continues to grow, that elevates the Spurs' chances of winning a title. He's so good already that if he gets better he might be a top-20 player in the league. Yet, it's very likely that if that happens - regardless of how far the Spurs go in the post-season - it will force the front office's hands to extend him before his contract is up, which is not how they like to handle things. The Pacers have a young core in place, so it makes sense to bet on continuity. The Spurs, on the other hand, will be facing a lot of questions as the former core retires and having cap flexibility could help them in the post-Duncan future. A max extension was probably out of the question--right up until Kawhi's agent saw the money Paul George secured.
The Spurs have a tradition of star players taking less than their market value to stay with the team. The organization cultivates these personal relationships and their commitment to the players is rewarded with loyalty. But with a cap sheet that's empty after two years (which coincides exactly with the moment the extension would kick in, by the way) what would be Leonard's motivation to take less? It's not like offering to take a pay cut is necessary to re-sign other players. The Spurs don't have anybody else that could possibly deserve their one-time, five-year contract. And restricted free agency is probably not an option. After all, Nikola Pekovic held out until he got the five years despite there not being a market for him. Plus, there's often an emotional aspect to early contract extensions that can't be ignored.
Obviously, the best scenario for the Spurs would be one in which the team has no need to immediately lean on Leonard and he's given the chance to develop slowly. If the Big Three are relatively healthy and one of the backup PGs or Marco Belinelli prove to be capable creators, Leonard will remain in a similar, yet slightly larger, role. He'll be able to focus on continuing to be the league's best role player without having to worry about carrying the offense. This would also mean he doesn't get the chance to, out of necessity, put up the type of numbers that would warrant an over-sized contract next off-season.
Once again, I'm aware this is a great problem to have. If any of this happens, it means Kawhi is doing great in a bigger role and has become a full-fledged star. But Paul George's extension sets a precedent that will likely help shape the market value for players like Leonard who have the unique combination of potential and production without offering the certainties of a true franchise player. For a a front office that is, at times, as risk-averse as they come, figuring out how to deal with the situation could prove challenging. For now, I'll limit myself to enjoying Leonard's play and trust PATFO to make the right call--because I wouldn't like being in their shoes when it's time to make the decision.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com/Stats
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