Basketball can be described as a sport built around choices, especially at the professional level. The best teams force opponents to make insanely difficult or seemingly impossible choices (an open Stephen Curry three or a dunk in transition) while inferior squads make them much easier (defending the Sixers last season). Coaches and players alike have to make decisions about what to try to take away and what that means they would give up.
The Indiana Pacers playing Paul George at power forward illuminates why the concept of choice matters so much in the league.
Assuming George can play at a level close to his pre-injury self, he stands as the best offensive player on the Pacers and certainly their best forward regardless of which spot he occupies nominally. A competent coach would then choose to put his best forward defender on George and his inferior one on whoever Indiana plays at the other spot (C.J. Miles in both pre-season games). The Pacers would need a forward with enough offensive gifts to punish opponents for sliding their power forward onto him and they do not have anyone on their roster to fit that bill since their best offensive players other than George are all guards: Monta Ellis, George Hill and Rodney Stuckey. C.J. Miles can hit shots but does not possess the handle to exploit larger, slower defenders. As such, teams can sic whoever they want on George without heavy consequences.
At the other end, George is Indiana’s best defensive player so Frank Vogel needs to put him on the other team’s most dangerous offensive force. While that could end up being the power forward in some situations, more often than not that will put George on a small forward or shooting guard, which already becomes problematic because Indiana’s other shooting guards (Ellis and Stuckey, mostly) would have trouble defending small forwards. To make matters worse, assigning their best player the unenviable task of defending power forwards like Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap could be a poor use of George’s defensive ability. Ceding the size advantage certainly makes his job harder and could potentially create ripple effects on his offense as we saw around the league in the playoffs. Furthermore, manning up bigger opponents could bring more foul trouble, which would limit George’s impact even more.
While I broadly support players moving up a position when they are physically capable since it typically gives their team more shooting, athleticism and shot creation, it must be done only when shifting talent makes them tougher to guard or more stout defensively. Without a complementary player at small forward that forces tough choices, the Pacers are making a nominal change that will only make life easier on opponents who handle it correctly.
A team that could end up facing a similar change with very different talent is Milwaukee. While Jabari Parker’s offensive gifts make him a tough cover for most of the league’s power forwards, Giannis Antetokounmpo will need to prove that teams cannot just put their power forward on him to give Jabari a more agile defender. While some see an improved jump shot as the Greek Freak’s way to change this dynamic, his combination of ballhandling and speed may become his stronger competitive advantage.
The NBA is fertile ground for innovation and maximizing unique talent but it requires the right complementary pieces to thrive.