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Paul Flannery | January 17, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: Paul George's new burden: becoming elite

Paul George's new burden: becoming elite

BOSTON — The Pacers had just lost to the Celtics in a game they could have won. This has happened a lot recently. Over the last dozen games, they had lost half of them with three coming in overtime and two others by four points or less. This particular defeat was by nine-points, but even that relatively comfortable margin obscured the fact that Indy had a lead with two and a half minutes left. That’s when the Celtics turned four midcourt steals into breakaway layups. No one had ever seen anything like it, or if they had it was in a rec league or maybe playing a video game.

The mood in the Pacers’ locker room was appropriately one of subdued angst, which is where we found Paul George ready to answer any and all questions about this latest setback. George is always at his locker after a game, usually still in uniform, and while that’s a small part of this story it’s not an insignificant one because it reinforces the point that Paul George takes this shit seriously.

There was frustration: "We go up and then we play not to lose the lead. We don’t play to extend it, we don’t play to stay aggressive. We get too comfortable with just being up, and that’s what we got to change."

There was a lament: "This has always been our problem. The one thing, when we had David West; David West would slow things down. He’d settle us down. He’ll get us in the right spots. We were never too shaky when D-West was out there and he was our backbone. That’s definitely missed this year."

And a vow of sorts: "We’ve got to do it together. At the same time someone has to make that read, when things are stagnant and we’re going slow, we got to keep it going."

That player, of course, needs to be Paul George. After a brilliant early part of the season, George and the Pacers have both scuffled through the winter months. Defenses are keying on him like never before, and George is trying to make sense of it all in his new role as a primary scoring option and franchise leader.

And so, once again, he finds himself at the crossroads of what has already been a career filled with them. George wants to be among the elite. He knows he’s a star — no one would argue differently — but George wants to be recognized as one of the best two-way players in the game. When he’s feeling himself, George has been known to suggest that he’s not only among the best, he IS the best. But on this night he was a bit more circumspect about his place in the game. When you think about LeBron, Durant, Curry ...

"It’s pressure man, it’s definitely pressure," George told me after the postgame pack had dissipated. "And it’s a burden. But it’s a good burden. I think all of those guys want that pressure as well as me to be counted on night in and night out."

It was almost as if George was talking himself into the role — even acknowledging the burden breaks the elite player Omerta — but he’s done far more than talk about it this season. It was only a month ago when George was rolling through the league, piling up points and praise. He averaged better than 30 points and 8 rebounds a game during a stretch when the Pacers went 11-2. All the while, George was reminding everyone that before he snapped his leg during an exhibition game with Team USA in the summer of 2014, he was coming into his own as a player.

"I felt healthy and I put a lot of work into it this summer," George said. "It wasn’t like I was coming back to try and test my body out. I knew it was good in the summer. I wanted to get back to where I was, and I’ve done that. Now I’m seeing a whole different side of this game. It’s an uphill battle. I’m trying to be a student of it."

The last month or so has not been as kind. His shooting percentages have dropped and so have his points. Defenses have been loading up on pick-and-rolls and punishing him physically. On some nights he’s been spectacular and on others he’s struggled to find a groove. If the early part of the season was validation of the hard work he put in over the summer, this latter stage has become something much more difficult to decipher.

"I’ve hit a wall," George acknowledged. "I’m finding my way to climb through it; be more aggressive, be more assertive and attacking different angles and seeing different things. It’s all been a roller coaster for me. I think I’ve made the most of it and dealt with whatever it’s brought, but it’s been a tough journey."

More context is needed here because context has always been key when it comes to understanding George. I asked a half-dozen neutral observers where he fits in the current constellation of stars. The consensus was there was no consensus. Their answers ranged from top-5 at times to top-10 for sure to a classic case of an All-Star player better suited to be the second guy on a great team. Everyone agrees, however, that George an exceptional player and one of the great talents in the league. It’s his ceiling that’s forever in question.

This is nothing new. We have always been unsure of George’s place in the pantheon, because he has exceeded our expectations at every point of his career, which has only served to keep raising them to higher and more exalted levels. It’s worth remembering that George first appeared before us as pure potential incarnate. He was long, lean, athletic and skilled with almost no resume. Under-recruited as a high school player and with two years of college playing for a losing team in a mid-major conference with no national profile, George entered the 2010 draft as the rarest of all prospects: an unknown.

It quickly became apparent that he could be a good player and maybe even a very good one given his willingness to apply himself on the defensive end. George had the luxury of spending his apprentice years playing alongside an established star in Danny Granger and then on a veteran team with an upward trajectory. By the 2014 season, George had established himself as a two-time All-Star, an All-Defensive team mainstay and an All-NBA player. He was further emboldened by two trips to the conference finals and it became clear to one and all that he was the future of the Indiana Pacers. But what, exactly, did that mean?

In their best seasons the Pacers were more about a team concept constructed around a suffocating interior defense than individual star power. When needed, George could ascend to great heights as exemplified by his conference championship battles with LeBron James. But for as much as he brought to the table as a two-way wing, Indy didn’t need George to carry it night and night out so long as it had that defense. The Pacers still have an excellent defense, but now that Roy Hibbert and West are gone the offensive focus has shifted directly onto George.

"This is another step in my growth, trying to figure out how to do it without those guys here," George said. "This is good for me. I think it’s great for my growth, trying to figure out how to become a No. 1 option and being consistent and efficient for us."

On balance, George has been both of those things. Despite his mid-season shooting woes, he’s still averaging 24 points a game with a .557 True Shooting percentage, both career highs. Without West’s high-post game to play through, Indy has tried to spread the floor with a mix of small and traditional lineups. The spread lineup clicked for a time, and the Pacers say they are committed to it even as they went back to a two-big starting lineup in an effort to survive the rigors of the middle part of the season.

"That’s kind of a complex question to be honest," George said when I asked him if he’s adjusted to the new look. "We’re having so many different lineups, so many different guys in the rotation. It’s hard to always get a rhythm and comfortable with who’s out there with you, but again I’m just trying to find my way through it."

Angst and annoyance gave way to soul-searching after the Pacers returned home on Friday and promptly lost by 14 points against a Wizards team trying to get back in the playoff hunt. George struggled throughout the game and later said he was experiencing soreness in his leg. No one said this would be easy and there’s a reason elite membership belongs to a select crew of players. George has made a career out of elevating his play when new challenges have presented themselves. This is his burden. It’s also his opportunity.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

All-Star starters are set to be announced next week and I don’t have any adjustments from my initial selections. Rather than rehash those picks, let’s honor the unsung reserves who fill out the rotation. At the halfway point of the season, he’s my All Role Players squad.

Andre Iguodala: Iggy is the MVP of this group and in my mind should be running away with Sixth Man of the Year honors. He can play just about everywhere because he can guard just about everyone. That’s a huge component of Golden State’s versatile lineups. Iguodala’s per-game numbers don’t leap off the page anymore, but that .578 True Shooting Percentage sure does as does his 15.6 Net Rating.

Boris Diaw: He’s a brilliant passer, a skilled low-post player, a solid shooter and an underrated defender. He’s Bobo, the only player with a working espresso machine in his locker. There is no comparative role for him because there is no one else who can do what he does at his size. In all ways, Diaw is a true original.

Tristan Thompson: The fifth-year big man is a fantastic offensive rebounder who knows the limitations of his offensive game. He rarely ventures outside the paint, except to set screens and defenders know they can’t leave him untethered because he’ll kill them on the glass. Thompson has also become a versatile defender and the Cavs have been fantastic with him as the center in smaller lineups. On top of that, Thompson is also incredibly durable. His contract may have been an overpay based on individual numbers, but his value to the Cavs exceeds his statistics.

Will Barton: What an odd journey for Barton, who was once one of the nation’s top recruits and later a second round pick. Acquired from Portland as part of the Arron Afflalo trade, Barton has turned himself from a high-energy curiosity into a legit player with the Nuggets. Scoring is his main drawing card, but Barton has more to offer as evidenced by his six rebounds per contest to go with his 16 points off the bench. He’s also made himself into a solid 3-point shooter while cutting down on his turnovers. As a high-scoring reserve, Barton will get his share of Sixth Man consideration but he’s proving to be more than just a high-volume gunner.

Ryan Anderson: Here’s the quintessential stretch-four with range that extends beyond the 3-point line and with a workable post-game for scoring variety. Anderson isn’t the rebounder he once was, and he’s a problem defensively, but that scoring and shooting ability would be a nice addition to any number of contending teams in the East. If the Pelicans decide to punt on this season, they should be able to get something of value for Anderson that will help down the line.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Frankly speaking, I deserve (a) championship now much more than six years ago. And, I think we have been really bold and did our best in order to reach (the) championship. And I still believe with some luck, our results might have been more promising. But I'll do my best to make us a championship team." Brooklyn owner Mikhail Prokhorov.

Reaction: This quote drew scorn and ridicule from the social media peanut gallery (guilty), but everything else Prokhorov said at his press conference was right on target. Mainly, Prokhorov said he envisioned having a separate GM and coach and expressed an openness to considering different rebuilding blueprints. Those are positive signs, but they have to be realistic, as well.

"These are things that veteran teams just take for granted. We have to teach all of that. So, OK, people think, ‘Well you told them.’ But how long does it take to break bad habits, habits that you have had ever since you started playing basketball? You can’t just do it by telling them once. If no one has ever taught you how to set a proper screen, I have got to show you Monday, I have got to show you Tuesday, I got to show you Wednesday, on tape Thursday, on tape Friday — until it becomes second nature." Minnesota coach Sam Mitchell in a fascinating conversation with Britt Robson.

Reaction: This is the part of the job that we don’t see. Practices are closed and so are walkthroughs. When we are able to witness a workout, it’s usually just shooting drills. Coaches are extremely reticent to talk about these kind of things, so we only have their body of work in games to judge them on their abilities. There is so much more to it and kudos to Mitchell for pulling back the curtain a little. You can read this as excuse-making if you like, but I prefer to think of it as the realities of working with young players.

"There was a lot of inner dilemmas, lot of frustrations. That’s the thing you gotta learn to get past as a team. Now it’s how do you figure out a way to stay the course, stay together and stay with it and not go the other way? That’s the hardest part. That’s the difference between a good team and a not-so-good team. It’s hard to always preach and tell guys that. Guys have to want it. We’ve gotta want to do it for each other as a team. If we don’t, this month could be awful. We could see ourselves lose a lot of ballgames in this month and be out of the playoff picture in no time." Miami’s Dwyane Wade after a loss to the Clippers.

Reaction: The Heat won 12 of their first 18 games, but that was aided in part by a home-heavy schedule. Since then they’ve been a .500 team and had lost four straight games on their West Coast road trip. Wade and Chris Bosh both made strong comments after the Clipper loss that seemed to implicate center Hassan Whiteside, who will be the league’s most polarizing free agents at the end of the season. Big men who can do what he does don’t come around very often — on Friday he had a triple double with 19 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks — but if he can’t make it work within the Heat’s structure ... buyer beware.

"His agent, Arn Tellem, told the New Jersey Nets ... [that Bryant] didn't want to play there. It was too close to Philadelphia. Other teams talked about drafting him, and we didn't hear much talk about it at all. Then Kobe's parents got involved, and he would really basically try to tell people that he didn't want to play so close to his hometown. So to say that we did this on our own would be fiction. We had a lot of help along the way." Former Laker GM Jerry West.

Reaction: This has long been one of the great urban myths that turned out to be totally true. We need an oral history of every draft because that’s where all the great mysteries and intrigue spring from originally.

"I think everyone should play it that way, because it’s no-holds-barred. It’s the W.W.E. of Uno, man. It’s crazy." Hawk guard Kent Bazemore in this great piece by Scott Cacciola.

Reaction: There are so many fantastic tidbits about the Hawks’ unhinged games of Uno on the team plane, but my favorite is that they kicked Tim Hardaway Jr. out of the game for wanting to take a rest.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

I will never get enough of Kristaps Porzingis doing crazy things. Here he is altering three shots on the same possession.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.