Is Paul George Turning into a Superstar Who Can Lead Pacers to an NBA Title?
Let that sink in and envelop you, because it's true.
You may not know, or even understand, how good George is. He plays in Indiana, a market that's anything but sexy with a fanbase that's been called out for a lack of support. His face isn't plastered everywhere like a Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant or LeBron James. And he hasn't been considered for MVP honors.
But he's there. He's a star.
This award is just the cherry atop the original cherry that's already perched on the ice cream sundae of a season he has had. He led the Pacers in points (17.4) and steals (1.8) per bout, was selected to his first All-Star Game and has now been named the NBA's Most Improved Player, joining the company of Kevin Love, Zach Randolph and fellow teammate Danny Granger, among others.
At 22 and nearing the conclusion of just his third season, the Pacers couldn't ask for a better pillar to build their team around. And George couldn't have a brighter future.
Last season, when he averaged 12.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals a night, he generated some buzz, but not much. Or rather, not enough.
Playing in Indiana is often a blueprint for being passed over. And George was, even if only slightly. This year, it has been impossible to overlook what he is doing and what he has already done.
From his improved statistics to winning the Most Improved Player, George has used this season as his superstar stepping stone. It's no longer a matter of "if" he will develop into a star. He's already there.
George was one of just two players to put up at least 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists and 1.5 steals a night this season. The other? LeBron James.
How about young Paul posting such an immaculate stat line at only 22? He's only one of seven players in NBA history to do that before his 23rd birthday. The others? LeBron, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Tracy McGrady and Alvan Adams.
I know, it's incredible, just like George was during the regular season and to start the playoffs.
In Game 1 of Indiana's first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, he posted a ridiculous 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. LeBron, Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, Andrew Bynum and Russell Westbrook are the only other players who have had playoff triple-doubles since 2009.
He also joined LeBron, Paul and Westbrook as the only four to do so before their 23rd birthday since 1986. And he was the first Pacers player since Mark Jackson (1998) to tally a triple-double in a playoff game.
We would consider LeBron, Paul and Westbrook to be championship foundations. James already has one, Westbrook has an NBA Finals appearance under his belt and Paul is often heralded as the best point guard in the league.
But what does that mean for George?
To put him on LeBron, Paul or Westbrook's level now appears to be a stretch. And it could be, but it's not a massive one. Again, he's right there.
Are George and the Pacers near contending for a title this year? Debatable.
The Miami Heat are easily the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference because, well, they're the Miami Heat. Some would even maintain that the New York Knicks are next in line behind them. Either way, the road to the finals isn't an easy one for George and crew. It might not even be one they could feasibly navigate now.
Yet that's not the point.
Indiana isn't a win-later outfit. The Pacers spent plenty of money shoring up their roster last summer with the hope that they could contend this season, which they have.
Falling short of a title or finals berth this year doesn't constitute a failure, though. Not with George as the team's primary building block. He's an All-Star who hasn't even hit his prime yet. And he does everything.
Not only has George been a source of consistent offense on an oft-anemic offensive convocation, but he's one of the Association's premier defenders. He can guard nearly every position on the floor (save for maybe center), his lateral quickness is exceptional and his timing when forcing steals—on chase-down blocks and general ball denial—holds up against anyone in the league.
He's exactly the two-way player franchises look to construct a contender around. In just a short time, he has thrust himself into the companionship of the NBA's best, athletes who are championship colonnades.
Why shouldn't we believe he can lead the Pacers to a title? Because he plays in Indiana and doesn't play alongside Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade or Blake Griffin?
George doesn't play in the most florid of markets, but the Pacers aren't the most nominal of teams either. They're cash-conscious, yes, but this side of the lockout who isn't?
When the Pacers see someone they want, they're willing to pay them. Both George Hill and Roy Hibbert's fat contracts would attest to that. Danny Granger's would, too.
And no, George doesn't have that proven sidekick or equal. David West isn't at that level and neither is Hill. Hibbert has a ways to go (if he ever even gets there), and Granger, who's watched from the sidelines almost all year, may never be the same again.
Still, there's George. Indiana's supporting cast is worth tweaking, but George is trending up, so the team is too.
Every organization needs that one superstar to set the championship tone, and he is it. And it's a tune he's capable of carrying, potentially even now.
Miami may be the overwhelming favorite, but even fans of the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and every other team in the East must admit the conference is wide open otherwise. If you can upset the Heat, you're basically in.
Few aggregates are capable of unseating Miami, though, especially in the East. Led by George, the Pacers are one of them.
Can the Pacers win a championship with Paul George as their centerpiece?
Indiana was 2-1 against the Heat during the regular season, and in the second round of the playoffs just last year, the Pacers gave LeBron and crew everything they could handle.
Is it guaranteed? Far from it, but there is a possibility of it happening in Indiana.
"I really couldn't accept this award without giving thanks to the whole organization," George said upon accepting his Most Improved Player award (via Mike Wells of USA Today). "I really put the work into it, the time into it."
Just as he'll continue to put the work and time into cementing Indiana's status as a title contender.
The Pacers are a team capable of doing something special in the playoffs, more so than last year, because of George, their championship-pedigree superstar.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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