It was December of 2013, and George was rolling.
The Indiana Pacer's pace would have been best described as "breakneck" as he gunned the engine during the opening laps of the 2013-14 season. In 30 games through December, George piled up averages of 23.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 39.9 percent from long distance, per NBA.com.
He accumulated those numbers while playing arguably the best perimeter defense on the planet.
The Pacers won 25 of those first 30 games.
Then, in a manner somewhat less dramatic than Indy's team-wide collapse, George regressed. His shooting, which history suggested was the least sustainable part of his early run, fell off considerably.
|Paul George's Field Goal Percentage by Month|
As quickly as the "Is George the league's second-best player?" question arose, it vanished.
Diagnosing what went wrong with PG last year is, in some ways, even tougher than figuring out what caused the Pacers' overall decline. All of the usual suspects—motivation, our own artificially inflated expectations, stardom coming too soon—are in play, and they complicate the calculus considerably.
Maybe George's off-court life created distractions. Maybe he wasn't ready to lead. Maybe he didn't have a coach who knew how to empower him.
It's better to keep it simple, as George did in his own analysis of what went wrong last year, per Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News: "Ultimately we couldn't put it together at the right time. Had we started the playoffs in November or December we'd probably be holding up a trophy. We peaked too early."
The lesson: try harder to be really good for the entire season—not just that part at the beginning. Quite the revelation, huh?
Heading into his fifth year (and first as a maxed-out player), George will get an opportunity to prove he actually did learn something from his struggles last season. He'll get that opportunity as part of a Pacers team whose circumstances have changed drastically since 2013-14.
Where Indiana was viewed with outsized hope last year and seen as up-and-coming challengers to the Miami Heat after a stirring Eastern Conference Finals run, they're attended now by doubts. Fair ones, actually, in light of the mental and physical breakdowns we witnessed last year.
Lance Stephenson is also gone, a fact that will also alter expectations.
On the one hand, there's a case to be made that losing Stephenson—a player pegged specifically as a source of strife last year by players inside Indiana's locker room, per Mike Wells and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com—might be a good thing.
After all, Stephenson torpedoed the team by hunting his own numbers after suffering the personal slight of being left off the All-Star roster last year. Without him around, maybe George will find it easier to spread his wings as a two-way star and leader.
On the other hand, losing Stephenson puts far more offensive pressure on George than he's ever faced before. There's plenty to dislike about the way Stephenson impacted the Pacers last year, but it's impossible to get around his value as a facilitating combo guard.
Indiana's greatest weakness—both with Stephenson and without him—is its inability to score efficiently. Only the Philadelphia 76ers—who were, without exaggeration, actively trying to lose games—posted a lower offensive rating than the Pacers after the All-Star break last year, per NBA.com.
George, a player whose offense is the shakiest part of his game, is now the unquestioned leader of a scoring attack that just lost its most dynamic creator. Yikes.
Look, George made real strides last year, cutting his turnover percentage to a career-low 12.5 percent, per Basketball-Reference.com, and tying his best-ever true shooting percentage of 55.5 percent. Those are good signs for his long-term growth.
With better shot selection (George is prone to firing off contested threes) and an eye toward getting to the foul line, he can take his development a step further. If that happens, the Pacers could wind up atop the East. If it doesn't they'll be stuck with a handful of other clubs fighting it out for a mid-tier seed.
In a strange way, the reduced expectations brought about by last year's sobering second half might be helpful for George. We certainly know he and the Pacers didn't perform their best when their excellent play went from being a surprise fans enjoyed to something they demanded.
Now, George will head into a new season facing more realistic questions. Instead of asking if he's better than Durant or James, we'll wonder if he can be a top-10 guy or, at the very least, the leader of a functional, focused, competitive team.
Maybe that's a blessing. Eventually, if George has real designs on superstardom, he'll have to succeed when everyone expects him to. For now, it's probably OK if he gets a little room to keep growing.
With the East missing an imposing favorite now that James is in Cleveland, the Pacers are in as good of a position as ever to take control of the conference they dominated for a portion of last season.
Whether they seize that opportunity depends almost entirely on George's readiness to take the step we (ever so briefly) thought he'd taken a year ago. For Indiana's sake, here's hoping he takes it for real this time.
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