Dawn of the Paul George era
Paul George started laughing before the question was even finished. Like an onrushing double team, he knew exactly what was coming and just as importantly, how to deal with it when it arrived. The question was about becoming a superstar, a label we’re quick to throw around even if we can’t really define what it means.
It’s a question George has heard many times in the last few months. It began late in the 2012-13 season among the basketball heads who had fallen in love with his silky game and the nerds who crunched the numbers. It helped that he looked the part. George plays an aesthetically pleasing game that is at once blindingly athletic and cooly smooth. He glides where others pound, unspooling threes from the top of the arc and throwing down dunks that are more aerial ballet than unrelenting slam dances. Yet outside of the afficionados, George was still something of a cult figure even after making his first All-Star team.
All that changed in the postseason when the Pacers reached the conference finals. The first round was an afterthought and the second round belonged to Roy Hibbert, but it was in that series against Miami and LeBron James that George solidified himself in the public’s mind as an elite player. He made huge plays and at times matched James shot for shot, an effort that was punctuated by a 28-point performance in Game 6 that helped the Pacers stave off elimination.
As the hype machine kicked in, the numbers still showed reason for caution. Despite shooting a decent percentage from behind the arc, George wasn’t an efficient enough scorer yet. He didn’t get to the line enough. He committed too many turnovers thanks to a handle that had improved from shaky to suspect but still wasn’t good enough to allow him to create his own shot at will. A star? Sure. A superstar? Chill.
Then this season began. By any measure -- be it analytical, observational or in the cold calculus of wins and losses -- George’s play has reached that magical superstar level. He’s averaging better than 24 points a game and almost seven rebounds while playing lockdown perimeter defense on a team tied for the best record in the league.
He’s also taken on a larger role in the Pacer offense, becoming the undisputed go-to guy on a team known for its collective approach. His usage rate has jumped and his PER has spiked from 16.8 to 24.5, while his free throw attempts have doubled and his turnovers have gone down.
So, does he hear the talk and does he buy into it?
"Not really. At the end of the day I let my play do all the talking," George said after the Pacers conducted a shootaround in Boston on Friday. "I don’t really have to worry about much. My team is 10-1 right now. I’m trying to play at the highest level I can. Everything else will take care of itself."
Savvy words from a 23-year-old, but George wasn’t so passive this offseason about his place in the game. Over the summer, he worked with trainer Jerry Powell on his ballhandling and for the first time he enlisted the aid of a shooting coach.
In a nondescript gym of a community college in Los Angeles, George toiled under Mike Penberthy’s watchful eye, getting up 500 shots a day at game speed. Penberthy went to work on his mechanics, insisting that every shot -- no matter where it comes from on the floor -- be taken with the same stroke.
George’s goal was to improve his mid-range game, which would allow him to become the kind of player his team could rely on in the closing minutes of games. He’s added a nasty pull-up jumper that is unblockable and has become his go-to move off isolations on the wing. That was the missing piece.
"Last year I was just unsure of that role as opposed to this year where I feel like, ‘That is my role," George said. "I think it was just maturity. Going through having to learn how to deal with pressure situations, now I’m expecting pressure situations. Learning how to perform when your teams needs you the most. That’s what I gained the most out of the playoffs."
Via NBA.com’s shot charts, George is shooting better than 50 percent from the area defined as the mid range, a skill that has become almost quaint in today’s NBA. But George heeded the lessons from former assistant coach Brian Shaw, who shared his wisdom from working with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. To be a go-to guy, a player has to have options. He has to use the whole court, and he has to be able to get a shot when his team needs one. This was a new and entirely different mindset for George.
"Last year he came into the season thinking that he was going to be opposite Danny Granger and potentially still a fifth option on offense," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "He was hoping to expand that role but not really understanding that he could be the first option. He grew into that last year toward the end of the year. Then you go into the summer and he went into his summer workout program with that in mind. ‘I’m going to be the number one option and I’m going to take another giant step with my improvement and development,’ and I think that’s shown."
"He wants the big moment. He wants the ball in his hands." -Frank Vogel on Paul George
On Wednesday night against the Knicks, George rescued his team with a 35-point performance. Twenty one of those points coming in the fourth quarter and overtime. After the game George told reporters that he might have deferred in that situation last season, but no more. Where once the big moments came at him quickly, now those situations happen in slow motion. "I completely believe in my abilities at that point," George told me.
"He wants the big moment," Vogel said. "He wants the ball in his hands. Last year when he was becoming our leading scorer and our first option, he wasn’t necessarily the guy we were going to late in games. He went into the offseason with that mindset that he’s going to have the ball in crunch time and he’s got to be able to create his own shot and make plays for us."
It’s been quite a remarkable ride for George in his short career. He went from unknown high school player to unheralded college player at Fresno State where he made himself into a draft prospect. Through his first 3+ seasons in the NBA, George has made slow and steady progress with a dash of spectacular thrown in, tantalizing with his talent and potential. Greatness wasn’t really thrust upon him. Rather, he grabbed it when it became available and then tried to make it his own.
Consider that at this point last season he was trying to find his way in the wake of Granger’s knee injury. He became a focal point by default as much as anything, and it was a struggle at first. But by midseason he had grown into an All-Star. By the playoffs he was becoming a genuine phenom. The only thing left was for him to take was that proverbial next step.
"It’s awesome," Vogel said. "You can’t say enough good things about who he is as a person. There’s a lot of talented guys in this league that don’t have the hunger, the drive and the determination that Paul George has, and the coachability. He’s just a refreshing guy to be around. He wants to learn. He wants to listen, everything you say to him. He’s a sponge. He absorbs it and he uses it."
That’s perhaps the most impressive thing about George. He’s on the rocket ride to stardom -- no matter how you choose to define it -- but still seems grounded. He’s also learned to adjust to new expectations and new pressures. Just like his team.
"We don’t feel like we’re the underdog," George said. "We feel like we have a target on our back. A lot of teams are coming after us. It’s fun. You’ve been the underdog for so long and you prepared being the underdog for so long, you’re ready for all opponents. That’s really how we carry ourselves now. We expect to get the best out of teams and we perform."
Sounds a lot like their best player, as well.
OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was
Over a half-dozen years studying Kevin Garnett, what always stood out more than anything was his consistency. No matter how much his minutes fluctuated or his position changed, Garnett’s per-minute numbers rarely deviated. His shooting percentages remained consistent, and his plus/minus was always in the black. This is, after all, a man who follows the same elaborate pregame routine right down to tapping his toes in rhythm during the anthem the same way every night. The only thing he hates more than a mouthy rookie is change.
Yet, there was one metric that seemed to be a bellwether of sorts for how Garnett was feeling: his defensive rebounding percentage. When he made his comeback from knee surgery in 2009-10, those numbers began to drop and he had his worst season in Boston. When he returned to form the following season, they went back up. Garnett looked like a shell of his former self following the 2012 lockout, yet his rebounding numbers picked back up once he got himself back into optimal shape.
Garnett came into the weekend grabbing almost 33 percent of the available defensive boards when he’s on the court for Brooklyn, which leads the league and would be an all-time high. Unfortunately, that’s the only good thing on a stat sheet that includes an unsightly 36 percent shooting percentage. KG’s frustrations bubbled over in an awful loss to the Wolves on Friday night when he picked up a technical and a flagrant after jostling with Kevin Love, turning a double-digit deficit into blowout territory.
Considering the sorry state of the Nets and KG’s own game, his rebounding is admittedly not much to hold on to, but it’s reason enough to believe that he will turn it around before too long. Additionally the Nets have played slightly better defense when he’s on the court and hold teams to 50 percent shooting at the rim, as opposed to almost 60 percent when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com.
Make no mistake: KG has been dreadful and so have the Nets. They don’t score well or defend worth a damn. It’s jarring to not only see him and Paul Pierce wearing black and white, but also to watch them play for a team that gets beat repeatedly on the defensive end. It hasn’t helped that Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Andrei Kirilenko have missed time with injuries or that first-year coach Jason Kidd has looked lost and out of his element on the sidelines.
At age 37 and with over 53,000 minutes on his odometer counting the postseason, there is little reason other than boards and blind faith to believe that Garnett has more left in his body. But we’ve been down this road too many times and seen far too much to write off Garnett after a dozen games. Give up on KG? Not until the retirement ceremony, and even then we won’t be fully convinced.
Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week
MONDAY Timberwolves at Pacers
The Timberwolves have a sturdy defense and a young emerging superstar to anchor an excellent starting five. They also have a shaky bench and very little depth. Sounds a lot like last year’s Pacers. That bench is the only thing holding back our optimism for the Timberwolves who have cooled off after a strong start. All those minutes begin to take a toll after a while and one injury could really derail the whole process. It’s imperative that Rick Adelman gets something out of Derrick Williams this season.
TUESDAY Magic at Hawks
Jeff Teague has made a career out of slow and steady progress. He was OK as a rookie, competent as a second-year player and solid as a starter in his third before showing tantalizing glimpses of stardom in his fourth. Now in his fifth year and still just 25 years old, Teague is really coming into his own as a playmaker. The Hawks are better than you think and Teague is one of the biggest reasons.
WEDNESDAY Spurs at Thunder
This was the conference finals matchup that should have been until Russell Westbrook injured his knee and the Grizzlies grit and grinded their way into OKC’s rightful place. As loaded as the Western Conference is -- and it’s stacked -- we keep coming back to these two teams at the top of our rankings. Honorable mention to the Nets-Laker game for the over-35 championship.
FRIDAY Warriors at Thunder
Let’s talk about Klay Thompson for a moment. He’s averaging over 20 points with a True Shooting Percentage over .650. That’s absurd. Even more absurd is that Thompson ranks second on the Warriors in TS percentage. Even more absurd is that Steph Curry is third. The leader? Andre Iguodala. There is no good way to defend this team when everyone is on the floor.
SATURDAY Nets at Grizzlies
A couple of weeks ago the Grizzlies looked like roadkill. The spacing was horrendous, the usually reliable defense was in shambles and first-year coach Dave Joerger looked like he was in over his head. All it took was a four-game sweep of a west coast swing and a coaching adjustment by Joerger to get everything back to normal. Take heart, Nets fans. It can happen to you too.
SUNDAY Pacers at Clippers
We end where we began with the Pacers beginning a five-game road trip through the West that includes games against the Clips, Blazers, Spurs and Thunder (with the Jazz thrown in for kicks.) This is where we start to get a better feel for Indiana and how it matches up with the best in the business.
The ListNBA players in some made up category
Everyone loves lists, especially completely arbitrary lists like this one. This week: In the name of Paul George, here’s a list of breakout players who are entering the superstar realm.
Kevin Love: In this age of over analysis and periodic rankings we are required to expand things like the MVP race into ongoing discussions; as in, "Kevin Love is in the MVP discussion even though we all know he won’t win." Well, maybe we should take him even more seriously. Small samples and caveats aside, Love is second in the league in scoring and rebounding with about five assists a night thrown in for effect. He’s not the defensive force that LeBron James is, but Love is no pushover for a team that ranks in the top five in defensive rating. He won’t win, of course, but there’s a strong argument to be made that Love has been the NBA’s best player in November.
Steph Curry: Thanks to better depth and a couple of blowout wins, Curry is playing about six fewer minutes per game but his per-36 scoring numbers are basically identical. What has improved is his playmaking. His assist percentage is up to 44 percent and whether it’s Klay Thompson on the wing, David Lee in the post, or giving up ballhandling duties to Andre Iguodala, Curry is playing with and off his teammates even better than last season.
Blake Griffin: Are we past the backlash yet? Can we instead focus on this 22 and 12 player who still mixes in a half-dozen jaw-dropping gems each game? The jury will be out on Griffin until he A) Gets his free throw shooting up to a respectable rate and B) performs in the playoffs when open space and fast breaks are limited. That said, Griffin is shooting over 57 percent from the field and cleaning up more than a quarter of the defensive boards. If he can get that free throw percentage up to say, 70-75 percent, he’ll be unstoppable.
Anthony Davis: We waxed poetic on Davis in the Shootaround a few weeks back, but let’s repeat the raw data: 20 points, 11 boards, 3 blocks, a 29.7 PER and more assists than turnovers. When the rest of his game catches up with his immense physical skills, there won’t be enough money to max him out in perpetuity.
ICYMIor In Case You Missed It
Public money for private stadiums? Tom Ziller goes deep on why we gladly foot the bill.
Dwyane Wade has a sitcom deal about a basketball player named Daryl Wade and his eccentric entourage. Really. David Roth has ideas on how to make it better.
SB Nation’s man in Canada James Herbert talked to Joakim Noah in this engaging Q+A about chemistry, staying in the moment and being an underdog.
Why have the Nets, Pelicans and Pistons all struggled? Mike Prada has the answers with pictures.
The 76ers were built to be bad, but they’re surprisingly not terrible. Yours truly talks to CSN Philly’s John Gonzalez on the Drive & Kick podcast.
Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs
"I don’t know what the fuck that was, just to be honest with you." -- Celtics forward Gerald Wallace after 109-85 loss to Rockets.
Reaction: The Celtics had lost three straight and had two days off before allowing 40 first quarter points and getting obliterated in the first few minutes. Lack of talent is one thing. A complete lack of effort and execution is another. Preach on, Crash. No matter how much the league fines you for speaking the truth.
"The big thing I’ve always wondered about was what would have happened with Vietnam. Would he have been smart enough to get us out of that quagmire? It sort of started with him in office, but we’ll never know." -- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich reflecting on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.
Reaction: I would like a one hour special where Pop just talks about the world. I’ll take that over sideline interview theater any day.
"You know what? I wouldn’t take last year’s team for this year’s team, because this year’s team is more designed to be a playoff team, whereas last year’s team was 18-5 but look who was playing: we had Rasheed Wallace who was doing everything for us, right?" -- Knicks owner James Dolan in a rare interview with the NY Post’s Mike Vaccaro.
Reaction: There are so many weird Dolanisms in this Q+A, but this one slid under the radar. Rasheed Wallace played less than 300 minutes and missed 47 of the 69 three-pointers he attempted but yeah, Sheed did everything.
"A scoring point guard is what they called him, but then when we first got him, we saw that he can really see the floor well." -- Suns coach Jeff Hornacek to the Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro about Eric Bledsoe. Reaction:
It’s hard not to be impressed by Bledsoe who is averaging over 20 points and about seven assists per game as a full-time starter for the pesky Suns. It’s also hard not to be impressed by Hornacek who has his young team playing an entertaining style and hanging in every game. Good coaching is about adapting to personnel and Hornacek looks like a keeper for Ryan McDonough’s rebuilding plan.
"It’s just bad coaching. I take the blame for this." -- Nets coach Jason Kidd after a rough loss to the Blazers dropped his team to 3-7. Reaction:
Meet the anti-Suns. Few teams have gotten less from more and their star-powered nucleus look like they just met an hour ago. It’s possible that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson all fell apart simultaneously, but we still think it’s scheme and injuries as much as age. That’s on Kidd.
This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary
The crane kick heard 'round the world.
Captain Boogie won't allow Isaiah Thomas to shake Chris Paul's hand. Leadership.
Apparently Byron Mullens studied at the DeMarcus Cousins School.