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Rerouting Kevin Love could restore the leverage the Pacers lost

Pacers, want to avoid losing Paul George for nothing? Call Cleveland.

NBA: Playoffs-Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be clear. As much as going all-in to snag a Kevin Durant-counterweight makes sense for the Cleveland Cavaliers, trading Paul George straight up for Kevin Love doesn’t add up for the Indiana Pacers.

Given that they haven’t won “50-plus games” either of the last two seasons with the former starring as the team’s best player, it’d be incredibly generous to project that to happen in the future with the latter’s considerably inferior defense in the fold. Instead, missing the playoffs entirely — while paying a potentially malcontent 28-year-old in excess of $20 million — seems more likely.

Sure, Turner’s ability to protect the rim “could cover up some of Love’s shortcomings on defense,” but only if the 21-year-old manages to actually be in the right position to do so at the right time.

Jeff Teague — assuming he re-signs — tends to lollygag behind high ball screens where his predecessor would’ve been able to stay attached to his man’s hip. This, in essence, oftentimes demands that Turner venture 30-feet away from the basket to hedge against sharp shooting ball-handlers. When Indiana’s starting center struggled to be quick on his feet defending in space or the weak side defense fell asleep (a la Monta Ellis and Thaddeus Young), Paul George’s length and awareness was typically there as a safety net to provide split-second help against the roll man before closing out to his man behind the arc.

However, even with the All-Defense caliber weapon floating around the perimeter, the Pacers ranked in the bottom five of the league in three-point attempts allowed per 100 possessions. After ranking 3rd defensively during the 2015-16 season with George Hill guarding the point of attack and Ian Mahinmi providing the second line of defense, they dropped out of the top-half of the league.

Acquiring Kevin Love in a 1-for-1 deal isn’t going to turn that particular tide, provide much-needed wing depth, or close the gap between Paul George and Myles Turner’s respective windows. But, using the one-time NBA Champion power fauxward as bait to entice a third team has the potential to restore some of the leverage the Pacers abruptly lost when news unexpectedly broke Sunday that Paul George had already privately informed the franchise that he intends to take his talents to Los Angeles come the summer of 2018.

With that in mind, teams desperate for an injection of star power would probably be less trigger shy to pony up for Kevin Love’s “no-flight risk” than Paul George’s likely one-year rental.

According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, the Denver Nuggets reportedly made a “monster” offer for Indiana’s two-way star at the deadline but talks never gained traction because George wasn’t willing to commit there long-term. Perhaps the possibility of two guaranteed seasons of Love’s stretch shooting complementing Nikola Jokic and opening the paint for Jamal Murray would again pique Denver’s interest?

In that scenario, the Pacers would have to take on either the contract of Wilson Chandler or Kenneth Faried to make the salaries match, but netting say...Gary Harris, who posted career highs in points (14.9), rebounds (3.1), and field-goal percentage (50.2) while shooting above 45 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, along with the No. 13 pick would make doing so well-worth it.

Meanwhile, Atlanta also had interest in George back in February, so much so that they were reportedly willing to surrender four first round picks for his services, per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. If Paul Millsap does indeed receive better offers than the Hawks are willing to make him this summer in free agency, maybe they’d be willing to look at Love as a replacement for their admittedly more defensively sound All-Star forward.

Of course, considering that the Hawks haven’t missed the playoffs in a decade, those picks are likely to be middling. They also don’t have much to offer in the way of youth. Tim Hardaway, Jr. is a restricted free agent and while Taurean Prince shows potential as a lockdown perimeter defender — ranking fifth among small forwards in defensive real plus-minus under the tutelage of Thabo Sefolosha — he isn’t enough to win a trade that involves Paul George and Kevin Love.

Then, there’s the Timberwolves. Oh, the irony if the Cavs managed to build a more competitive challenger to the Golden State Warriors by shipping Kevin Love back to the team who drafted him. Prying the No. 7 pick in this year’s draft, Zach Lavine, and either Cole Aldrich or (plugs nose) Nikola Pekovic’s albatross of a contract would be a windfall, but a Kevin Love-Minnesota sequel seems unlikely given how Part 1 ended.

Obviously, the Lakers aren’t going to facilitate Paul George joining the Cavaliers no matter how many times it’s pointed out that Kevin Love once attended UCLA, and they have no real incentive to come directly to the bargaining table with the Pacers unless they fear losing him to a rival team or they desire to unload Timofey Mozgov’s or Luol Deng’s dead money.

Waiting past the deadline wasn’t irrational. George could’ve made himself eligible to become $70 million richer had he made an All-NBA Team, and the Draft Lottery could’ve been disastrous for his preferred suitor. Unfortunately, because neither of those potentialities swung in Indiana’s favor, all roads must now lead to Cleveland. Kevin Love won’t be the answer for the Pacers in Indiana, but he could be somewhere else.

Whichever avenue Kevin Pritchard pursues, the writing is permanently etched on the wall. The Paul George-era is over and the youth movement anchored by Myles Turner needs to commence without further ado.

Check out the latest Locked on Podcast episode for more on the Pacers dealing with Paul George’s exit strategy.