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.|
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.
Players I would prefer to build a team around more than Paul George: Steph Curry LeBron Durant CP3 Blake Griffin Harden LMA Westbrook AD
— Elijah Abramson (@ElijahAbramson) April 26, 2014
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.
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.