Years pro: 7
Status: Has two seasons remaining on his contract, with a player option for the final one.
Key stats: Averaged career-high 23.7 points in the regular season, with career-best percentages from the field (.461), the 3-point line (.393) and the foul line (.898). Averaged career-best 28 points in the playoffs.
A team’s best player is likely to be the first one blamed for a team’s shortcomings, rather than the last. Paul George would attest. He just had one of the better individual seasons in franchise history, but one in which the Pacers failed to meet regular season expectations and were swept in the first round of the playoffs.
“At the end of the day it falls on me,” he said in his final postgame press conference of the season. “I can always do things better.”
George was thrust into a new role last season — leader — and admittedly wore the crown awkwardly at times. Over his first six seasons, he had gotten along just fine as one of the guys, even when he became the leading scorer on the conference finalist teams of 2013 and ’14. He had older and wiser teammates such as George Hill and David West to fill the big brother role, and a more imbedded teammate in fellow All-Star Roy Hibbert. He could be the precocious kid who lit firecrackers now and then.
That changed last season. West and Hibbert were long gone and Hill was traded to Utah the previous summer, leaving George as the most veteran Pacer. He wasn’t the oldest team member, but his stature and longevity with the franchise demanded that he take charge. As someone who grew up with two older sisters, he’s naturally going to be more comfortable looking up to teammates rather than directing them. Reggie Miller was much the same way.
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“It was the first time really being in this position,” he said. “This year was kind of hard figuring out how to keep everybody together and stay positive.”
If George remains a work in progress as a leader, he remains one of the greatest to wear the Pacers uniform — and still has time and potential for improvement. He’s a four-time All-Star at age 27. Only Jermaine O’Neal (six) and Miller (four) have been selected to more of the honor teams. Last season’s scoring average (23.7) was the fifth-highest in the franchise’s NBA history among those who completed a full season with the team, behind the 26.6 of Billy Knight, the 25.8 of Danny Granger, the 24.6 of Miller and the 24.1 of Granger.
And don’t forget this: George is a better rebounder and defender than all of them were.
George reached his average with career-best field goal percentages from the field, 3-point line and foul line. He was the NBA’s most accurate free throw shooter, in fact, until he hit 79.5 percent over the last 12 regular season games and dropped a couple of tics below 90 percent.
He also averaged 28 points in the four playoff losses to Cleveland despite a poor shooting performance in Game 3 (10-of-28) and an even poorer one in Game 4 (5-of-21). He was just shy of a triple-double in Game 3, finishing with 36 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.
George has fought an internal battle the past two seasons over how aggressively to look to score. He’s fully capable of creating shots for himself, but when he does that the offense usually grinds to a halt while his teammates watch him work. He’s unselfish by nature and he’s often stated his desire to be a complete player, so it’s not always comfortable for him to go into a game focused on scoring. For most of the regular season, his approach was to get his teammates involved early and then take over late if necessary.
He pulled out some victories that way, but the stats suggest he should consider a more aggressive approach throughout games. The Pacers were 12-6 when he scored 30 or more points. Two of the losses were at Washington, one was at Cleveland and one was at Boston.
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He scored 43 in the loss at Cleveland, in double-overtime, continuing another trend. Over his last three full seasons, the Pacers are 1-4 when he surpasses 40 points. Apparently, the best formula is for him to score a lot, but not go crazy.
George was spoiled a bit early in his career with the Pacers. He was a starter on a playoff team his rookie season. The Pacers reached the second round his second season, and the conference finals his third and fourth seasons. Then came the broken leg that kept him out of all but six games in 2014-15 followed by the rebuilding seasons that ended with first-round losses that past two seasons.
“Very frustrating,” he said. “But I guess every year isn’t a golden year. There’s going to be some ups and downs in a career. I’ve learned that not every year is going to be special. It was good to learn. Just this year I was able to take everything in and try grow, try to learn from it, try to find ways to remain positive.”
George, like most of his teammates, was uplifted by Lance Stephenson’s return with six games left in the regular season. He had that 43-point effort in Stephenson’s first game and followed with 35 against Toronto. He gave much of the credit to Stephenson for those performances, and can look forward to having Stephenson with him next season.
Much has been made of George’s future status. He’s under contract for next season and has a player option for the one following that, leading to speculation that he could leave in free agency if he doesn’t sign an extension. Team president Kevin Pritchard, however, reported George talked in a positive manner about wanting to remain with Indiana in their exit interview, and most of his comments to the media were along similar lines.
“Just remaining talkative,” George said when asked what he can carry over to next season with the Pacers. “That’s the biggest step I can make. I’m aware that helps a lot of guys. Not everybody is programmed the same. I think that will help going forward. That’s something I can take from this season.”
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