Can the Pacers convince their star to embrace the power forward position?
It took all of one preseason game for Paul George to voice his displeasure about his positional shift to power forward, even though the germ of the idea dates back months. In April, team president Larry Bird made clear that, even while presuming David West's return, he'd like to see George log time at the four. Both he and Pacers coach Frank Vogel were asked periodically about that stance throughout the off-season and affirmed it at every turn. George would be the key to Indiana's small-ball pivot, whether as a change-of-pace tactic or a more dedicated strategy.
Yet something in that transition—whether the magnitude of the role in the wake of West's departure or the implied permanence of starting at the position—has brought George unease. Indiana's star forward spoke to his doubt both before his first game and after. His trepidation is entirely fair. We've been trained as media consumers to seize on any inconsistency in message as a source of drama. What's transpired thus far in Indiana is far less sensational: A player comfortable and successful in his on-court responsibilities is skeptical of a significant change. For as often as the NBA is discussed as an increasingly positionless league, the power forward spot will demand very different things of George than the small forward position did.
A day-one matchup with Anthony Davis, the Pelicans' starting power forward, spoke to that fact. George will have more rotational duties as a four, more difficult box-out assignments, and the distinct pleasure of fighting off bulkier players down in the post. The move also takes George, one of the NBA's best perimeter stoppers, away from where he's done his best defensive work to date. Concern is natural. It's now on the Pacers to assuage whatever doubts George may have while proving that this arrangement can work. Vogel, in speaking with George to clarify the extent of this change after the Pacers' first preseason game, has handled George's public comments deftly.
“He knows the big picture, we’re all on the same page,” Vogel said, per Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star. “I don’t have any problem with him speaking his mind—as long as he’s communicating with me too, which he is.”
A Pacers organization fronted by two bold, outspoken men hasn't sought to muzzle George. They've moved instead to secure his buy-in, that precious commodity that makes any successful gameplanning work. Adequate coaches can identify workable solutions to various problems. Good ones are able to sell those solutions to their players and translate concept to practice. Getting a player—particularly a star like George—to buy in requires a degree of salesmanship, which is as much a coach's purview as drawing up plays or making in-game adjustments.
Vogel is making that pitch. The reasons for George's slight pushback are well understood; an All-Star wing player coming off of a broken leg wants to get back to his game rather than reshape it to the needs of a new position. Indiana, in turn, made clear that this was a possibility at the end of last season, worked out the possibility over the summer, and clarified with George during what is still the Pacers' training camp. This is precisely the time of year for this kind of experimentation, not to mention a healthy development for a team in Indiana's position. By no means will the Pacers be a title contender this season. They've elected instead to alter their core and rework their formula to see how some of the same pieces might work toward different ends.
“You can’t make small reactions," Vogel said. "It’s going to be a big picture thing, and we’re going to do what’s best to win basketball games. Winning is more important than style of play, but this style of play, I think, gives us—this group—the best chance to win basketball games.”
In time, George might come to be more accepting of that big-picture perspective than he was initially. Starting at power forward, after all, doesn't mean that George will be spending all of his time there. Indiana doesn't have the wing personnel to make that kind of arrangement work on a full-time basis nor the inclination to do so. And although C.J. Miles is the initial starter at small forward alongside George, a good chunk of the minutes at that position will be filled by Solomon Hill—a fellow combo forward who could just as easily be penciled in at the four when playing with George.
The point of this change is to put the Pacers on the whole in positions where they can take advantage of their quickness and playmaking in open space. That should help George as much as anyone, as Bird has alluded to on multiple occasions; even a little success in streaking past slower power forwards should nudge George toward the Pacers' hard sell. Fundamentally, George wants to help Indiana win. All he needs is to be convinced, through theory and practice, that starting and playing at power forward are his best means to do so.
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