The NBA rolled on in the months that Paul George was absent from the basketball court. Any sport so rich in talent has a way of filling every void. The Pacers clearly felt the loss of their franchise player, but from a league-wide standpoint we saw a deep group of emergent young talent assume the mantle that injury had forced George to surrender. An up-and-coming, two-way star is a precious thing. Yet there could be no real discussion of George's standing until there was assurance of his complete return.
At last we have it. The six regular-season games that George played last April showed a man not entirely trusting of his body, not at all comfortable launching himself off of a leg that had broken cleanly. That disquiet has subsided. George is back at work and bludgeoning opponents with his industry.
Now a year and a half removed from his breakout run, George is topping his career bests in points (24.5), rebounds (8.6), and assists (4.6) per game through 11 contests. Those specifics may not last. What will is the general aggregate of what George brings—the value of his creation, the appeal of his shooting, and the weight of his defense. Versatility on George's level has a way of unlocking options all over the floor. Indiana missed that dearly during his recovery, and with his return has relied upon it to hoist a weird, stilted roster to a 6–5 record.
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All of these personal bests, mind you, are coming in the midst of a team-wide ideological shift that has yet to pay off. There are merits to the Pacers playing smaller when possible; if nothing else, stretching the floor from as many as angles as possible should clear some room for George, Monta Ellis, George Hill, and Rodney Stuckey (once healthy) to work off the dribble. As it stands, however, the small-ball Pacers are neither playing all that fast nor all that efficiently. The majority of the team's best lineups—and those most conducive to George's success, for that matter—have involved some combination of Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill, and Lavoy Allen in play.
This isn't to say that Pacers coach Frank Vogel should bail on his team's new direction so much as it suggests that George could be putting up terrific numbers while working against the grain in certain stretches. His production and shooting percentages have dipped even in the context of Indiana's starting lineup, the most talented iteration of small ball the Pacers can muster. We haven't yet seen George liberated by the freedoms of playing small. Instead, we've seen the 25-year-old hit peak form while succeeding in the same ways he had prior to his injury.
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It's been long enough since we've seen George at his most dominant that you forget how stellar a passer he can be:
Those feeds, unfortunately, are counterbalanced to some degree by George's tendency to get sloppy with his passing and handling alike. What separates George from the NBA's premier shot creators is the ability to maintain a tight dribble in traffic. He might be quick and clever enough to sneak through close quarters in some instances, but George can still be held up by defenses that know how to poke and prod at his live bounce.
Vogel helps to remedy this by putting George in as many situations as possible to curl up and around a screen before slashing down the middle of the lane—an action that puts the defense in immediate danger.
This helps to bridge the tension at the heart of George's offense. One would like for George not to settle for iffy, contested jumpers. But were he to attack set defenses more often, his turnover issues would likely worsen. Indiana schemes its way around that problem by getting George on the move, allowing him to play as an actual wing rather than a high-volume point forward type, and stationing ballhandlers around him. Within that structure comes the freedom to do anything without the pressure to do everything.
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Operating in that way also allows George, who still guards opposing wings while nominally a power forward, to fill a crucial two-way role without wearing down. Playing against George isn't at all pleasant. There may be no more instinctive bandit in the NBA's passing lanes (seriously, how is this possible?) and no single more flexible perimeter defender—the combination of which makes opposing wings work hard just for the possibility of getting open. Then, once they have the ball, only a perfectly set screen can dislodge George from his mark. Anything short of that and George will wedge himself between his man and the screener, slinking through an almost non-existent opening:
If a shot attempt does go up in George's vicinity, it must find its way over or around his craning reach. The man takes defense seriously and it's a treat to watch him go.
That in itself may be the predominant takeaway from George's start to the season. Even those who know his career well and are familiar with his greatest hits can enjoy the same sense of rediscovery in the smallest moments of his terrific play. The league is a star richer with George back in fine form, and the Pacers all the more competitive for it.