Great Expectations: Paul George And The Inconsistent Star

Last season, we caught a glimpse of what Paul George could be. Now, we have a better idea of who he’ll be for years to come.

In his third year as a pro, George developed into a star and the cornerstone of a franchise that was in desperate need of a leader after their backbone, Danny Granger, broke down. George emerged as a rare commodity: a two-way player who had the potential to develop into something really special. The idea only gained traction following the Eastern Conference Semifinals, which was when George helped the Pacers push the Heat to the brink of elimination with gaudy averages of 21.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists over the first six games. He went toe-to-toe with LeBron James, playing some of the best defense you can against a four-time MVP, while mostly matching his offensive output on the other end.

It was a duel that put George’s name on a national stage and one that raised his ceiling (not to mention everyone’s expectations, too).

George lived up to those lofty goals over the first-half of the 2013-2014 season, leading the Pacers to the top of the NBA mountain with numbers that reflected those of his biggest competitors. He was an early season candidate — prematurely, of course — for the M.V.P., which was expected to be a two-man race, at best. His rise to superstardom seemed to have been all but cemented, but it was then when it all came crumbling down.

He grew progressively less productive and, as a result, the Pacers slipped and fell at the mountain’s peak, plummeting thousands of feet before finding their feet again.* Even though they still wound up with the top seed in the East, the door had been all but shut on their championship aspirations. After all, it took them seven games to beat the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks and another six to dismantle the Washington Wizards. Any chance of making it to the NBA Finals seemed wishful thinking, and now, after falling by 25-points last night, their season is over. But, at the very least, George found his mid-season form along the way, which almost — just almost — made us forget about his doozy post-All-Star break performance.(That is, until he took a backseat for all but two games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals).

* It wasn’t all George’s fault, obviously. Their other All-Star’s, Roy Hibbert, numbers took an even bigger hit and the team as a whole were out of sync. There were also rumours that multiple players were butting heads and that the locker room was, basically, in shambles. It just doesn’t help that their best player was hitting only 39 percent of his shots.

Nevertheless, even though he is only 24 years old with a handful of years of growth ahead of him, it’s as though the silhouette of his career is nearly all visible. But unlike last season, that image isn’t quite as rosy.

As fans, we’re fixated on trying to find the next big talent. George is a special player in his own right, but maybe not the once-in-a-lifetime talent we all thought he could be months ago. He’s an elite perimeter defender — one of the best we have in the NBA — and a versatile scorer. But he’s almost your run-of-the-mill 3-and-D player pumped full of anabolic steroids, which is still something every team across the league would take in a heartbeat. Nevertheless, that’s not what makes the cream rise to the top — he’s the yin to the yang.

George’s performance in the playoffs last season was a big reason the Pacers signed him to a five-year, $90 million contract this summer. He’s expected to be their star for years to come, and although those are big shoes to fill, they’re ones that George can grow into. In fact, he is a star right now. He’s the primary option on an Eastern Conference powerhouse that appeared to be on a one-way road to the Finals halfway through the season. And even after their collapse, they were still where they wanted to be — in the Eastern Conference Finals with a chance to stop the Miami Heat in their tracks — and George was there, averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists along the way.

George has made great strides even since last year when he was awarded as the Most Improved Player. He was one of 13 players that averaged at least 21 points per game this season; he finished seventh in Defensive Player of the Year, behind Serge Ibaka, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Iguodala, and in-front of Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul; he cracked the top-10 in M.V.P. voting.

George is clearly one of the top two-way players in the league and he’s got plenty of room for growth. However, that’s not enough to put him in the same company we thought he was destined for this time last year. Superstars are built on consistency, and that’s a big facet of George’s game that’s missing. After all, LeBron’s disappearance in Game 5, when he scored just seven points on 2-for-10 shooting from the floor, stood out because it was an anomaly. He hasn’t shot less than 42 percent from the field in a game since December 5th, 2013, and the last time he failed to reach the double-figure scoring mark in a playoff game was in 2011. (For comparison’s sake, George shot worse than 42 percent in 10 of the Pacers’ 19 playoff games this season).

We hold superstars to a different set of standards; ones that George has failed to meet this season, and that’s why he’s not what LeBron James is to the Miami Heat or what Kevin Durant is to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Very few players in the history of the league have the talent to withhold those godly levels of expectations. And even with that in mind, George isn’t far behind, fighting through the NBA’s second-tier of elite players. He’ll still have a great career and odds are this won’t be the last time his name gets thrown into the M.V.P. conversation. But he’s an inconsistent star, one that would be better suited playing second-fiddle to someone else.

There’s nothing wrong with that, though, and the sooner we appreciate that, the better.

Scott Rafferty