Paul George’s season has been absolutely incredible — a living, breathing manifestation of the wildest arrangements of our collective imagination.
Every player who enters the NBA carries with them a skill set (defined to some degree) and a multi-directional spectrum of possibilities, stretching from the player they are in the present, to the various different incarnations they could become. For each player there is an endpoint to that spectrum, a point B — the absolute farthest linear difference from their present self at point A. This is the hypothetical “best case scenario,” a seamless blending of reality and imagination. We often do ourselves a great disservice by falling into the deep well of these best case scenarios, losing ourselves in the myriad possibilities of the future. It’s understandable. The most drastically positive outcome possible is where all the excitement resides. But by turning our attention there we’re often set up for disappointment.
Regardless of how far that distance is from present to hypothetical best-case future, most players never even approach this pinnacle. It’s a function of the drastic exaggeration our imaginations are prone to. Point A and Point B are analyzed in draft profiles as being equal probabilities. But the reality is that the vast majority of players end up stranded somewhere along the middle of their theoretical career spectra.
That’s what makes Paul George’s season so special. It’s not the numbers or the confidence with which he now plays. It’s not the offense or the defense, or the 40 wins he’s helped the Pacers amass. It’s the way he’s sprinted down his hypothetical best-case scenario, wrestled it to the ground and devoured it.
When George came into the league he was raw, oozing with athleticism and potential. But that potential laid down a long and winding road that stretched far from his present level of abilities. As a rookie he was a capable wing defender, transition finisher and spot-up shooter. But somewhere in the white spaces between those skills, roughed in by his physical tools, was the implication of the NBA’s rarest creature — the do-it-all wing. This template was set by Oscar Robertson, before being assimilated by Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, in turn. This is the player who can be the foundation of an entire offense and carry his own weight at the other end of the floor. This is the player you build a team around, build dreams around. This is the kind of player every fan and General Manager lives for, and it was Paul George’s best case scenario.
Pacers’ fans have been dreaming of this kind of player for as long as I can remember. We thought it might be Jonathan Bender. We squinted at Jalen Rose and did our best to convince ourselves that it might be him. We let ourselves believe that Danny Granger might be headed in that direction. And although none of us will admit, we all talked ourselves into Ron Artest for about a month. But in the end we’ve always had to be satisfied with team success being driven by a collection of exquisite specialists and role players, a delicate concoction of ingredients requiring the perfect set of circumstances to coalesce.
The Pacers may still be a small market, a bit player in the NBA’s cultural landscape. But with Paul George on the roster they have the talent to make themselves into anything they want.
We all know what George does on the defensive end, his leap this season has been in terms of offensive gravity. His Usage Rate has jumped from 23.5 percent last season to 28.2 percent this season. His True Shooting Percentage has jumped from 53.1 percent to 56.3 percent. Just seven players this season (James, Durant, Curry, Nowitzki, Harden, Griffin and Love) have used at least 28.0 percent of their team’s possessions with a higher True Shooting Percentage than George.
George’s offensive expansion began in the playoff series against the Heat last year. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron, often single-handedly dragging the Pacers’ offense within sight of the finish line. The clearest difference was George taking the ball and creating his own shot, often against the stoutest of defensive opposition. When imagining these brilliant wings capable of unilateral basketball destruction, this is the capstone in the skill set — overcoming an opposing defense with individual scoring brilliance.
Of all the items in George’s basketball tool belt, his acquisition of this final ability seemed the least plausible when he first entered the league. Again, what he was and what he could do made it seem possible, but every disastrous attempt to split a double-team or contested mid-range pull-up made it seem anything but probable. And yet there is George, on a nightly basis, slashing to the rim and drilling 17-footers over the outstretched arms of the defense.
The animated heat map below (individual images from Basketball-Reference) shows how George’s offensive game has blossomed.
From working almost entirely around the edges, you can see his scoring prowess blossoming in the mid-range. These are the shots the define him as a top-tier offensive player. I should be clear that I have a strong distaste for mid-range jump shots. But the Pacers’ offense, like every other team’s, simply can’t create a quality shot on every possession. Those mid-range shots become the pressure release valve, the way an offense can keep themselves afloat and save possessions that have been ostensibly won by the defense. One of the reasons the offenses of the Thunder and Heat have been so good the past few seasons, despite regularly taking mid-range jump shots, is that those shots are taken by players who make them. George is now that kind of player.
This is Paul George’s second All-Star appearance, but he is on an entirely different tier of performance and importance than he was twelve months ago. From Most Improved candidate to Most Valuable candidate, he is changing himself and changing everything for Indiana.
The public perception of players can be a moving target. But ultimately it doesn’t matter if Paul George is as good as we think he is, or as good as he could be, or will be. What matters is that he’s as good as we thought he could be.