How Long Will It Take Paul George to Get on LeBron James' Level?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2014

Dec 10, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (24) is guarded by Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Question: What's better than earning the first All-Star Game starting nod in your career? 

Answer: Following it up the next night by doing what Paul George did to the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 24. 

Even during a game that saw Isaiah Thomas drop a cool 38-spot and Marcus Thornton come out of nowhere to score 42 points, it was the Indiana Pacers swingman who emerged as the game's biggest star. George finished with 36 points, five rebounds, two assists, two blocks and four steals, but it was the timing of his play that was most impressive. 

Who hit a Jamal Crawford-style three-pointer while drawing a foul and making the ensuing and-1 free throw to send the game to overtime? George. 

Who scored eight of the Pacers' 13 points in that overtime period? George. 

Who sealed the game by swiping the ball away from Thomas as the diminutive point guard turned to escape from a trap in the corner? At this point, you've probably guessed that it's George. 

This was just the latest excellent performance in a season full of them, as the fourth-year player continues to get better and better. Last year, it was his first All-Star bid. This year, it's his first start in the midseason classic, but there's no telling how high he'll rise. 

An MVP is well within the realm of realistic possibilities for George, but let's not stop there. At some point in the future, the 23-year-old could very well challenge LeBron James for ultimate supremacy in the world of basketball. 

2013-14 Improvements

January 20, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) shoots the ball against Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry (30) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Pacers defeated the Warriors 102-94. Mandatory Cre
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the season, there were two main flaws in George's game. 

He often struggled with his handles, turning the rock over with too much frequency because he was unable to keep the ball low when dribbling in traffic. With more space to swipe the ball away, defenders thrived racking up steals when George was in their general vicinity. 

Additionally, his shot wasn't consistent. 

While he was posting gaudy scoring totals, he could easily go cold from the perimeter and shoot his team out of a game. George shot only 41.9 percent from the field and 36.2 percent beyond the arc, and those weren't numbers indicative of offensive superstardom. 

There were two main flaws in George's game, but that's no longer the case. 

He's shored up both of those weaknesses, which has made his offensive game consistently verge on unstoppable territory. 

Not only have his turnovers per game and per 36 minutes dropped by 0.2 and 0.1, respectively, but his turnover percentage has also plummeted to the lowest mark of his career. It had trended up after starting at 13.7 percent during his rookie season, but now it's all the way down to 11.9 percent. 

Screenshot from NBA.com's video archives.

See how low he keeps the ball on that crossover in the face of Quincy Acy? 

That's happening with more and more frequency, and it's resulted in significantly fewer turnovers when he's driving. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), George's turnover percentage when functioning as a pick-and-roll ball-handler has dropped from 22.7 percent last season to 16.5 percent in 2013-14. 

As for the shooting, that pretty much speaks for itself at this point. 

George is taking shots that can only be classified as superstar attempts. Those pull-up jumpers and isolation shots that you typically see from Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, the deep threes that only the most confident shooters attempt, the drives to the basket that need unparalleled athleticism. 

They're all in George's arsenal now, and he's hitting each of them with surprising frequency. 


See how much he's improved in every area?

George's form is tighter, his release is quicker and he's more confident than ever before. That's allowed him to knock down his three-pointers 2.9 percent more frequently, and there's a trickle-down effect as you head closer to the basket. Defenses are more threatened by his perimeter shooting, and that lets him get to the basket with greater ease. 

All of a sudden, inefficient shooting is no longer a weakness. 

You're looking at a player who can contribute in every way on the offensive end, all while playing some of the best defense in the league. In fact, he's actually ahead of the pace that the man he's chasing set over a half-decade ago, per Basketball-Reference

PlayerPERTS%ORtgDRtgWS/48Points per 36Rebounds per 36Assists per 36
George (2013-14)22.859.411395.24123.46.13.3
James (2006-07)24.555.2112100.20624.15.95.3

Passing is really the only area in which LeBron has a significant advantage. And that difference is more than made up for by George's superior defense, as well as the fact that he's scoring so much and so efficiently while playing on a team with multiple options. 

But that's not enough to get on the same level as LeBron right now. After all, the two-time defending champion has raised his game rather significantly over the last handful of seasons. 

To elevate your status that high, you have to excel across the board. 

Upping the Offensive Contributions

Jan 8, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) drives to the basket past Atlanta Hawks center Pero Antic (6) and power forward Paul Millsap (4) in the second half at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 97-87. Mandatory Credit: Danie
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

This is where George has to make up a pretty significant gap. 

The small forward is by no means a bad offensive player, but he's still well shy of the contributions that LeBron makes. Not only is he averaging fewer points per game than the reigning MVP, but he's also doing so while shooting with much less efficiency and dishing out nearly half the assists. 

Let's focus on the shooting first. 


As you can see, George is trending in the right direction, but he's still leagues behind King James. 

He took a significant dip last year when he was tasked with carrying the Indiana offense for the first time in his career. Now he's bouncing back in fantastic fashion, though he still has a long way to go if he hopes to catch LeBron. 

His true shooting percentage is slightly lower than LeBron's was in 2010-11. Problem is, the Miami Heat superstar has been getting increasingly impressive when it comes to shooting the ball. 

So, how can George do the same? 

He has to start imposing his will in the Pacers offense, only taking shots that fall in line with his skill set. Essentially, he has to do what LeBron has done. 

That involves converting plenty of shots like that one, as well as improving both his shot selection and his post game, to the point that he can get to the rim at will and complement those bursts to the basket with open jumpers. LeBron is no longer forcing shots, and George must employ the same mentality, especially now that the offensive development of Lance Stephenson lessens some of the pressure he faces in the scoring column. 

George has already become an elite player across the board, according to data from Synergy. He ranks top 30 in points per possession for isolation sets (No. 3), pick-and-roll ball-handling (No. 14), post-up plays (No. 30), spot-up shooting (No. 5), coming off screens (No. 2), cutting (No. 23) and transition plays (No. 14). 

That's quite the impressive combination, although it pales in comparison to what LeBron is doing. After all, he ranks in the top 10 in each of the categories that were just mentioned, and he's leading the league in post-up efficiency and when handling the ball in pick-and-roll sets.

George has improved dramatically working out of the post (he scored 0.75 points per possession last year, which left him at No. 106 in the Association), but he just doesn't go there enough.

LeBron is scoring 1.18 points per possession, the top rate in basketball, and he uses post-ups 15.6 percent of the time. Meanwhile, George is less efficient and hovers right around 5 percent usage in that situation.

That's a huge difference, both in terms of volume and efficiency. 

George simply must get more comfortable working with his back to the basket. That was the key to LeBron's development as a dominant and uber-efficient scorer, and George must treat such growth as the crucial part of his offensive improvement. 

Once that happens, he'll be able to score in a larger variety of ways, and that opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Instead of forcing his strengths upon the opposition, he could do what the reigning MVP now does: capitalize on the weaknesses of the defense. 

But at the same time, he must also make significant improvements as a facilitator.

George is already a great passer, as you can see from this pocket pass through traffic, one that led to an easy bucket for Luis Scola:  

However, he doesn't dish out the dimes with the same frequency as LeBron. 

Not only is George averaging 3.1 fewer assists per game and 3.0 fewer per 36 minutes, but his assist percentage of 17.3 percent also pales in comparison to King James' 31.9 percent. 

And the disparity grows even larger when we turn to per-game stats from NBA.com's SportVU data: 

PlayerAssistsSecondary AssistsFT AssistsAssist OpportunitiesPoints Created by Assist
LeBron James6.51.40.512.215.7
Paul George3.

The gap is just ugly now. 

George doesn't produce as many secondary assists (also known as hockey assists), fewer of his passes lead to free throws, and he fails to generate as many assist opportunities. Those are defined as passes that would've resulted in dimes had the teammate made the ensuing shot. 

LeBron's teammates are converting a higher percentage of his assist opportunities into actual dimes, which is both a testament to the talent he's surrounded by and the strength of his passes. In a vacuum like this, it's impossible to tell how much each factor matters. 

However, it's abundantly clear that George isn't on the same level as a facilitator. 

That can change over the years, especially because the young small forward's assist percentage has been rising over the course of his professional career, though it's taken a small dip this season. 

Believe it or not, this is the part that will be tougher for George to close the gap in. He might catch up to LeBron as a scorer in a few seasons, but the passing will take even longer than that.

Keep Growing on Defense

Jan 16, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) is guarded by Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (24) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats New York 117- 89. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Chances are, George will never reach LeBron's level offensively. He just has so much work to do as a producer of points, both for himself and for his teammates.

However, it's not necessary for him to catch the reigning MVP on offense if he wants to reach the same level. Bear with me for a second, and pretend that you can accurately rank players on each end of the court with a single number, where zero is atrocious and 10 is absolute perfection. 

Just for the sake of the argument—and don't make this a point of contention, because it's not the thrust of the article by any stretch of the imagination—let's say that James is a nine on offense and an eight on defense. 

George could reach LeBron's level by matching both numbers, also becoming a nine offensively and an eight when trying to stop other players from scoring. But couldn't he also reach that level by posting a seven on offense and a 10 on defense? 

That still adds up to 17 (straight addition since both sides of the court matter equally). 

It's this route that has become more likely for George, especially since he's already superior to the Heat forward on the less glamorous end of the court. 

Don't believe me? 

Let's turn to the panel of judges who made up ESPN's Winter Forecast and voted for Defensive Player of the Year thus far in the 2013-14 campaign. Here were the top five vote-getters

  1. Roy Hibbert, 221 points
  2. Paul George, 53 points
  3. Serge Ibaka, 40 points
  4. LeBron James, 33 points
  5. DeAndre Jordan, 27 points

He's become the unquestioned favorite among wing defenders, and it's a deserved honor. After all, there's no one better in that area. 

Still don't believe me? 

Let's have George himself set you straight: 

No matter what set of defensive numbers you look at, George excels. 

NBA.com's statistical databases show that the Pacers allow only 93.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. That's a historically excellent number, one that has helped this current Indiana defense emerge as arguably the greatest of all time

If you check out 82games.com, you're greeted by an even more ridiculous set of stats. In fact, let's compare the PERs allowed by George to those given up by James, position by position:


That's not an empty space against power forwards for George. He's admittedly played limited minutes there—only slightly less than the time James has spent guarding 2-guards—but he's actually held opposing 4s to a 0.0 PER. 

George is as good as it gets on this end of the court, and that means we're just waiting for his offense to catch up to LeBron's, especially because the 23-year-old wing player is only going to continue developing defensively as he gains an even more intuitive understanding of the game and starts to enter his prime. 

Given the alternate routes that can be taken to the level James currently occupies, it won't take as long as you think for George to become an equal to the NBA's current No. 1 player. 

If you're willing to wait for about two seasons, there may be a new king in town. At this pace—a pace that leaves George ahead of where LeBron was four seasons into their respective careers—it looks like the crown could change hands within the next two years. 

Unless LeBron keeps getting better. 


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