Is Paul George the Leader Indiana Pacers Need?

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Is Paul George the Leader Indiana Pacers Need?
AP Images

Paul George took a step forward in his fourth NBA season, but it might not have been big enough to prove to critics that he's the right guy to take the Indiana Pacers to the next level.

And if that seems unfair, too bad. Nobody ever said would-be superstars got a fair shake.

 

Between the Lines

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

This past season, George's offensive game improved substantially. He matched his career high in true shooting percentage while increasing his raw volume of shot attempts, which is never easy to do. Typically, more shots mean less efficiency.

Not for George, though.

His per-36-minute scoring average spiked, and when viewed in context of his career numbers, that change stands out starkly:

Paul George: Volume Up, Efficiency Steady
Points per 36 minuets TS% FGA per 36 minutes
2010-11 13.5 .542 11.2
2011-12 14.7 .555 11.7
2012-13 16.7 .531 14.2
2013-14 21.6 .555 16.9

Basketball-Reference.com

The offensive results for George were good in 2013-14, but the process by which he achieved them had some flaws. George's scoring, while improved overall, changed in a discouraging way.

Only 20.8 percent of his attempts came from inside three feet, the lowest figure of his career, per Basketball-Reference.com. As you'd expect, he took a much larger percentage of his attempts away from the hoop, with 36 percent of his shots coming from the low-percentage three- to 10-foot range. And 39.2 percent of George's attempts came from 16 to 23 feet, the highest percentage since his rookie year.

Overall, George took more bad shots (from a statistical efficiency standpoint) in 2013-14 than ever before. But he made a lot of them.

In his 31-point second half against the Heat in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he fired up loads of contested jumpers. Because so many of them went in, George was lauded as the hero. But you've got to wonder how sustainable that particular style of offense truly is.

And actually, there are plenty of signs pointing toward its obvious unsustainability—such as George's glaring inconsistency as an offensive player, evidenced by his disappearance in the first half of Game 6.

This is a complicated issue as it pertains to George's leadership.

On the one hand, he simply must be more consistent, and it's clear his lack of ball-handling skill and inability to get to the rim off the dribble are hindrances to his development as a complete offensive player.

But at the same time, Indiana's offense is only a "system" in the loosest sense. The screen-setting is horrible, there isn't enough shooting to adequately space the floor and nobody else in the Pacers' starting five profiles as a threat defenses must constantly monitor.

George had trouble getting good looks (and thereby consistent offensive production) because the Pacers offense routinely forced him into difficult, stagnant situations and failed to provide him with a suitable second option.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

So, when criticizing George's offensive game, make sure to keep in mind how unfair it is to view him independently of the deeply flawed system in which he played this past season. In fact, considering Indy's broken, punchless attack, it's pretty remarkable he was as productive as he was.

Sure, George could stand to develop a better off-the-dribble game. Creating offense by himself will make him a better player and leader when Indy needs a bucket. But the Pacers can only ask so much of him as long as they're putting such a pathetic offensive cast around him.

Focusing on George's offensive game to any significant degree seems silly sometimes, though, because it takes for granted his status as an elite defender.

In that sense, we're unfairly expecting George's greatness to conform to the template we typically set out for superstars and leaders. We want him to be a lethal scorer with hundreds of moves and counters. We want him to play like Kevin Durant.

Well, last anyone checked, Durant's offensive brilliance got him bounced from the conference finals in six games, too. So maybe it's time to appreciate George for what he is (a brilliant defender who plays better-than-expected offense) than damning him for what he's not.

Besides, he's still deeply committed to getting better:

The Pacers have to be encouraged by George's willingness to take ownership, as that trait signals he could eventually evolve into the leader they want him to be.

 

Between the Ears

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

We've hit on George's game from a physical standpoint enough; now begins the trickier part of the calculus: his mental makeup.

First of all, he's entitled to be upset about the way Indiana's season ended. And he's well within his rights to chastise teammates who may have been less helpful than he would have liked—like Lance Stephenson.

But in the leadership syllabus, one of the first assignments has to be "don't bury your teammates in public."

George talked about Stephenson's antics throughout the conference finals, generally voicing disapproval. And then he gave a less-than-hearty endorsement when asked if Stephenson should return as a free agent next season:

In other words, this:

George wasn't alone in his lack of media tact. The Pacers were terrible about keeping things in-house this past year. And really, it's a little unfair to knock George for his candor. Everyone craves honesty from athletes while simultaneously hoping for a chance to chastise them when they actually reveal what they're thinking.

That's not fair.

Unfortunately for George, being a leader isn't to be treated fairly. It's to do what's best for the team, and there's no question he could have acted more effectively in the best interests of his team by giving stock, boring answers and dealing with the Pacers' many issues behind closed doors.

He's 24 years old, though, and it's terrifying to imagine how much worse most people his age would have handled themselves in similar circumstances. He's got plenty of time to mature behind the microphone.

 

Have a Little Faith in PG

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

The key for the Pacers will be avoiding an overreaction—to the season and to George's media gaffes.

Rest assured, there's an awful lot wrong with this Indiana team. It can't score, it has no idea what to do with Stephenson, Roy Hibbert may not be a reliable option going forward, David West is only getting older, and George Hill may not be the right kind of starter for a team that needs aggression and shooting from somebody.

But George is going to take a lot of heat because of his max contract and the hurry we were all in to crown him as a superstar earlier this year.

Know this, though: George simply isn't the problem in Indiana. In fact, he's not among the Pacers' top 50 problems.

Cut Stephenson loose if you have to, Pacers. And address the offensive woes by adding personnel who can shoot and tweaking the system to encourage movement. Hell, go crazy—bench Hibbert.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Lay off George, though. He's great as it is and only getting better.

George wasn't the leader Indiana needed, but he can become that leader in time.

He'll need the help of a smarter system, and better talent around him will only make the task easier. Emotionally and mentally, he can grow as well.

Maybe he'll never be a guy who lights up opponents for a consistent 28 points per game. But 24 points—perhaps achieved with more shots at the rim and foul line than the deep perimeter—combined with a defensive game that ranks second to none on the wing looks pretty darn good from here.

The Pacers and their critics need to give PG a little more time. He'll get there.

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