By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George has no intention of leaving the Pacers.
Larry Bird is spending most of his time these days trying to sure Indiana’s budding star sticks around for the next few years.
The team president left Monday’s annual Pacers Foundation golf outing before the others teed off so he could continue negotiating a long-term deal to keep George in town.
“We’re talking, but we’ve got a ways to go. That’s where I’m going now, back to work,” Bird said.
George, Bird’s first-round pick in 2010, has made significant strides each of the past two seasons. He went from bench contributor as a rookie to full-time starter in 2011-12 to his first All-Star game appearance last season, when the Pacers fell one win short of reaching the NBA Finals. Last season, George averaged 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists during the regular season, and was even better in the playoffs while also emerging as one of the league’s top defenders.
His reward was being named the most improved player in the league last season and working out the last two summers with USA Basketball.
There has been speculation Lakers star Kobe Bryant might try to recruit George, a Los Angeles native, to help reinvigorate one of the league’s most prominent franchises. But George doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
“I know Paul wants to be here, he’s told us that a million times, and we want him to be here,” Bird said when asked if George’s comments could cost him some extra cash. “But you know a kid’s worth and it comes down to what he’s accomplished on the court.”
How much will it take? That could be the $100 million question.
There’s little doubt the Pacers will offer a max contract to prevent George from becoming a restricted free agent next summer when his rookie contract expires. Yahoo! Sports reported Sunday night that the two sides were nearing agreement on a deal for five years and $90 million.
On Monday, Bird denied anything was imminent.
“I’ve never heard that number,” Bird said. “But it’s not just getting a number, it’s getting the insurance and all the other things in order, too. I would say that if you get the number worked out first, everything else usually falls into place.”
A year ago, Indiana locked up All-Star center Roy Hibbert and point guard George Hill with long-term deals. This summer, they re-signed power forward David West, traded for Luis Scola and revamped the bench with the signing of free agents Chris Copeland, Donald Sloan and C.J. Watson.
The next two priorities are re-signing George and guard Lance Stephenson, who thrived in a starting role last season. Stephenson also could become a restricted free agent after the season.
And they still have former All-Star swingman Danny Granger on the roster, too.
Their improved depth is one reason the Pacers are considered the biggest threat to Miami’s three-year reign as Eastern Conference champs.
“There’s no doubt we’ve got a great core here with Roy and George (Hill). David West will be here and hopefully, Lance and Danny will be here for years to come, too,” coach Frank Vogel said. “But when you have Paul as one of your core pieces, that’s a pretty good place to start.”
Granger’s health is the biggest question heading into training camp. He missed all but five games last season because of a left knee injury, though Bird said Monday that Granger has “looked pretty good to me.”
The Pacers would look even better it they can lock up George now before the season starts. Indiana opens training camp on Saturday and host Orlando in the Oct. 29 season-opener.
“I never put a time-frame on it because if you do and it doesn’t happen then there are all kinds of questions,” Bird said. “We’ve started talking and it’s going to be an all-day thing, I’m sure. It always is.”