Will Paul George's Move to Power Forward Pay off for the Indiana Pacers?
It was only about a year-and-a-half ago that the Indiana Pacers were battling the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Paul George had led the Pacers to a Game 1 victory, and some believed that George, a 23-year-old rising star, might be able to lead his team into the NBA Finals, past LeBron James and the two-time defending league champions. The Pacers, who had the best record in the Eastern Conference that year, eventually dropped the series 4-2 and things only got worse for George from there.
Two months after the series ended, George suffered a gruesome compound fracture in his right leg while training with Team USA in Las Vegas. The injury cost him his roster spot on the national team and caused him to miss all but six games in 2014.
Now entering his sixth season, George is back, and he’s starting to look like he’s returned to his pre-injury form. In the Pacers last preseason game against the Chicago Bulls, he scored 26 points in 35 minutes.
He also reminded us what we missed last year with this impressive throwdown.
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) October 21, 2015
A New Era
Although George is back and looking like his old self, his supporting cast entering the season is quite different than what it's been in recent years.
Roy Hibbert and David West are no longer around to anchor the Pacers in the paint. Hibbert was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers this summer for a future second-round pick, and West elected to sign a one-year deal with the San Antonio Spurs.
The departures of Hibbert and West demonstrate a shift in philosophy for the Pacers. No longer are they the team constructed to counter the then-Big Three's interior weakness in Miami. Instead, the Pacers are following a trend exhibited throughout the NBA -- they’re looking to play small and fast.
Shortly after the season ended in May, team president Larry Bird voiced his desire for the Pacers to change their style of play. He also spoke about moving his star player to the power forward position, a proposal that’s generated a lot of intrigue.
Now, in addition to the questions regarding whether George can regain his pre-injury form, George’s move to the power forward position has been the biggest concern surrounding the Pacers offseason.
There have been rumblings that George -- who is 6’9”, 220 -- is upset with the move.
After first gm starting at power forward, Paul George: "I don’t know if I’m cut out for a four spot. I don’t know if this is my position."
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) October 4, 2015
In theory, the Pacers' move from the sedated pace at which they’ve played in recent years to a more up-tempo mindset makes sense. More and more NBA teams have experimented with smaller lineups and are trying to push the pace.
The Golden State Warriors could be considered the gold standard of the NBA’s recent small-ball craze.
Last year, the Warriors started Draymond Green (6’7”, 230 pounds) alongside Andrew Bogut in the middle in the middle and played at the fastest rate of any team, averaging 100.69 possessions per 48 minutes. On the other hand, the Pacers ranked 21st in pace of play, averaging just 95.5 possessions per 48 minutes.
Paul George, Power Forward?
Throughout the 2013-14 season, George showed that he was an elite playmaker in the league, averaging 21.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.9 steals per game.
He’s also a decent outside shooter -- 36.4 percent in 2013-14 and 36.1 percent for his career. Additionally, he’s shown the ability to make plays for others, averaging 4.1 assists per game in 2012-13 and 3.5 in 2013-14.
So, why move a player who has so much success into a new position?
For Frank Vogel, it appears to be centered on giving the Pacers more flexibility to match up with different opponents.
During the 2013-14 season, George had the highest Usage Rate (28.2 percent) of any Pacer starter. With a team philosophy centered around the mismatches George can create -- he’s too big and athletic for some small forwards and too quick for some power forwards -- it’s hard to imagine that George won’t have ample opportunities to replicate his production from his last full season.
One of the concerns surrounding George’s purported move to power forward is whether or not he’ll be able to hold up for a full season banging with the bigs on a night-in night-out basis.
Vogel has already said that he plans on setting a lineup based upon the team the Pacers are playing, which tells us that George won’t be spending all of his time this season playing the four.
The Pacers open the season at Toronto on October 28 and then face Memphis at home the following night. Toronto’s Patrick Patterson (6'9", 230 pounds) and Memphis’ Zach Randolph (6'10", 260 pounds) should give Pacer fans a sense of how Vogel plans to utilize George based upon the matchups in this new look offense.
Could Vogel, who has won 259 games as the Pacers' coach over the past five years, including back-to-back trips to the conference finals, really be unable to find ways to utilize his best player?
A New Surrounding Cast
The Pacers enter this season with a projected starting lineup of George Hill at point guard, Monta Ellis at shooting guard, C.J. Miles at small forward, and Jordan Hill at center, with George at the four.
Hibbert is expected to be replaced by Hill, who has bounced around the league since he was drafted in 2009. Hill spent the last three seasons with the Lakers and averaged 12 points and 7.9 rebounds per game last season.
Hill returns after leading the team in scoring last year at 16.1 points per game. Miles is also back after averaging 13.5 points per game, and emerging as the team’s best threat from the three point line. He shot 34.5 percent from behind the arc last year.
Another new addition to the starting lineup is Ellis, a 10-year veteran who spent the last two years in Dallas. Ellis will join George as one of the Pacers' primary offensive threats after he averaged 18.9 points for Dallas last year while shooting 44.5 percent from the field.
For the first time in five years, the Pacers missed the playoffs last year. They averaged 97.3 points per game last season, 24th in the league.
They finished ninth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 38-44, and had George not been injured, would they have made the playoffs?
But missing the playoffs in an annually weak conference dictated that changes needed to be made. With a healthy George and a revamped lineup centered around his flexibility, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the Pacers back in the playoffs in 2015-16.
That is, if the Pacers' plan to go small pays off big.