Once Paul George put pen to paper on his max contract extension in September, everything changed. His earning potential, his status, his responsibilities—everything. And if he's unable to carry his Indiana Pacers to where they're supposed to go, everything will change again.
Lost beneath gobs of drama has been George's performance and his role in Indy's demise. To be certain, he has not been given an absolute pardon. He's been looped in with the rest of his teammates and head coach Frank Vogel, bearing the same crosses they bear, shouldering the same burdens they shoulder.
But as criticism mounts and the search for individual scapegoats broadens, George remains an afterthought.
Team president Larry Bird has been berated for tinkering with a championship contender midway through the regular season. Jeopardizing chemistry and stability for the likes of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum wasn't worth it.
Lance Stephenson and Turner have been cited as driving forces behind the Pacers' deteriorating dynamic. Both are free agents at season's end. As they play for new contracts, their self-serving agendas conflict with those of the team's while spawning tension among themselves.
Immediately following the Pacers' Game 2 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski revealed the two had come to blows during practice before the playoffs started. Stephenson and Turner have since downplayed the significance of their dustup, but attention shifted from the team to them nonetheless.
Evan Turner on altercation with Stephenson: "It was just a tangle up and that was it." Also: "There weren't no punches thrown."— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) April 23, 2014
Pacers G Lance Stephenson confirms that he & Evan Turner got into scuffle before Game 1 of series vs Hawks, but denies punches were thrown.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 23, 2014
Roy Hibbert has also been the target of justified vitriol in recent weeks. From calling out his teammates to closing his regular season on an offensive downturn to being marginalized against Atlanta, there has been no reason to doubt his play or role as a tactical canker.
Most recently, Vogel entered Indy's circle of accountability. ESPN.com's Marc Stein revealed that he is coaching for his job during these playoffs—another report that has since been denied by the Pacers themselves.
Larry Bird just told me his sources say Frank Vogel's job is safe. @Pacers— Kevin Pritchard (@PacersKev) April 24, 2014
Unlike many of his teammates and coach, George has enjoyed more freedom, more innocence. The same, Pacers-related attention hasn't been paid to him.
The world was made of his Game 2 performance against Atlanta, during which he went off for 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals, becoming the first player since 2007 (Manu Ginobili) to tally at least 27, 10, six and four, respectively, in a single postseason game.
It truly was a transcendent performance that came when the Pacers needed it most. He led them to victory, silencing much, albeit not all, of the doubt plaguing them beforehand.
But that performance will be but a footnote in this Pacers season if playoff success doesn't follow.
George is having a fine year. He averaged 21.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game to go along with a regular-season player efficiency rating of 20.1, numbers that earned him his first career All-Star Game start.
Yet his success was inevitably accompanied by struggles. He shot just 42.4 percent from the field and—more importantly—vanished down the stretch when first place in the Eastern Conference was on the line.
Over the team's final 15 games, George averaged 19.7 points on 35.7 percent shooting overall and 32.6 percent shooting from deep, according to NBA.com (subscription required). His offensive and defensive ratings plummeted in value. The Pacers went 6-9. They nearly relinquished first place to the Miami Heat. George slipped, they fell.
Then came Game 1 against Atlanta. Like most of his teammates, George wasn't right. He handed out five assists, snared 10 rebounds and came up with four steals, but he shot just 6-of-18, further regressing when Indy desperately needed him to perform. The Pacers lost, setting the stage for that must-win Game 2.
And still it was George who flew under the gun. Others took flack. He was an afterthought, even though he's failed to consistently step up at the most pivotal points of his team's season.
Fair or not, George's reputation is at stake here. His Game 2 performance should be the standard to which he is held, not something we don't expect or laud to no end. But as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes writes, it really was more a reminder of who we thought George was earlier this season:
The numbers were nice, but it was the way George played that mattered more. He stroked the triple confidently, hitting 5-of-7 on the night. He got into the passing lanes for deflections, showing an activity level that had been missing for far too long. And he played with an edge that that the Pacers desperately needed.
Basically, George looked a lot more like the guy we all thought occupied the No. 3 position in the NBA hierarchy behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant back when the season began.
We can't even mention George in the same breath as James and Durant now. His demeanor, numbers and ability to rise to the occasion haven't measured up.
Even during his superstar performance in Game 2, there was a hint of immaturity in the way he taunted Atlanta's bench after drilling a three-pointer to end the third quarter. It was unbecoming of a star whose team hasn't done anything worthy of celebrating lately.
"We just need him to be the same person that he was today," teammate George Hill said of George after Game 2, per The Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner.
George needs himself to be that same person too—sans ill-timed showboating.
If the Pacers don't return to the Eastern Conference Finals, George's Game 2 effort and all subsequent performances will mean nothing. It will be the shortcomings that matter. All those times he should have elevated his play and didn't will matter.
What does that say about him? That the Pacers, after handing him a superstar contract—which will kick in next season—actually fell harder and sooner with him as their unquestioned building block?
Hibbert isn't the centerpiece of this team. Davis West isn't, either. Neither Stephenson nor Turner are centerpieces. This is George's team. For better or worse, their playoff push is indicative of his progression as a star.
Will George's superstar status be adversely impacted if Pacers fail to make a deep playoff bush?
At the moment, there's isn't much progress to report. Volunteering to assume the most difficult defensive assignments won't mean a thing if the Pacers don't win. Beating the Hawks will mean little if the Pacers don't go further. They're supposed to be contending for a championship. George is supposed to be their superstar. If he cannot take them where they need to go, his status will adjust accordingly.
None of which is to say George is the biggest failure that ever existed. Again, he's a wildly talented player who, for the most part, had a good season. But good isn't enough. The Pacers need great. They need Game 2 George every night, willing them to victory the way legitimate superstars should.
If he isn't up to the task, the Pacers' season will end terribly early, leaving Paul to begin next season, the first of his max extension, looking to prove he's worthy of the same superstar status he was thought to have already secured.