Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why Paul George is overrated


It’s no secret that the Indiana Pacers are barely hanging onto their 2014 NBA playoff lives. The collapse that they have been on since the last couple months has been astounding (and yet I still predicted that Indiana would make it to the Eastern conference finals before the playoffs began). The real question is: where has Paul George been in all of this?

Paul George was hyped up after an impressive 2013 season where he took the eventual champion Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern conference finals. (LeBron did go off for 32 in Game 7, something that hints at a trend that I will dissect very soon.) I went as far as to rank the emerging Indiana forward a top-five player and a superstar in my January 2014 ranking of the top-10 players in the NBA. But a more meticulous analysis has proven that, even if he was briefly once a top-5 player in the league, he probably is not now—and won’t be in the future.

While George has improved his scoring output every year from his rookie campaign until today, his defense is half of what has vaulted perception of him to astronomical realms. I spent some quality time with Basketball-Reference to pull up some of his numbers against the league’s star scorers. I found that if you look at the numbers this perception contrasts, not compliments, the reality.

Paul George 2013-14 games vs. star scorers.
Paul George consistently gave up big scoring nights to the league’s better scorers. Only one time did he hold one of these guys to less than 20, and seven times he gave up at least 30. Not only that, but Indiana, as a team, also fared relatively poorly against these teams (7-7 overall record). This goes back to something I hit on in my discussion of PG24 in his placement as a top-player in the game today. He plays in a diluted E-league, as Bill Simmons called it, so really how “great” can George (and his defense) be considered?

You might point to his incident with the Miami dancer (March 25) or the catfish scandal (February 5) as turning points for PG24 defensively. But as you can see from the above graphic, there is no downward trend in defensive performance following those incidents. They’re all equally…unimpressive.

One of my friends, who got the ball rolling on this discussion of where George fits as a star in the NBA, pointed to 2013 as a major source of the upside of this young star. This guy is only 23 years old, after all. But even in last year’s regular season, George’s performances against star scorers was uninspiring to say the least.  Here are some quick game stats from select 2012-13 Pacers games: two losses to the Knicks (Anthony goes for 25 and 26, respectively), win vs. the Lakers (Kobe goes for 40), two losses to OKC (KD goes for 27 and 34), win vs. Miami (LeBron goes for 22). The trend in 2014 is a repeat of itself from 2013 with Paul George’s defense: poor results against good teams and mediocre—at best—performances against good scorers.

Players that change a game defensively don’t allow that.

The reasonable follow-up question: well, how much does individual defense really matter? After conducting a statistical analysis of 20-plus years, I found that defense can get you to the playoffs. The old adage that “defense wins championships,” though, is not entirely true in the NBA. And defense, more so than offense, requires a team effort. Individual defense is therefore hard to value without a supporting cast of competent defenders.

This brings me to my next point, since Paul George is not solely reputed as a defensive stopper a la Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace, or Tony Allen. The two players most often compared to George are LeBron James and Andre Iguodala since this trio are often considered the top-three two-way players. George fits somewhere in the middle of the two—a better scorer than Iguodala, for sure, but still about as far from LeBron as Donald Sterling will be from the Clippers games from now on.

I spent some time a while ago talking about what I dubbed the “Iguodala Effect” and I think it applies, to a certain degree, to Paul George. Although Iguodala is the less selfish (or more passive, if you prefer) of the two offensively, both provide similar floor-spacing opportunities for their teammates. These characteristics necessitate a quick flashback:

A sophomore from Arizona is drafted top-10 and touted as a future All-Star and one of the most versatile players in the draft. He comfortably plays second-fiddle to one of the most prolific scores that the NBA has ever seen for two years and takes over the primary scoring load and does not perform up to expectations. Eventually booed out of a city that is harsh on its athletes, he joins a much more talented team and again gets a reduced scoring load. That team loses in the first round to a team with the league’s greatest shooter. He joins that very team that beat him and is again settling in as a defensive stopper not relied on for his scoring.

That’s Iguodala in a nutshell. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar career arc for Paul George, who was also picked top-10 in his draft. It comes down to this: great players have to take over a game offensively and/or defensively. In today’s game there are a handful of players that can do just that…almost all of which can do it offensively as either a) scorers, b) facilitators, or c) a combination of the two.
Those players I named can do one of those three things. Paul George isn’t there defensively (for the reasons outlined above) or offensively. As you can see in his shot charts (below), he is not above average as a thrasher, mid-range scorer, or outside shooter and has not improved over the past two years.

Paul George's 2012-13 (left) and 2013-14 (right) shot charts.

It would be a stretch to say that the Pacers are winning in spite of Paul George, but you certainly couldn’t say that the Pacers are winning because of the CSU Fresno alum. Larry Bird crafted a team with excellent talent across their roster (although moving Danny Granger was questionable). George has benefited personally from this since he is, like Iguodala was in his Philly days, the primary scoring option. But his inconsistency—on both ends of the floor—has had everybody scratching their head. One of my readers wasn’t willing to definitively say that Paul George is overrated but he did have a fair assessment of George: “Bad? No. Overrated? Maybe. Inconsistent? Yes.”

The NBA is all about winning championships. Comb through the league’s history and 99 percent of the time, the recipe for winning a championship includes a superstar. You can’t win championships with an inconsistent franchise player.

5 comments:

  1. Well, as you might imagine, I disagree with your assessment of my man PG-13, and especially the conclusion behind it.


    I don't think you can analyze somebody's defense just by looking at the points his primary assignment scored. Tony Allen is considered the best on-ball perimeter defender in the NBA (as good or better than George), and in games versus OKC, Kevin Durant has been his primary assignment. Well, he allowed KD to score 33, 36, and 30 points on Memphis in the first three games of the series, before holding him to 16 in game 4. Doesn't seem like a surefire player who dominates every single game he plays in defensively. Every team plays a different defensive scheme (zone, man, more/less switching, etc), so individual defense must be analyzed by more than just how many points an all-star scored when they last played Indiana. Paul George finished 7th in DPOY voting this year, 1 point behind LeBron James, and will almost certainly make the all-NBA defensive team. Its hard for me to prove it, but he is a good defender. Just watch him play, and you can see it. Also remember that LeBron was a mediocre defender until at least his 5th year into the league, when he learned proper defensive techniques and became a dominant two-way player.


    Larry Bird has constructed a very good roster in Indiana, with plus defenders at basically every position, but Paul George is clearly their best player right now, even offensively. David West is a good role player on offense but doesn't create his own shot too well (ala Chris Bosh), Stephenson is still raw, Hill is nothing special, and Hibbert is in his own league in terms of offense. George is the one guy on the team who can create his own shot, and he has been able to do so much better with every given year. Zach Lowe breaks it down very well in pieces on Grantland, but in the start of the 2012-13 season, when George first became the first-option for Indiana, he would turn the ball over at least 50% of the times he tried to split a double-team. Now, he barely ever does. He has made these sorts of improvements consistently over the past three seasons, and even though he has regressed in the past few months, its been more of a regression to the mean if anything. My main issue is his poor shooting at the rim, especially for a guy with his size and athleticism, but it seems like that's something he can improve. I can't imagine a 6'8 guy shooting 50% at the rim for his whole career.


    The fact is that at 23, George is clearly the best player on a team that, despite its well-documented struggles, won 56 games this year, and nearly topped Miami last year in the conference finals. He is a very good defender at an age when players usually couldn't care less about playing D, and I think that in his prime, he has the two-way capability to lead his team to a ring as the alpha dog. Actually, he reminds me a bit of Scottie Pippen, who was a great two-way player with phenomenal athleticism, known a bit more as a defender than a scorer. It's true that Scottie never won a ring as the alpha dog, but as the second option, he won SIX. So put it this way - if PG end up the second-best player on a team, that's pretty scary for the rest of the NBA :)

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  2. ya kinda hard to predict anything ,since none of them were right but seems plauseable

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  3. Yeah my first round predictions aren't looking too good but then again you never know. These playoffs have already been crazy.

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  4. I agree that looking at opponents points scored in isolation isn't effective. However, what I brought up here addresses a continuing trend...PG gives up at or above a player's average PPG in almost all situations (perhaps I should have added another column in the first graphic that had each player's PPG listed to put that more readily accessible).

    Sure, what you're referring to - the "eye test" - is valuable but only insofar as the results follow. If the losses and the points keep piling up even the "eye test" begins to fail. Just because he's a big, athletic guy doesn't mean he's automatically a good defender.

    PG was 7th this year, that's a fact. However it's also true that he didn't receive a single first place vote so I wouldn't place much merit on the fact that he does this. Plus, like I placed significant weight on in the article itself, it's not really "relative" defense but rather "absolute" skill as a defender that matters and PG just doesn't have that overwhelming presence. And he's a wing defender which diminishes his impact further.

    And in that final paragraph, you essentially hit on what I was saying with the comparison to Andre Iguodala. I think PG is destined to be a mediocre "first" player on a team but could be a very pleasant "second" player.

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