Paul George’s New Normal

The reformation project that began in the offseason with the exile of Roy Hibbert and the fleeing of David West and the chess moving strategy of Larry Bird has led Paul George here, to the lower half of the eastern conference, a far cry from where he was a few years ago when he was battling the Miami Heat for supremacy and everyone was expecting Paul George to rip the mantle as best player from LeBron James.

Steph Curry was an afterthought in 2013, 2014, nearly invisible. But two years and a horrible injury later, Paul George and the reorganized and reinvented Pacers are no better than a 7th seed in a conference that has improved greatly but still lags behind their western brethren in elite talent.

This version of the Pacers has managed to win some games but they lose a lot of close games, they play faster but they don’t hold leads.  Paul George is a superstar player, 23 points and 7 rebounds. Outside of his injury recovery year last season, his field goal percentage is a career low. There isn’t much consistent help around him for the Pacers to do anything more than fight hard in the first round of the playoffs (if they gut it out and make it) and then bow out to the Raptors or Cavs in six games. What George has grown used to the past few years is nothing he can count on now.

Paul George Points 3-Point% Rebounds Contested Shot % PER
2013-14 21.6 36.4% 6.8 41.2% 20.1
2015-16 23. 37.5% 7.0 38.6% 20.4

Blame Larry Bird. What Bird wanted, the Pacers to be faster and not dull the game up with their sluggish offense that can’t score points because they don’t get easy baskets, is not exactly what he received. Indiana’s pace is quicker, they rank 11th in the league, six slots better than last year. But the rest hasn’t followed. They don’t score points, not enough to make them a top four team.

The Pacers don’t have a second star. Monta Ellis is a good guard but not a great one. He’s never been a particularly competent three point shooter and that’s the name of the game these days. His scoring is down more than four points from last year’s total when he was with Dallas.

The Pacers have point guard issues. George Hill has filled in the void these last few seasons but his career high of 5.1 assists of last year has been eroded to 3.5 this year, even though he is playing more minutes. The rest of the crew are average to above average NBA players who lack explosion, athleticism and perimeter shooting skill. Myles Turner is a bright spot but he’s a rookie in the learning phase of his career.

So what did Larry Bird accomplish?

In theory, Bird was trying to evolve the Indiana Pacers forward into modern NBA mythology. Space the floor. Dominate inside. Drain open shots. He didn’t concentrate enough on ball movement. The Pacers lack multiple players who can create, pass, drain three’s, finish at the rim and rebound. Stylistically, it doesn’t pass the eye test.

Indiana Pacers Points Scored Points Allowed Pace Offensive Rating Defensive Rating
2013-14 96.7 (24th) 92.3 (2nd) 92.5 (20th) 104.1 (23rd) 99.3 (1st)
2015-16 101.8 (18th) 100.5 (7th) 96.7 (11th) 104.0 (25th) 102.7 (3rd)

The Pacers are 23rd in attendance this year, even if their game is being played fast and open, even with Paul George holding it all together like superglue. Pacers life has indeed changed, the pendulum has swung to hell but these things have phases. The bad news for George is that in the midst of his prime, the league has changed dramatically.

So much of what happens to athletes is based on the slippery slope of luck. Had George not broken his leg, he would not have missed almost all of last season. The Pacers would have made the playoffs. David West would not have felt betrayed. The core would have stayed the core.

But George did break his leg and it ruined the season and it set the stage for this revival on the fly. We will never know what that great Pacers team had in them, if they could have made something magical happen last year. Catastrophe changed the future, one in which Paul George has to do just about everything, score, rebound, defend, move the ball, organize the offense, drop 45 points on the Thunder and lose, drop 48 points in Utah and lose, drop 33 points in Oakland and lose.  No NBA team can survive with just one great player on an island. Regardless of his max contract, that is what the Pacers are finding out. Paul George can’t do it by himself.

The Pacers are still the Pacers. Their defense is 4th in the league. In the Paul George Eastern Conference Finals days, the Pacers could defend and score sporadically and dominate the conference. No more.

17 NBA teams score over 102 points a game, more than 50% of the league. The Pacers, Chicago, Miami and Memphis are the only playoff teams that don’t score 102 points. It’s not a coincidence that all four are in the top ten in defense. And all four are mediocre to awful ball movement teams. 23 teams move the ball better than the Pacers.

Even though the Toronto Raptors, the second best team in the East, is a low assist team, they prosper because they have an iso max-player All-Star in DeMar DeRozan and they have a three-point shooting point guard All-Star in Kyle Lowry. The Pacers have one of those, not two.

Eastern Conference Assists
Atlanta Hawks 25.5 (1st)
Brooklyn Nets 22.1 (16th)
Indiana Pacers 20.6 (24th)
Toronto Raptors 18.5 (29th)

Point guard help is a necessity.

Indiana is a 7th seed and are closer to being out of the playoffs than being a 6th seed. They have 14 games left on a schedule that may find the Pacers on the outside on April 14th. Just as they were last year.

So what did Larry Bird accomplish?

The Cavs, Bulls, and Raptors are on the schedule. But the Pacers also have games against the 76ers, Pelicans, Nets, Knicks, Magic and Bucks who are not playing for anything.

For the last two playoff slots, the Pacers are fighting with Chicago, Detroit and Washington. Only 2 games separate them and someone is going to be in the lottery.

If the Pacers find themselves where all losers find themselves, in the Draft Lottery, is it a Larry Bird fail? Larry Bird is not perfect. He did trade Kawhi Leonard for George Hill.

But Bird’s greatest acquisition, Paul George, a lottery pick, a steal at number 10 six years ago, wants to go forward into greatness, not backwards into mediocrity. He’ll be on the Olympic team this summer in Rio with all the other elite NBA talents. But will he be in the playoffs in May?

 

photo via llananba