When Kevin Love and Blake Griffin withdrew from Team USA last summer, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said he could envision utilizing Paul George as a stretch four internationally, something the two-time All-Star had never been called upon to do as a member of the Indiana Pacers. Had George been successful at forcing traditional bigs to guard him on the perimeter overseas, then perhaps the Blue & Gold would have been willing to scale down the team's oftentimes plodding offense stateside. Unfortunately, due to the now infamous events of the night of August 1, the Pacers were never able to utilize the World Cup as a test market for George's versatility.
Nonetheless, that is something Larry Bird wants to make happen next season.
"David is our starter, but when we go smaller we'd like to see Paul maybe play some '4' and you know everybody says, 'You'll have a problem on the defensive end,' well, I don't think so," Bird said in his postseason press conference. "He can guard about anybody, and then on the other end, it's a major plus for us."
Last summer, the team's President of Basketball Operations had a different plan of attack for George. Rather than provide spacing, Bird wanted to see the 6-9 wing create from the block and punish smaller defenders in the post. A dicey proposition, given that post-ups were George's worst offensive play-type during the 2013-14 season. As was further expounded upon here, Indiana's franchise star scored just 0.68 points per possession on post-ups a season ago, per Synergy Sports.
Now, the team's head honcho is banking on George's ability to pull bigger forwards away from the rim on offense without compromising the team's stout interior defense.
This is a "tall" order given that many of the league's perimeter spread options (i.e. Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Nikola Mirotic, etc.), also clearly possess the strength and size to mix it up down low with the likes of more diminutive stretch-fours when called upon. Which means, in order for the Pacers to be successful utilizing a smaller look, George will have to consistently prove that the space he provides is more valuable than the points he may potentially give up.
Though never utilized at the '4' himself, here is how Paul's effective field goal percentage compares to some of the league's small forwards occasionally used as stretch-fours. Below is also a look at how these smaller spread options fared defending post-ups this season as well as a glance at how each player's respective team's defensive rating responded with him playing power forward (Note: this figure is derived by utilizing the defensive rating from the most used lineup with each player playing '4' as provided by NBA.com/stats)
|2014-15 Stretch Forwards||Defensive Post-up FG%||eFG%||DefRtg|
Obviously, George's picture is incomplete because he appeared in fewer than 10 games this season and played zero minutes at power forward. Even so, one very notable thing stands out here. In the most used "small" lineups utilized by either the Spurs, Warriors or Grizzlies, the stretch four was always paired with a center utilized as a defensive anchor, be it Tim Duncan (DefRtg: 97), Andrew Bogut (DefRtg: 97) or Kosta Koufos (DefRtg: 99).
With Roy Hibbert's future in the Blue & Gold uncertain, the same may not be able to be said for Paul George next season.
"Roy, I have no idea," Larry Bird said, with regard to whether he expects Roy Hibbert to take his player option. "We just talked about different things and whatever he does, he does. I don't know what he's going to do."
Per the Indy Star, head coach Frank Vogel did not shy away from the fact that Hibbert could be benched should the Pacers try to implement a more uptempo style of play:
When asked if Hibbert would be benched next year as Indiana pushes for a quicker pace, Vogel responded: "Yeah, potentially."
"We'll have to see how it all plays out and what the roster ultimately looks like, but there's a possibility that Roy's role will be diminished, if we're trying to play faster and trying to play smaller," Vogel said. "But a lot of stuff is going to happen this summer. We'll see how the roster shapes out coming into next season."
In order to play faster and smaller, players ideally need to be able to keep pace, as Bird yesterday pointed out, "And that means we've got to run a little faster, maybe at times play a little smaller. We just got into it, so I don't know what style, but we'd like to change it a little bit. ... But I would like to score more points, and to do that, you've got to run."
While pace is far from one of Hibbert's greatest strengths, his ability to hold down the paint still is. Per Nylon Calculus' rim protection stats, Roy (2.62) ranks third in the league in points saved per 36 minutes, trailing only Rudy Gobert (3.32) and Andrew Bogut (3.19).
Asking Roy to keep up with smaller lineups is not the answer, but (as the above data indicates) utilizing Paul George at stretch forward without a seasoned anchor there to back him up may not be a viable solution either.
Admittedly, the Warriors have found success utilizing Draymond Green at the '5' alongside Curry, Thompson, Barnes and Iguodala, but that is because that unit, with two of the most proficient shooters in the NBA, has the ability to put up more points than their defensive switches may cost them.
The Pacers, at least as currently constructed, do not possess the tools necessary to implement such a scheme.
George's shooting could likely generate more shots from three, at the rim and from the free throw line for himself and his teammates, but will it be enough to make up for match-up problems? Can the Pacers really expect to utilize Lavoy as back-up '5' alongside Paul? Will George, weighing in at 230 pounds, be able to hold his own defensively against stronger power forwards? Will the Pacers have to spend their cap space pursuing a free agent center more capable of running the floor?
Until there is more clarity coming into next season, there are far more problems with regard to this strategy than there are solutions. Problems that will likely only be resolved by undergoing significant roster reconstruction.