Paul George's efforts to rehabilitate a compound leg fracture suffered in August of 2014 and recover from a calf strain incurred in the final game of the 2014-15 season were complicated over the summer by roster changes and the decision to transition from traditional to spread offense. The pronouncement that small-ball would be the Pacers' new approach to combating the team's offensive woes brought with it the need for a stretch-four, and the determination was made that George was the guy.
He was openly reluctant to move to the more physically punishing position. George's hesitancy was met with criticism. Was that criticism well-founded? Should George have succumbed to the pressure to play the four over the course of an entire season?
These late season candid remarks made by C.J. Miles—who molded himself into a stretch-four in place of Paul George—certainly seem to validate why Indiana's franchise linchpin was right to balk at the notion he switch positions during his first full season back from serious injury.
"I was in great shape to play my position (on a wing), but not in great shape to get beat up," Miles told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth. "I had never been in that position before, I had never been hit that way, at least that much for a period of time. It wore me down, and I was trying to figure out how to keep from getting hit (while playing).
"It was slowing me down and taking me away from the extra work I like to do. I was trying to make sure I had the legs and energy to heal up and play in the game. It was tough; it was different. And we were starting to win games, so I definitely wasn't going to complain about it. If that's what I had to do to make us better, that's what I had to do."
Had his team advanced to the playoffs, George admitted that the calf strain he suffered at the end of the 2014-15 season would have cost him four to five weeks. With the amount of time, effort and energy already being exerted to return to an All-Star level, how much of an opportunity would the two-way player have had to prepare himself for the physical demands of being punished on the block, absorbing contact hard showing on pick-and-rolls, or boxing out the frames of heftier bodies?
Head Coach Frank Vogel's decision to allow George to stay in his comfort zone, where he was one of only two players in the league to average at least 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and 1.5 steals, may have prevented the three-time All-Star's body and productivity from meeting a similar fate to that of C.J. Miles, who ended up missing 18 games due to an array of injuries.
"It helped a lot, me being in my natural position, coming back to being in a familiar spot," George told Adi Joseph of Sporting News. "It made me more confident. It was definitely what I needed. Coming back from a bad injury, it wasn't the smartest thing to guard bigger guys and stronger guys. To take that wear and tear that I was going to take all season, you times that by two to match up against a bigger guy."
Unless the Indiana Pacers can obtain another wing in free agency that is talented enough to incentivize opponents to put their slower defender (i.e. Kevin Love, Luis Scola, or Zach Randolph) on George, then LeBron James, DeMarre Carroll, Tony Allen, and the like will continue to check Indiana's most potent scorer.
Let Paul George be Paul George. It's what he's best at.
How did Paul George impress:
Speaking of best, the three-time All-Star was fantastic in the 2015-16 post-season. Through the first round, George held DeMar DeRozan to 31 percent shooting and was the only player in the playoffs to average at least 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists. Two rounds later, Indiana's star still leads all players in total charges drawn (6) and is among the top ten in deflections (26).
George's drive to up his game and willingness to sacrifice his body, when the games matter most, demonstrates that leadership can indeed come in more than one form.
If putting up these numbers while playing in 81 of 82 games and being one of only four players to log over 195 total miles (and the only one getting it done on a surgically repaired leg) wasn't doing enough to rally and motivate his teammates, how much more would words have done?
How did Paul George disappoint:
Despite being named to his third All-Star game after missing all but six games last season, there is still room for Paul George to improve. He is comfortable pulling up from mid-range, but the fact that his percentage of field goals attempted increased with distance during the 2015-16 when compared to his last fully healthy season seems to indicate that he was either slightly more hesitant to absorb contact on his way to the rim or may still need to regain some of his explosiveness.
Of course, his lack of post-up game also speaks to his largely perimeter-oriented shot distribution. When George showed signs of fatigue in January, being able to punish smaller guards on the block could have helped ease the pain and frustration of his month-long shooting slump. On the year, the 6-foot-9 wing did not even average one post-up possession per game, which is most likely because he places in the 16th percentile on that particular play type, per NBA.com.
Part of George's problem, on the rare occasion that he did play with his back to the basket, was that he allowed himself to get pushed too far away from the block and lacked a counter move. Instead, he relied heavily on his ability to turn over his shoulder and connect on low-percentage fadeaway jumpers, a shot type unlikely to bait opponents into committing fouls.
Cutting back on some of his costly turnovers would be an added benefit of George transforming himself into more of a post threat. Still too loose with his handle and prone to making errant attempts at splitting screens, George committed the fifth-most total turnovers (265) in the league this season. Increasing his number of possessions from the block could eliminate some of his bad passes, which account for the majority of his giveaways.
If double-teamed or covered by a more imposing defender, the 26-year-old would have the opportunity to make the shorter pass to open shooters from post position as opposed to trying to jam passes between multiple defenders from the top of the key.
Indiana's star is at his best spotting up for shots off screens or making easy drop passes to crashing big men when he is met with opposition in the paint. Trouble tends to come when he is tasked with initiating the team's offense off the dribble. Having him make the occasional sojourn to the block might eliminate some of the team's sloppiness.
What's next for Paul George?
After completing his first full season post injury, Paul George is unsure if he will join Team USA at the 2016 Olympics in Rio this summer.
"I'm still happy to have a chance. It's definitely a dream to be a part of that group but we'll see," George told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner back in January. "It's been a long year for me already so we'll see when it gets down to being there. I'll listen to my body and listen to the trainers to see what's the best move."
But more intriguing is what new Head Coach Nate McMillan determines is the "best move" for George with regard to his usage next season with the Indiana Pacers.
If Larry Bird elects not to pursue a stretch-four during the off-season and Myles Turner returns to the center position, will McMillan force George into compliance where former Head Coach Frank Vogel was willing to acknowledge and yield to his star's legitimate concerns?
As SB Nation's Tom Ziller points out here, Bird's pick for Indiana's coaching vacancy is no stranger to small-ball. He used 6-foot-10 Rashard Lewis at the four in Seattle, and 6-foot-9 Travis Outlaw in Portland.
Paul George's remarkable season should have put this debate to rest, but he isn't the team's decisions maker.
"I'm not going to get into a battle about where Paul George will play," Bird said last summer. "He's a basketball player, and we can put him anywhere out there."
It's true. The Pacers can choose which position he plays for the next two seasons; however, following 2017-18, George has a player option and might just choose to go play "anywhere out there."