The Indiana Pacers and Paul George officially agreed to a five-year maximum extension that will keep the All-Star forward with the team through 2018-19, the team announced at a press conference on Wednesday.
Flanked by returning team president Larry Bird and other members of the Pacers family, George's presser was the customary celebratory occasion you've come to expect. Much plaudits were handed out, both by Indiana brass and by George, who takes over as the unquestioned face of the franchise.
"I did a terrible job—I was supposed to have a poker face through this whole situation, but I really wanted to be here,'' George said of the negotiations (h/t Associated Press). "They gave me a chance, and now that I'm in this position, it's really my job to do everything in my position, in my will, to get us to that next step.''
Worth a maximum of $90 million, the complete terms cannot be finalized until after the 2013-14 season—hence the lack of "official terms" being released—when the Pacers will know whether George qualifies for the "Derrick Rose Rule."
The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement allows each team to designate a player who can make up to 30 percent of the team's salary cap, provided he fits the criteria. A player must win an NBA MVP award, start two All-Star games or be named to two All-NBA teams during his rookie contract to be eligible for the provision. George was named third-team All-NBA last season.
A player with George's experience typically is allowed to only make 25 percent of the league's salary cap. If he fails to repeat his All-NBA honors or win the 2013-14 MVP, George will make just under $82 million over the life of the deal.
What matters isn't the meager difference between $82 and $90 million. Rather, it's what this deal means for the Indiana Pacers franchise that should have everyone talking.
By inking George to a five-year contract, the Pacers cannot award a deal any longer than four years to a player currently on his rookie deal. Indiana can, however, trade for another team's designated player.
It's a big bet for someone with only one season of All-Star-level play.
A solid rotational player during his first two seasons, George emerged as one of the game's best two-way forwards in 2013, winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award. He scored a career-high 17.4 points per game, flashing improved outside jumper and rim-attacking prowess.
George also continued his development into one of the league's best perimeter defenders. Opponents averaged just 96.8 points per 100 possessions with George on the floor last season.
Odds are, barring some sort of injury, the Pacers will be satisfied paying George $90 million if he copy-pastes his 2012-13 stats every season. His excellence on both ends of the floor and ability to knock down shots from outside make him a near-perfect fit for today's NBA. With max contracts to superstars being by far the best bargain in the league, this all should work out just fine.
"Just fine" isn't what the Pacers are looking for.
David West signed a three-year, $36 million deal this summer, and Roy Hibbert has three years remaining on his four-year deal he signed in 2012. With Danny Granger coming back to the fold and Bird acquiring rotation players like Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland this offseason, the Pacers are primed for a Finals run.
And much like it was last season, George's improvement will be vital to whether that's a viable goal. Here's a look at a few areas where the $90 million man should step up his game.
Point-Forward Skills, Particularly Decision Making
As it was in many areas, 2012-13 was a banner year for George's development as a primary ball-handler. He averaged a career-high average 4.1 assists per game and dwarfed his previous best in assist rate at 19.6.
Many (rightfully) point to George's improvement as a ball-handler and passer as signs of him taking "The Leap" into superstardom. That's a mostly fair assertion. Frank Vogel generally prefers to keep George Hill away from the ball more than your typical starting point guard, and the Pacers' bench options were dreadful last season. I'd take 54-year-old Magic Johnson over D.J. Augustin as my backup point guard any day.
With Granger, the club's former de-facto option, incapacitated, the onus fell on George. And, all things considered, he did a more than admirable job playing a role he never had prior; his career-best in assists, college or pro, before 2012-13 was three per night.
We should just be careful in touting counting stats as sudden proficiency. George's counting stats went up almost across the board as his usage rate skyrocketed. After an incremental increase from 17.8 percent to 19.3 percent from his rookie to second seasons, George leaped all the way into big-boy territory at 23.5 percent in year three.
That was partially due to circumstance and natural development; George is still nowhere near the peak of these categories. But while the increase in responsibilities allowed fans their first opportunity to view George as a superstar, it also exposed some warts in his game—particularly with his point-forward mantle.
George's troubles with turnovers have never been a secret. It was a knock on him coming out of college, where he averaged three giveaways a night at Fresno State. The Pacers were mostly able to mask that by playing him off-ball during his first two seasons, but George's turnovers ratcheted up along with every other stat this past season. He averaged 2.9 turnovers per game in 2012-13, tied for 16th-worst in the league and more than a turnover per night more than his second NBA season.
George was one of 23 players across the league who played more than 30 minutes per night last season with a turnover rate greater than 15 percent. None of the players in this class are bad—they're playing 30 minutes per night in the NBA after all—but Rajon Rondo and Mike Conley represent the high water marks among those players. (I'm not including centers or power forwards in my thought process, mainly because high turnover rates are more common among high-usage big men.)
You can get away with three turnovers per night when you're LeBron James or Rondo because their assist totals help with balance. With George, the Pacers wound up with the seventh-worst assist-to-turnover ratios among qualified players.
That's not to say George is necessarily a "bad" ball-handler, because he simply isn't. He has a quick first step for someone his size, and defenders have to play him tight because of his improvement as an outside shooter. Film shows he doesn't have many hitches in his dribble either—moves that defenders can easily pick up on and take advantage of.
These aren't crippling flaws, but they're correctable. George's turnovers, in large part, come because his off-the-dribble decision-making still need some work.
When the Pacers struggled to begin last season, George's turnovers became something of a sticking point for Vogel. As he told Grantland's Zach Lowe in January, Vogel even went as far as to ban George from one of his biggest ball-handling hitches—splitting defenders.
"We reached the point where we asked him to remove the split from his game entirely," Vogel said. "It was a turnover 70 percent of the time."
Here's a look at a couple stills from an early game against Toronto for proof of what Vogel is talking about:
If splitting defenders were the only issues, though, we wouldn't be having this discussion. The quote-unquote embargo on splitting defenders is actually more indicative of George's overall issues with traps and double-teams.
The new fancy SportsVU data the NBA will be giving us will help unearth things like this with statistical backing; it's just something I noticed when watching film. When a help defender comes crashing toward George, he has a tendency to throw panicked passes.
Here George overreacts to a rather benign hedge from Ivan Johnson, leaping into the air and throwing a pass to Hibbert before he's even looking:
Later in the same series: George gets trapped again, this time spinning himself away from the basket and losing his dribble. He tries firing a bounce pass—a slick one if it works, mind you—to a cutting West, but Al Horford is there for the easy steal:
George also has a strange affinity for lob passes, whether as alley-oops or over the top to fronted big men. Throughout the postseason, I noticed defenders goading him into these difficult looks by either fronting West or simply reading George's eyes. That led to situations like this:
You can go through the film for every player and pick out situations I just illuminated. The problem for George is these hitches showed up too often. Every player is going to have bad turnovers; limiting the telegraphed decisions and unnecessary risks is George's next step as a viable point-forward type.
Add "Grown Man" Strength Without Losing Agility
There's no need for a column-length missive here: George just needs to hit the weight room. Listed at 6'8" and 221 pounds, George has the somewhat slight build you'd expect from a 23-year-old. He's no longer a growing boy, but he's not been in an NBA weight program long enough to start adding the mid-20s bulk in the right areas yet.
This was most evident during the playoffs, when George was given the unenviable task of serving as a primary defender for LeBron and Carmelo Anthony in back-to-back series. Both men used their strength advantage over George to bully him on the low block, leading Vogel to sometimes use David West instead.
There were entire narratives built around what LeBron did to George down low in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Watching James go down to the block over and over again, eviscerating George every step of the way, was a better performance art piece than @Horse_EBooks.
The Pacers did well to limit situations where George and James were put in one-on-one situations on the block for the rest of the series, but those actions weren't without consequences. Udonis Haslem had the game of his life in Game 5 by taking advantage of abandoning defenders, and James made a habit out of creating easy buckets down low off the doubles.
We're obviously not going to sit here and cast aspersions on George as a defender. He's arguably the best lockdown perimeter guy in the game; no player had more defensive win shares than PG24 last season.
LeBron and Carmelo aren't going away, though. They'll be sticking around the Eastern Conference playoff picture for the foreseeable future, where they'll likely be running into George.
You could say those problems will be averted this season with the return of Granger. That's poppycock. Granger was a terrible defender before he missed nearly an entire season with a knee injury; he won't be within five feet of Carmelo or LeBron in a playoff setting. And with Granger's contract expiring at the end of this coming season, George should move full-time to his natural 3 spot—if that transition isn't already complete.
The key will be to avoid Gerald Wallace or Metta World Peace Syndrome. Both players were built like George early in their careers—lanky, athletic, tough defenders who took on any defensive challenge. As they aged, both players wound up adding to their muscle mass to take the toll down low—only it worked to their detriment. Wallace and World Peace are mediocre defenders at this stage in their careers because the combination of age and
George obviously wants to avoid expediting the aging process. But he'll need to add strength, particularly in his lower quadrant, to be at his most effective in April, May and June.
I mentioned this in the ball-handling missive, but George's increased usage rate didn't come with all sunshines and rainbows. His increased turnover propensity was one area of concern.
Another: shooting efficiency. George set a career-low last season with a 53.1 true shooting percentage and shot a relatively shaky 41.9 percent from the field overall. According to Hoopdata, that puts George well below league average using standard metrics and a smidge below the mean in the more important advanced metric, which takes into account all levels of shooting efficiency.
It takes all of about a quick trip to NBA.com to figure out the issue here: George doesn't take nearly enough shots at the rim. His most frequent shot location is an above-the-break three-pointer, generally considered the less efficient than the shorter porch on the corner. His shot distribution chart looks far more like someone in his early 30s than a dunk contest-worthy athlete.
I have a tendency to feel it's more confidence-related, and thus more correctable, than anything.
Rather than invite contact on hard dribble-drives to the rim, George will often pull up for mid-range jumpers or floaters a step or two out of his comfort zone:
On that play, George is frightened into taking a floater after Josh Smith took one step. After beating Kyle Korver off the dribble, the worst-case scenario to that play should have been George or Tyler Hansbrough going to the line for two free-throws. The best involves George finishing the basket plus the foul or dumping off to Psycho T for an easy dunk.
I'm not even totally sure why George often makes similar plays. He's nearly an 80 percent career free-throw shooter; there's no Rajon Rondo "keep me the hell away from the line" tactics going on. So it's a bit strange to see George shooting free throws with the same frequency as Tristan Thompson. This isn't an isolated incident, either; George's 3.3 free throws per 36 minutes fall in line with his efforts throughout his three seasons.
If George makes a more concerted effort at attacking the rim, his efficiency should skyrocket along with the free-throw rate. And if he does all the things we discussed, George might enter the conversation with a couple luminous forwards playing well south of the Indianapolis border.
Either way, I can't wait to find out.
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