The kind of season Paul George is having, which likely is the best season a Pacers player has had in the franchise’s NBA history, if not in its entire history, has more than one source of nourishment. It has to, because you can’t have that many blossoms growing from just one root.
The injury that kept him out of all but six games last season, the new offensive system that better enables him to exploit his skills, the raw ambition that made him an All-Star long before the injury, and even fatherhood have all contributed to what, 14 games in, is shaping up as a landmark performance for a team that is beginning to exceed expectations.
George’s scoring average jumped to 25.9 points after Tuesday’s 40-point outing at Washington. Should he finish the season at that level, it will be the highest in the Pacers’ NBA history. But scoring is merely part of the story. He’s the team’s leading rebounder (8.4) and ranks a close second in assists (4.8) and steals (1.6).
Only three other players in the Pacers’ 48-season history — George McGinnis, Reggie Miller and Danny Granger — have played an entire season at a comparative level, as the numbers prove.
McGinnis was 24 years old when he had his best season. He wound up leading the Pacers on a surprising run to the ABA finals, and shared league MVP honors with Julius Erving. Miller also was 24 in his peak statistical season, when he earned his first All-Star selection. Granger was 25, and became a first-time All-Star and winner of the Most Improved Award.
George is 24 as well. A case could be made for his season being the best of all, if he can keep the pace, given his all-around contributions. He’s a better athlete than Miller and Granger, and therefore a better rebounder. He averages more assists than they did, too, partly because of the nature of the new offense. Surprisingly, perhaps, he’s a better 3-point shooter than either one, so far. And he’s clearly a better defender than any of the other three.
He doesn’t have the scoring or rebounding averages McGinnis had in the ABA, where defense was often just a rumor, but can claim superiority in other areas. Just ask McGinnis.
“He’s a much better defensive player than I was, and a much better shooter,” McGinnis said. “I could shoot, but this kid does it all.
“He makes it look so easy. It’s amazing to watch what he’s doing.”
George (3.6) also averages fewer turnovers than McGinnis (5.3), whose reckless style of play earned him the nickname “Baby Bull.”
McGinnis broke out in the 1974-75 season because three of the players instrumental to the three ABA titles — Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Freddie Lewis — had departed after the previous season. Unshackled, he was suddenly allowed — required, really — to be the go-to player on a young team, and he took full advantage. George similarly has benefited from the loss of David West and Roy Hibbert, whose inside presence made a slower, halfcourt offense more logical in previous seasons.
“It’s fun to watch Paul doing this, especially after that injury,” coach Frank Vogel said.
Oh, yeah. That injury. George has faced an obstacle the others didn’t have, but has turned it into a virtual asset. His broken leg, suffered on Aug. 1, 2014, forced him out of all but six games last season. It was a major blow, one that threatened his career. But he managed to find a silver lining in all the disappointment.
His goal became to “use it as something that was going to help me in my career,” he said. “It was hard to (achieve) that thought, that this big injury was going to become the turning point of my career, but that was the only way I could look at it.”
He accomplished that in two ways: studying the game and putting in more time to improve his skills and conditioning.
“You sit out, you become a student of the game,” he said.
“Before it was instincts and not thinking the game through. Being away, I had that time to kind of just sit back and see what was going on. I know how to get to a spot. I know how to set my man up better. Before it was shooting anywhere. And just being patient. Patient with myself, patient with the offense. Everything is going to come. I’ve worked hard enough to (allow) myself to have opportunities to get any shot I want.”
His off-season rehabilitation program required him to be devoted, but he took it an extra step. Rather than spending three or four hours a day on his game as he had done previously, he worked about six hours, splitting time between Indianapolis and Los Angeles. In L.A., he worked under the guidance of a weight training coach, a shooting coach and a ballhandling coach.
That’s why he came into training camp fully expecting to have this kind of season.
“If y’all was with me day-to-day this summer and seen my workout regimen, you might be disappointed in how I started,” he said.
“It as very tiring. I regretted it then, but now I’m happy I had to go through it. It really taught me what a real summer would be like, and should be like if you want to get better.”
That regimen also is why Vogel isn’t surprised by George’s start.
“I’m not going to say I told you so, but I did.,” Vogel said. “I felt like he was going to have the best season of his career. And we were going to put him in position to do that.”
The Pacers’ faster pace allows more offensive possessions, which allows George more opportunities to shoot and pass. More quantity in an offense often leads to less quality, but George has bucked that trend. His field goal and 3-point percentages are the best of his career, as is his rebounding average. And, the mere threat he poses creates opportunities for teammates, most notably C.J. Miles, whose scoring average (15.9) and three-point percentage (.459) are the best of his 10-year career.
George stopped by Miles’ apartment one day early last summer and they talked about how they could play off one another, and the importance of having a productive off-season. The plan has come to fruition so far.
“He just creates space for everybody,” said Miles, who scored 32 points at Washington. “We talk about space all the time. We have four guards out there, but if there was three there still would be space out there.
It’s a pick-your-poison thing. I’m just reaping the benefits.”
Everyone reaps the benefits of a player’s great season, if that player is unselfish. George gave an indication of his generosity on Wednesday, when the floboards he had ordered for his teammates arrived at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. More relevant to the season, his assist numbers are rising, too. Asked which of his stats he’s most proud of, he pointed to that one.
Lately, it’s been obvious he makes a concerted effort early in games to get teammates involved and off to a good start.
“I was unhappy in preseason that I wasn’t getting guys going, wasn’t finding guys,” he said. “The assist number is the stat I look at probably 90 percent of the time I look at the stats. I want that number to rise more than the scoring.
“It makes the job easier for myself when they catch a rhythm early. I have the confidence in myself I can get myself going so I want to get my guys going.”
Sometimes real-life events make a difference, too. George had a revelation when he became a father a couple of years ago, to a daughter for whom he shares custody. Suddenly, he wasn’t the most important person in his own life.
“Made me be patient,” he said. “I was always a ‘my’ kind of person. When you have a kid, it’s more than that. You learn to share, you learn to … it’s about another person now. It definitely slowed me down and made me more mature.”
The rewards of that maturity are many. Not many people, however, know what it feels like to have a season like this, although McGinnis has a clue.
“He’s just clicking on all cylinders.” McGinnis said. “I can vaguely remember what that was like. You feel like nobody can stop you. You just do what you do.”
by Mark Montieth