After a season to forget in 2014-2015, the Pacers are looking to come back in a big way for 2015-2016. A solid draft, the signings of Jordan Hill and Monta Ellis and the addition by subtraction of the good Dr. Hibbert give Indiana plenty of reason for optimism. The biggest reason that the Pacers faithful are looking forward to next season, however, is the return of former All-NBAer Paul George from the most disgusting injury to happen on a basketball court since Kevin Ware’s leg broke off in the 2013 tournament.
Prior to the injury, we saw George begin to emerge as a superstar. In 2013-2014, George put up over 20 ppg along with 6 boards and three assists, and was widely recognized as one of the best, if not the best, perimeter defenders in the game. The last two NBA Finals MVPs have won the award for the job they did guarding Lebron, and neither was nearly as effective against the King as was George.
PG’s emergence came while playing almost exclusively at the 3. Which is why it’s so baffling to hear Larry Bird, Pacers team President and master of the soccer-throw jump shot, talk about moving him to the 4.
The Hick from French Lick thinks PG will be liberated offensively if he’s playing in the post, and that he’ll stay healthier if he doesn’t have to spend games chasing little guys around the perimeter. Larry compares George’s situation to his own playing career, in which he made the switch to the 4 spot later in his paying days and is grateful he did so.
The problem is that Paul George is not Larry Bird and that unless Larry knows some sad facts about PG’s recovery that he’s keeping from the rest of us, a position change at this stage would be a bad move for George and for the Pacers.
First of all, unless Larry has something in the works, the Pacers don’t really have anyone to plug into the three-spot if PG moves to the 4. Solomon Hill is a serviceable backup, but cannot be a starter for a team that likes to act as though it has championship aspirations. Conversely, the Pacers DO have a valid alternative at the 4 spot, having picked up Hill this off season. The loss of David West and, likely, Chris Copeland, leave them thin behind Hill, but moving George to the 4 just creates a bigger problem at the 3 spot.
More significantly, George simply will not be as effective as a power forward. We’ve seen nothing in George’s time in the league that would lead us to believe that he has any kind of post-up game – and he’s certainly not going to have any success close to the hoop if he’s matched up against bigger, stronger 4s. If the Pacers have some hope that George will add a post-up game, he’s much more likely to do so if he can retain his height advantage by matching up with small forwards. It could be argued that George will gain an advantage on the perimeter if he’s matched up with bigger, slower 4s, and that might be true, but if the plan is for him to hang out on the perimeter, then he’s not really playing the post, is he? If that’s the plan, the Pacers are more turning the 4 spot into another perimeter player than turning PG into a 4. Other teams will catch on to that pretty quickly and just defend PG as the perimeter player he is.
The bigger problem is likely to arise on the defensive end. Paul George is a great perimeter defender because he’s quick enough to stay in front of guards, but tall enough and long enough to contest shots and keep his hands in passing lanes. He is tall enough and athletic enough that he would be a passable post defender, but to make that shift would rob him of the advantage of his height and his athleticism. Athleticism always helps, but post defence is more about size and strength than it is about quick feet. Against most 4s, George is going to give up a couple of inches and several pounds, and will simply be physically unable to be the dominant defensive presence he is on the perimeter.
We just have to look at the top power forwards in the Eastern Conference to get a sense of how this is going to turn out. George is 6’9, 220 pounds. Paul Millsap is an inch shorter, but more than 30 pounds heavier. Pau Gasol is 7’0, 250 pounds. Kevin Love 6’10, 243 pounds. Chris Bosh, 6’11, 235 (Bosh is listed as a center but will line up at the 4 spot next to Hassan Whiteside). More importantly, these are guys that have been NBA post players for years, and know how to play with their backs to the hoop. George does not. You could argue that these guys are the best of the best in the East, but if PG is going to play meaningful minutes at the 4 and if the Pacers are going to be competitive, he will have to not only be effective against this kind of competition, but find a way to stay healthy. If Larry Bird thinks chasing little guys around the perimeter is bad for PG’s health, what does he think banging with these monsters night in and night out is going to do to his body?
Ultimately, Larry’s comparison on his own career to George’s is misleading. Yes, both are oversized small forwards, but that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. Larry was great because of his hands and his head. He was a smart player who could shoot, handle the ball and pass, but he was never a great athlete. The Celtics didn’t lose much when Larry wasn’t defending the perimeter because, to the extent Larry was an effective defender, he was effective despite his athleticism, not because of it. Paul George is the opposite, he came into the league as an athlete, and has developed skills since then. If he loses his athletic advantage, he’ll be a solid NBA player, but not the superstar he could become if left in a position to fully take advantage of his physical gifts. Larry also needs to remember that the NBA has changed. At his size, Bird was not at a disadvantage against most power forwards, because you didn’t have seven footers playing power forward in the 80s, now we do, and that changes the degree to which guys like Paul George can move between positions.
So the question becomes, what is Larry really doing here? For all his aw-shucks, down-home country boy affectation, we know that Larry Legend is no dummy. He knows who he has on his roster, and he knows who Paul George really is. For my money, I think this all an effort to oversell what is really a plan to play a little small-ball, just like everyone else in the NBA, either that, or Larry’s just pulling PG’s surgically repaired leg…