As soon as the Indiana Pacers wrapped up an injury-plagued and disappointing 2014-15 season, finishing outside the Eastern Conference playoff bracket for the first time since 2010, team president Larry Bird and head coach Frank Vogel made it clear that their vision for the club's future included a break from its recent past.
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"There's a gentleman who sits behind me who said, 'Boy, I wish they'd push the ball up a little faster,'" Bird said during his season-ending press conference. "And I agreed with him. [...] I'm not saying we're going to go out there and go crazy up and down the court. But we want to play a little smaller at times."
The decision to skew smaller and faster spelled the end of the line in Indiana for big men Roy Hibbert and David West, and led to the selection of lithe Texas 7-footer Myles Turner in the first round of the 2015 NBA draft. The whole project, though, hinges on moving 6-foot-10 wing Paul George — who rose to All-NBA prominence as a small forward, and who played just six games last season after spending much of the year recovering from the horrific broken leg he suffered during an August 2014 USA Basketball scrimmage — sliding up from the three spot to the four spot.
"I'm excited about it," Vogel season-ending press conferencesaid. "We've been in the bottom third offensively for a couple years now. Our style of play is based on how our roster is set up and playing to personnel strengths, but using Paul at the four spot some could, A, make us faster and, B, give us better spacing."
George said in July he was "fine with" playing "a couple of minutes at the power forward" to help the team, but that “it’s not going to be logging 30 minutes at the power forward." Bird responded by saying that George doesn't get to say who plays how many minutes where: ""Well, he don't make the decisions around here [...] I think with him coming off this injury, it's a good opportunity. He'll guard some threes but he won't have to do it all the time."
Vogel indicated Thursday that he views George as more than a spot-minutes option at the four, too, according to Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star — and while George might be feeling better physically, he doesn't seem to be feeling much better about this business:
On Thursday, Vogel shared his tentative 2015-16 starting lineup with George at power forward, alongside George Hill, [ free-agent acquisition] Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles and Ian Mahinmi. Team President Larry Bird has repeatedly said George will see time at power forward as part of an overhaul that will make the Pacers a high-volume offensive team.
However, when asked about Vogel's projected starting five, George said: "That's kinda new to me. We talked about it some, [but] for him to say it in the papers, I guess he's pretty confident on me starting as the power forward. So that was new to me.
"I don't think I'm at that point in my career where I should be changing positions. I think guys do that later in their career. They put on weight, [begin] lacking physical attributes as far as being quick, so I don’t necessarily feel the need to play a different position, especially coming back into a new season and starting fresh again. So it’s a change, it’s definitely a change. We’ll see how it goes.”
George, speaking a couple of hours after Vogel at the Brickyard Crossing Golf Course for the Pacers Foundation Golf Outing, however, did said he's willing to explore a position change.
“I told them I’m open for a change. I wasn’t extremely thrilled about it when they first presented it to me,” George said, “but the way the league is going and my playing style, I think I can fit right into it. We’ll see how it goes during camp whether I’m comfortable with it or not, then we’ll just make that decision from there. But to start it out, I’m open for the change.”
George sounded similarly unenthused during an interview with USA TODAY's Sam Amick:
“Um, you know it’s, uh, I was open for — to try it out,” George said [...]. “It’s definitely a change. It’s something new. We’ll see how it goes. As the season goes, it might be better for me to just be at my regular position. But I told them I was open to the situation and (we’ll) see where it goes.” [...]
“It’s just being outmatched strength-wise with guys at the four spot is really the only concern. It’s not really the concern for one game. It’s the concern just over the course of a season just how my body would take it, especially coming off the injury that I had and a whole year of rehabbing. Just not sure of how it’s going to take it. [We’ll] start camp, see how camp goes. Again, I’m not too thrilled on it, but it could change the more comfortable I get at the position. But we’ll see. But again, I could very much end up loving it, so it’s all up in the air. I’m open to the position.”
George has played the four for stretches in the past; he even called for the responsibility in suggesting Vogel go small during the Pacers' first-round playoff matchup with Mike Budenholzer's five-out Atlanta Hawks. But he's never stayed there for very long, playing nearly all of his career minutes at the two and three spots, and you can understand him having some reservations about going from rehabilitating a catastrophic injury to a very brief season-ending return to all of a sudden battling beasts.
Even though there are fewer back-to-the-basket behemoths (your Zach Randolphs, your Nenes) for opposing power forwards to deal with these days, a full season of playing up a spot in the lineup and punching above your weight can lead to extra wear and tear. We've heard small-ball fours like Shane Battier and Jared Dudley discuss the physical toll it can take on you over the course of 82 games, not only when it comes to anchoring down against battering-ram post-ups, but also in repeatedly having to box out bigger, more rebound-hungry opponents on every possession.
While George's size, length and quickness will make him a nightmarish cover for slower bigs, that's a pretty big and grueling responsibility to have to take on in addition to the already daunting task of figuring out how to regain your previous superstar form to propel your team back into contention. The task seems especially daunting when you consider the opponents George and the Pacers will see most often in the Central Division, as noted by Chris Manning of Hardwood Paroxysm:
In the division, the Cavs have Kevin Love, who when he posts up or operates out of the elbow, is one of the league’s best scorers, not to mention rebounding fiend Tristan Thompson. George can probably hang with Nikola Mirotic when the Pacers play the Bulls, but what will happen when Pau Gasol plays power forward next to Joakim Noah or George has to box out Taj Gibson? Or what if the Bucks go big with John Henson and Greg Monroe up front? For this to work, Indiana has to bet on George being so good at the four that the opposition will give up their size advantage to try and stop George.
But these are grinding, exhausting tasks. We don’t know yet what this means for George because we haven’t seen it, but in some way, this has to limit George’s effectiveness in some way.
At his peak, George has enough size, skills, smarts, length and talent to pull this off. He's capable of adapting to a new role in which he's asked to run pick-and-rolls, screen for ball-handlers, post up smaller marks, take bigger defenders off the bounce, anchor defensively on the block, act as the high-hedging big in Indiana's pick-and-roll defense, step up his defensive rebounding and offer some supplemental rim protection.
It's a remarkable load to ask a player to carry, but he's one of the few in the league gifted enough to be able to handle it. The question, however, is whether putting so much on George winds up taking away from what made him such an exceptional leading light before his injury.
It's a significant risk, but as Tom Lewis of Indy Cornrows notes, the reward could well be worth it for a Pacers club that's finished in the top half of the league in points scored per possession just twice in the last decade:
If PG is truly better than ever, and Vogel gushed over how good he's looked, which would indicate the team won't be protecting PG at power forward, then he shouldn't worry about what position he plays. The Pacers must have PG defending at an elite level again if they want to consider the playoffs this year. That also means he won't be matching up against big guys down low, but instead against the biggest threat on the other team, regardless of position.
Obviously, the Pacers have enough big guys to play big if needed and not put PG at a disadvantage down low. With a versatile collection of players on the roster, the Pacers now have options to attack a variety of matchups.
If Vogel's able to manage rotations to avoid George getting pounded early, and the Pacers get off to a fast start with the revamped offense carrying the day, we could wind up thinking this preseason hemming and hawing was much ado about nothing. But if Indy struggles out of the gate and George continues to make his displeasure with playing up known, Bird and Vogel could find themselves wondering whether all they did by determinedly going small was create a really big headache.
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