clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Paul George is right. This is why the Pacers shouldn't play him at power forward

The Pacers' star has misgivings about his new role in Indiana's small-ball attack. Here's why he's right to have them.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still early, but the Indiana Pacers' evolution from a plodding, half-court style to a smaller, more open attack that more closely resembles the modern NBA isn't going well. That’s because Paul George, the team’s franchise player and the lynchpin of the transition, is not happy about moving from the wing to power forward.

Before media day, the Pacers’ star said he was "not too thrilled" about the change. His words only grew stronger after the Pacers’ first preseason game on Saturday. (He has since clarified that he will go along with the change even while expressing his opinions on the matter).

"I don't know if I'm cut out for the four spot," he said. "I don't know if this is my position. We'll sit and watch tape and I'm sure I'll talk with coach, I'll talk with Larry [Bird] as well to get both their input on how the first game went. But I'm still not comfortable with it, regardless of the situation. It's still something I've got to adjust to or maybe not. Maybe it's something we can go away from."

George’s objection can be summed up in this single possession.

The play ended well for the Pacers because George stepped out on the Pelicans’ side pick-and-roll, quickly recovered back to his man and fought Ryan Anderson on the offensive glass to enable a teammate to get the rebound, all in the span of a few seconds. That's good! That's the kind of defense the very best power forwards aspire to play all the time.

But that possession being normal is also the problem. Wings may have to work that hard to defend a play once or twice a game. Power forwards have to do that on every single possession. That's in addition to the more obvious ways they expend energy battling bigger players in the post and on the glass.

Clearly, matchups like Anthony Davis will be difficult for George. Davis is a matchup problem for big men, wings, small men and mutant aliens from another galaxy. There's a reason George said Davis "kicked my ass."

But George will expend just as much energy defending perimeter-oriented players like Ryan Anderson who are involved in countless pick-and-pops and run endlessly around the three-point line looking for an opening.

It's even more difficult when they can also crash the offensive glass. That puts George in a position where he has to box out every play, which is not his specialty.

The Pacers' defensive scheme asks their power forwards to show hard on pick-and-rolls to try to divert the ball handler away from the basket whenever they're directly involved in the play. (When a center is involved, they hang back in the lane.) The other four players then rotate accordingly, but that initial show is key. The 4-man has to sacrifice his body and position to limit the sacrifice the other four players make, which allows them to focus on their strengths.

In the past, the 4-man was David West. West himself is a slow defender, but he dutifully executed the scheme and forced ball handlers to turn away from the hoop. That allowed big Roy Hibbert to park his ass in the lane and do what he does best: Protect the basket. It also allowed George to do what he does best: Swoop in from the wing and use his length to force turnovers or rushed passes that stalled offenses. George and Hibbert got deserved credit for Indiana's elite defenses, but West (and Luis Scola last year) made their jobs easier.

Now, George is the man in West's position, and that's a completely different role for him. George is used to being the star free safety that reads the quarterback's eyes and racks up interceptions. Now, he needs to be the nose tackle that occupies blockers while his teammates finish the plays.

He also needs to scamper back into defensive rebounding position, which was a problem on Saturday.

George has always been the primary defender on high-scoring wings, but he has much more to do on defense now and doesn't have any experience actually doing it.

* * *

The Pacers are selling the move to George as a trade-off. He may work harder on defense, but he'll also find it much easier to score.

There certainly are ways that playing power forward will benefit George. He'll have much more space to take slower defenders off the dribble, as he did here to Davis.

The Pacers will also give him a head start by popping him into open space at the top of the key and letting him attack a recovering big defender. If that man doesn't close out, George will splash threes.

If he does, George can take him off the dribble.

The Pacers can make this play even more dangerous by sliding the center over to set a ball screen on the recovering defender.

But I doubt the trade-off actually works out that conveniently. Once the games actually count, smart teams will have a wing defend George and place their bigger forward on either C.J. Miles or Solomon Hill. Miles is a dangerous shooter and Hill can get to the hoop, but both are far less dangerous than George.

Whatever matchup advantage George gets offensively will be lessened if opponents act as if he's the wing and a teammate is the power forward.

* * *

Playing power forward in the NBA may hurt in a different way than it once did, but it still hurts. Only a select few players in the league have the energy and toughness to defend the position properly, and they don't carry the offensive burden that George does. George has every right to be worried that he won't have enough left in the tank to carry out his other franchise player duties, especially coming off a major leg injury.

George has always been a cerebral player, so I doubt his objection to doing the dirty work is on selfish grounds. His issue is that doing this 90 times a game for 82 games will take a toll on his body.

Again: That's a lot of work. Should the Pacers really be forcing their All-Star wing to do that over and over again when they need him to carry the offense? Should they really be changing his role this dramatically when he experienced so much success playing a different way? Shouldn't they aspire to make him feel more comfortable when returning from an awful injury, not less?

You could say George should be able to pull it off if Draymond Green can, but there's only one Draymond Green. You could also say that George's frustration stems from having to go against Davis from the jump, but there are plenty of difficult power forward matchups around the league, whether it's bruisers like Zach Randolph, snipers like Nikola Mirotic or all-around nightmares like Chris Bosh, Paul Millsap and Blake Griffin. There aren't any easy matchups in the NBA.

Small ball is where the league is going, and the Pacers built a roster to jump aboard that train. But in the process, they're learning that some decisions that may work in theory don't translate so easily in reality.

* * *

SB Nation presents: Nets owner puts team through bizarre workout