Chalk it up to what you will—religious undercurrents, cultural traditions or perhaps something more primal—we prefer our heroes in threes. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.
When the first two are obvious, we’ll peel our eyes a little wider in hopes the third arrives sharply in focus.
We had LeBron James and Kevin Durant, a pair of small forwards with gifted games and basketball brains to match. For as many worthy candidates who resided on the competitive cusp, we needed something more.
We needed Paul George. Sadly, he might not have been ready.
The roots of George’s regression may be a mystery, but the extent to which it’s happening—slowly, painfully, like a vise grip—is indisputable.
Your standard sports regression tends to take the path of a slowly cratering stock market: plenty of ups and downs along the way, but with a steady downward trajectory.
Some players experience the basketball equivalent of a recession. Paul George is going through the Crash of 1929.
His supposed peers atop the NBA pantheon, while subject to the same market whims of makes and misses, have been comparatively bullish. Since January, the race for MVP has been a two-man affair, with PG being relegated to just another pretender.
Even when you break the comps down by age, George’s numbers—while doubtless impressive—simply don’t stack up.
Why the precipitous drop-off? It depends on whom you ask, quite frankly. CBS’ Ken Berger thinks it might be a mere matter of wear and tear:
To say the Pacers are no longer the dominant team that sprinted out to a 16-1 start and spent much of the season with the best record (and best defense) in the league would be an overreaction.
But there is a dilemma that the Pacers may have to confront before it is too late. Indiana's Big Three of George, Hibbert and West have played in every one of the Pacers' 68 games this season. Not a single game off for any of them. This is in stark contrast to how Gregg Popovich has handled the Spurs for years. Erik Spoelstra has strategically scheduled nights off for his stars, too.
Others, like Indy Cornrows’ Tyler Bischoff, offer a strategic anecdote for George’s shooting woes—specifically, running him through more screens for open jumpers.
Still, others might point to distractions off the court..
George, speaking with NBA.com’s Steve Ascheburner following Indy’s 89-77 loss to the Chicago Bulls Monday night, may have been most directly to the point:
We’ve just been dead, it seems like, on the court lately... That’s not us. That’s not us. We used to be a team that played with a lot of energy and just had fun out there, and I think we kind of lost that along the way.
Whatever the underlying cause, such eulogies wouldn’t be necessary had the media, hungry as we always are for a true triumvirate—yours truly included—hadn’t been so anxious to anoint George with statistical swords.
After such a blistering start to the season, could you really blame us?
Combine all that with a camera-ready smile, forward-thinking fashion sense and effortless commercial appeal, the resulting commodity becomes one everyone wants to get their hands on. Or, in our case, words around.
In the process, we discounted a simple fact of professional competition: Everyone else not donning Pacers garb is being paid to do everything in their power to stop Paul George from being good.
For as much as George’s struggles can be chalked up to individual shortcomings, don’t believe for a second that his opponents—a vast majority of whom will never grace so much as a highway billboard—haven’t been using PG’s star power as extra motivation. As well they should.
At just 23 years old, George—who, let’s not kid ourselves, few believed capable of getting this good this fast to begin with—could still wind up king of the NBA mountain. As his game develops and the effort and exertion become better managed, the next-level efficiency we witnessed in November and December might well become the norm.
So let’s not blame him for failing to capitalize on the inflated stock others issued—for resisting being shoe-horned into a grouping, which, let’s face it, just wasn’t fair.
Of course, such handwringing ignores a pair of simple facts: The Pacers are good enough to win the NBA championship—multiple NBA championships, perhaps—and Paul George is good enough to get them there.
To accomplish that, PG must not only be able to take the next step, but sustain it. Maybe then will we be able to fully appreciate the depth and direction of George’s game on its own terms, rather than as the third act of a drama we ourselves created.
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