George is Ready to Roll
Paul George is no longer concerned about his left leg or how his body will react to an almost season-long injury. He’s ready, perhaps more than ever in his career, to take full control of the Indiana Pacers. During Monday’s media day, George was not shy about his aspirations, for himself and for the team.
George wants to win the MVP award.
“I still understand I’m coming off the injury, but I’m trying to block all that out,” he said. “I’m trying to come into this year as if I played last year and had another amazing season. I have the same goal. I wasn’t the MVP last year. I want to be the MVP this year. I still want to be efficient.”
George also thinks, unlike many analysts, that the Pacers can contend in the Eastern Conference.
“We got a real shot at being in the top three in the East,” he said. “We have to track a lot more and double-team a lot more. It will probably be a chaotic defense. But we’re more than capable of doing this.”
In the next breath, George said the Pacers have a better roster than the Atlanta Hawks, who had the best record in the Eastern Conference last year. He’s confident in George Hill’s growth, in Monta Ellis’ scoring ability and in Ian Mahinmi’s defense at the rim.
Media day is for posing for endless photographs and saying all the optimistic things you’re supposed to say before training camp opens. For the Pacers, there was the additional task of clarifying – finally, perhaps – their star player’s role in their new offense.
Paul George didn’t hesitate to express his hesitation about playing the “four” position in interviews last week, but everyone seemed to be on the same page, or at least reading from the same book, on Monday when the media gathered at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. George, in fact, has already adjusted his focus to another concept: becoming the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.
With Roy Hibbert and David West gone from the teams that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and ’14 and nearly reached the playoffs last season despite a decade’s worth of injuries (219 games lost), team president Larry Bird remade the roster into a smaller, leaner, faster model. That means George, an All-Star starter and third-team All-NBA selection two seasons ago, will be surrounded by a shorter cast of teammates, which has prompted Bird and coach Frank Vogel to attach a “four” to his job description.
That’s the traditional numerical assignment given to power forwards, which conjures images of the likes of Dale Davis, Jeff Foster and David West in the minds of Pacers fans. For Vogel, however, “four” has a different value than in the stodgy days of halfcourt basketball.
“The whole league, the whole world, is going to position-less basketball,” he said. “Having four 3-point-shooting playmakers on the perimeter and one big out there, as opposed to two bigs, is how much of the league is going. The way this roster is put together, we have as much chance to do it as anybody.”
In other words, George won’t be spending his return from the broken leg that kept him out of all but the final six games last season posting up and banging bones with the likes of Zach Randolph and Nene’. He’ll be on the perimeter, trying to take bigger defenders off the dribble, and defending the opponent’s primary scoring threat, as he did two years ago when he was a first-team All-Defensive Team selection.
The trick for fans is to not attach an old label to a new concept.
George is starting to see it that way, too. It should make offense easier for him. Defense? We’ll see.
“I’m trying to wrap my mind not so much around playing the four, but us having four ball-handlers on the court at all times,” he said. “With that, I’m comfortable. I told them I’m open for it. It’s the way the league is going. I think it will be good for us. It gives us a chance to change the East, play faster, play a funner brand of basketball.
“The concern is matching up with guys I don’t usually match up against. How long can my body tolerate banging against guys who have size on me? That was my biggest concern, especially coming off an injury.”
Bird drew a bottom line under the issue when he said George would be playing “everywhere.”
“You have to give up something to get something. For us to play a slow brand of basketball and pound the ball in the paint, that don’t work anymore.”
The plan isn’t to get fastbreak layups as much as to get the ball upcourt more quickly and have more time to execute an halfcourt offense that features more ball movement, therefore getting more shots and easier shots, rather than having to force up something before the shot clock expires. Vogel said he consulted with current and former NBA coaches throughout the summer to get ideas, although he declined to name names.
“I talked with a lot of coaches, studied a lot of systems and I picked up some things I”m really excited about,” he said. “I think it’s something that will really work for us. But again, how successful it is will determine how much we use it.
“I just know playing with space is very difficult to guard. The general model with Golden State and Miami…is to get space to elite offensive players and let them go to work. Let them attack and use their skills.”
That will suit George just fine. Never one to hide his ambitions, he repeated his objective for the upcoming season on Monday: “I want to be the MVP this year.”
A more fluid offense could enhance that possibility if it increases his scoring average without detracting from his defense, but there’s another factor to be considered.
George said he enjoys having more ball handlers on the court on offense, but he is also concerned about guarding bigger and taller players who could bully him around in the paint.
But for now, George said he was confident he can be a prolific player — again — because the six games he played last year let him know where he was, both physically and emotionally. With a new season, a new roster and a bigger role, George wants to play at his best. And if he does that, he expects to win the MVP award.
To end his interview session at media day, the last question for George was a simple one: What will it take for him to win the MVP award?
“I’ve got to win, simple as that,” he said. “I’ve got to win. I’ve got to give myself and this team the best chance to win. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Mark Montieth & Nate Taylor