Currently, Paul George is not your NBA MVP. LeBron James is playing one less minute per game than Paul, but he still has him licked in points (25.3 to 23.8), rebounds (6.8 to 5.8), assists (6.5 to 3.5) while shooting – holy cow – 59.8 percent from the floor. If LeBron James does not win every MVP from now until 2016 or so, then something will have gone very, very wrong for him.
The fact that we’re considering Paul George as a sound runner-up to the greatest player of his generation, though, speaks volumes. George won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award last year while actually not improving all that much – his per-minute stats went up a bit, but basically he just played far more minutes in Danny Granger’s absence while watching his efficiency numbers suffer along the way. George may not have deserved that award, but the turn he’s taken in 2013-14 more than makes up for it.
George is the NBA’s most improved player this year, he’s putting up fantastic numbers this season (along with two steals a game) to pair alongside his typically stellar defense on the wing for Indiana. The Pacers are once again the NBA’s top defensive team, and George has discovered a role in the offense that at times eluded him last year even as he won the MIP – Paul is able to create his own shot efficiently, and consistently.
So while he may not be the league’s MVP, he is playing at an MVP level. And don’t think this isn’t by design. From an interview with Tzvi Twersky at SLAM Magazine:
“I have goals,” George says. “I want to be MVP. I want to be Defensive Player of the Year. I want to be First-Team All-NBA. I want to be a Gold medalist. I want to be a Hall of Famer. I want to be a Champion. Everything that’s the highest or the greatest that you can do, I want to do that.”
It’s always been easy to appreciate Paul George’s potential, but even after working as the leading offensive force for a Pacer team that was one game away from making the 2013 NBA Finals, it was also just as easy to be dubious about George’s career arc heading into 2013-14. Despite all that promise, George still shot 41.9 percent last year, and though he managed an average percentage from behind the arc, that didn’t stop him from taking nearly six three-pointers per game.
These marks, along with an uptick in turnover percentage (George coughed it up on 15 percent of the possessions he used) were tell-tale signs of someone that was still learning how to mix that emerging handle with his superior athletic gifts, and slowly evolving touch from the perimeter. George could always finish, but it was the lead-up to that finish that was getting in the way. All of this was worrying, as that seemingly inevitable date with LeBron James’ all-world defensive gifts awaited him sometime in late May.
Though he signed a massive contract extension over the summer, George hardly rested on his newfound security and the warmth that comes from nearly taking the defending champs to task in the first week of June. His shooting percentage has rocketed up to 46 percent, and he’s making over 40 percent of his three-pointers, while his turnover percentage has dipped to a career-low despite the ever-increasing workload. Again, this ain’t by accident. Teammate Rasual Butler noticed as much, from Twersky’s feature:
“He’s one of the best two-way players in the League,” says Butler, who has worked out in the same California gym as George for the past few summers. “His will to get better is very rare. I haven’t seen someone like that in a while from every basketball player. He wants to get better. He tries to win every drill. He works defensively every day. And I don’t see him being satisfied.”
Of course, with that heavy load comes some heavy legs, as the 23-year old has dimmed a bit in his last three games. Guarded by LeBron, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Josh Smith over the last three contests, George has shot just 27 percent while turning it over 11 times, on his way to just 14.7 points per game. The Pacers took two of three, but they looked winded during their matchup with the Detroit Pistons on Monday, losing at home for the first time this season.
This is where the return of Danny Granger – originally slated for last Friday, now potentially moved to this Friday against the Houston Rockets – will help. Granger won’t be in the lineup when the Pacers queue up for their rematch against the Miami Heat on Wednesday, but any little bit can ease George’s burden. Granger doesn’t have to return to that 20-point per game, All-Star form, but he can aid the Pacers mainly by acting as a floor-spacer, and sopping up minutes.
"We'll take all the backup wing minutes and give those to Danny and let him work his way in and we'll take it from there," Vogel said. "Just playing Danny Granger 10 minutes a game is probably not enough."
Vogel explained that he'd like to limit Paul George's minutes so that the starter is not "close to 40 minutes a game."
When asked how Granger could personally benefit him, George — who averages 36.8 minutes per game — felt the addition should help him take a seat.
"The only thing is it gives me rest," George said. "I think that's the biggest positive for me. It'll give me some time to get on the bench and take some time off when I need to."
That’s significant. Even if Granger (who has played just five NBA games since May of 2012) returns as an average performer, this still means the vastly improved Indiana bench will be adding a solid scorer for absolutely nothing in terms of personnel. The team’s payroll is obviously well-aware of Granger’s $14 million contract that expires this July (pushing the small market team nearly up against the luxury tax), but plenty of Pacer fans bought a whole lot of Simon cards this month. The team’s ownership can handle it, if it means playing until June again.
The Pacers will get all they can handle against Miami on Wednesday night, as the Heat are still smarting from being bullied around by the Pacers in a loss last week. Paul George is coming off of a terrible three-game stretch, Danny Granger is still in street clothes, and he’ll likely have an angry (if gimpy) LeBron James to contend with.
Still, it says quite a bit that we’ve come to expect MVP-level production from Paul George, every night out. The man clearly wants it that way.
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