Paul George was supposed to ascend this season to a level that would rival LeBron James’, but he instead took an exit while driving on the freeway to greatness.
Before helping the Pacers rebound to tie the series up at a game apiece with the Washington Wizards, he set the stage last year for a coming-out party.
George battled Carmelo Anthony and James in the 2013 playoffs and looked incredibly formidable. George’s three-seeded Indiana Pacers upset the second-seeded New York Knicks in the second round, and then they gave the Miami Heat a run for their money before bowing out of an Eastern Conference Finals that went the distance.
George went toe-to-toe with James, and that prompted Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw to label him as the best two-way player in the league this season, according to The Denver Post’s Chris Dempsey. Shaw was George's developmental coach for his first few years in Indiana.
George used his showdown with James to propel himself into the spotlight as an emerging superstar, and he appeared well on his way to challenging the throne.
Being the Man
George came into the 2013-14 season as the top dog given his exploits from the year prior coupled with his postseason brilliance.
Danny Granger had always been “the man” in Indiana during George’s career, but the combination of injuries and declining skills, coupled with George’s growth, changed the equation around in the last two years. A knee injury forced Granger to miss the start of the season, and George thrived over that period.
Through the first two months of the campaign, George was brilliant, as evidenced by his averages in points (23.8), rebounds (5.9) and assists (3.5) as well as his shooting efficiency (47.1 percent).
George’s jumper caught fire early in the season, and it allowed him to get easy scores when defenders dared him to shoot. Per NBA.com, George converted 39.9 percent of his treys and forced opponents to make tough choices with respect to defending him.
It came down to allowing him to get inside the paint for thunderous finishes or letting him light it up from deep. Instead, George chose both options. He’s become a decent playmaker because of his improved ball-handling skills and better decision-making. That total early season package made him LeBron-esque.
What’s more, his team looked practically invincible with him leading the way. The Pacers won 25 of their first 30 games.
George naturally emerged as an MVP candidate and seemed destined to battle James once again for a trip to the NBA Finals. Both he and the Pacers seemed infallible, until adversity struck and derailed a would-be superstar’s journey.
Pump the Brakes
The dream season George was enjoying quickly turned around once January hit.
At the time, it appeared as though he was in a slump because his shooting numbers plummeted to 41 percent, per NBA.com. Lost on most of us was that this was the real George.
Up until that point in his career, George had always been an inefficient scorer, as evidenced by his career 43.1 percent field-goal shooting coming into the campaign, per Basketball-Reference.com.
With his jumper betraying him, his scoring average took a dip to 21.3 points per game in January. What’s more, Basketball-Reference.com tells us his point production and field-goal percentage progressively decreased from January to March, which is peculiar to say the least.
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint the source of George’s struggles, a few off-court distractions vaulted to the top of the list.
In early February, The Indianapolis Star’s Stephen Holder offered some details:
George is learning firsthand what it truly means to be a superstar in a global sport. Your name on a story of any kind produces headlines — big ones. In this case, the story involved a Miami woman (reportedly a stripper) who claims to be pregnant with George’s child (he says that’s still undetermined) and she alleges he offered her $1 million to abort the child (he denies that). It’s salacious as it gets, the sort of thing that makes you wonder whether a guy can be unwaveringly focused on his game.
George’s rapid rise to the top made him a big target, something he had trouble adjusting to, it would appear. In late March, revealing photos of him were leaked online, and many believed a man posing as a woman obtained them.
In speaking with The Indianapolis Star’ Candace Buckner, George denied being tricked, but it’s clear these events had an impact on him.
He shared as much over with Candace Buckner earlier this month: “Just dealing with all the off-the-court stuff. I think that’s been a low point in my career. I just didn’t know how to cope with it and how to deal with it at the time.”
In tough situations, George usually turned to his mentors for guidance, but when the time came for him to do so, he had no one. Buckner noted that Brian Shaw and Danny Granger used to play that role for him, but they are no longer members of the franchise.
Shaw, a former Pacers assistant coach, now coaches the Nuggets, while Granger was jettisoned to the Philadelphia 76ers in a midseason trade. He was subsequently bought out, and Granger is now trying to help the Los Angeles Clippers defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals.
The Pacers followed in George’s footsteps and regressed based on the lofty standards set over the first 30 games. Indiana won 31 of its last 52 games and needed seven games to dispatch the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs.
George has been a catalyst for Indiana during the playoffs thanks to his uptick in production. He is averaging 21.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists during the postseason, per NBA.com.
Granted, he’s not out of the woods yet. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals versus Washington, he was often badly out of position defensively, which resulted in Trevor Ariza scoring 22 points.
George did a slightly better job in Game 2, where he defended both Ariza and Bradley Beal. It’s worth noting that his offense has been all but absent in the series. He is averaging 14.5 points on 30 percent shooting, according to NBA.com.
Needless to say, those aren’t superstar numbers. George teased us all to start the campaign, and we are now holding it against him. He has demonstrated what he is capable of, and anything less is now viewed as a letdown.
Still, George has an opportunity to bounce back.
Resurgence Around the Corner
George may have lost his way, but the path to superstardom isn’t too far off his radar.
The drop-off in production in the new year probably hurt George’s stock to the point that it’s fair to wonder whether he will make one of the All-NBA teams despite the fact that he started in the All-Star Game.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant will probably earn first-team honors, while Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony and George will battle it out for the second and third teams.
George’s apparent exclusion from the elite highlights how quickly things can turn. Within the span of a few months, George became a bit of a forgotten man.
The beauty of it all is that he can quickly change his fortunes. Individual success during the postseason tends to elevate the status of players (see: Lillard, Damian), and George is certainly familiar with this notion given his meteoric rise as a result of the 2013 playoffs.
He can turn things around by stringing along a few strong games during the series with Washington. Advancing past the second round is practically mandatory. A return trip to the Eastern Conference Finals would help George regain his stature, and it’s important that he performs once more on the big stage.
George must shy away from contested jumpers and three-point shots and instead worry about getting clean looks. Part of his struggles have resulted from the fact he's forcing his offense at times, to the detriment of his teammates.
George must look to set up others and attack the interior when opportunities present themselves. That should allow him to get easy scores and get to the free-throw line.
It appears fairly clear that George is not on the same level as James and Durant, which is perfectly fine because nobody is. George can get fans to recalibrate their expectations with the hope that they understand that he will be a second-tier superstar.
Remember, George was anointed as James’ rival last year on the strength of his seven-game series production against LeBron, which compares favorably with this year’s playoff run. Have a look:
Something else is at play here, though.
There are two things missing from George’s playoff resume when compared with last season: The Pacers have looked average against inferior opponents (Atlanta Hawks), and he hasn’t truly raised his game.
Superstars typically bring great production to the table and help their teams dismantle underdogs by bringing their best in the heat of battle. Because it’s debatable whether George has been at his best, not many view him as one of the greats.
George needs to turn it up a notch and take the Pacers back to the Eastern Conference Finals. That will more than likely restore his lost luster. If he were to take it a step further and lead Indiana to the NBA Finals, George would undoubtedly reclaim all of his lost shine.
It merely took George a few months to practically become an also-ran, but over the course of May and possibly June, he can erase the damage his reputation has taken since January.
Ball’s in your court, “superstar.”
All stats accurate as of May 7, 2014.