Each of the new acquisitions aides team president Larry Bird’s stated desire to play “smaller and faster” next season, a transition that was expedited when former Pacers power forward David West surprisingly opted out of the final year of his contract worth over $12 million. Bird used that cap space on Ellis before shipping center Roy Hibbert out of town to the Los Angeles Lakers. Bird used that room to re-sign Rodney Stuckey, as well as sign Hill and flip Damjan Rudez to the Timberwolves for the more expensive Budinger. The direction was clear and the movement was swift.
The Pacers lost a bunch of size, though, and didn’t do much to replace it. Using the 11th overall pick on Myles Turner as a long-term replacement is intriguing, even moreso given Turner’s dominant performance in Summer League, but his foul trouble almost guarantees he won’t soak up big minutes as a rookie, leaving only Ian Mahinmi, Lavoy Allen and Shayne Whittington as remaining Indiana big men –– not exactly a scary group.
That leads to the elephant-in-the-room question of Paul George playing power forward.
It’s something that Bird first mentioned earlier this offseason, but as the team got smaller and smaller, Bird seemed hell-bent on having George spend a good deal of time there, despite still recovering from his horrific leg injury at Team USA camp a little less than a year ago.
For his part, George didn’t seem super pumped about the possibility, telling David Woods of the Indianapolis Star during the weekend, “I’m a ballplayer. You put me anywhere on the court, I’m going to make the most out of it…It’s not going to be logging 30 minutes at the power forward. Whatever needs to be done. If I’ve got to play a couple of minutes at the power forward, I’m fine with it.”
Bird was predictably asked about the topic again Tuesday, and his initial response to the Star’s Gregg Doyel seemed a little curt, at least in tweet form:
Pacers' Larry Bird on Paul George not wanting to play major minutes at power forward: "He don't make decisions around here." Column coming.
— Gregg Doyel (@GreggDoyelStar) July 14, 2015
His intent in that statement is clear: George is going to be playing some power forward. His elaboration gives a bit more detail into how that might play out, however. Here’s a fuller transcript of Bird’s words during that exchange, courtesy of a video posted by the Indy Star:
“You noted how you want Paul to see time at that power forward, you made it sound like a lot of minutes–”
“Well, I don’t know–”
“He’s like, ‘well, I could do a handful if needed–’”
“Well, he don’t make the decisions around here. But, uh, I did it. I loved it after I did it. We’ll see how he feels about it. I just think, offensively, it’s gonna be one of the greatest feelings he’s ever gonna have. He’s gonna find out it’s much easier, but obviously he’s gonna have to guard bigger and stronger players. I’m not gonna get in a battle with Paul George about where he wants to play. He’s a basketball player. He’ll play anywhere you put him out there, believe me.”
Breathe, Pacers fans. Bird seems a lot less like an angry old man with the full quote and more like a guy who wants to experiment with his team’s best player.
His delivery on the “decisions” line even seemed a bit tongue-and-cheek, which bodes well for his relationship with George. Plus, this is the way Larry Legend works; he speaks his mind, and it’s hard to imagine he operates much differently behind the scenes.
By invoking himself –– something Bird doesn’t always do with players –– he clearly empathizes with George and his situation, so while he might concede that George will be guarding larger players, it’s hard to believe Bird would do something to endanger the recovery of his star. It’s even harder to believe that coach Frank Vogel would allow it to happen, and he’s the one managing the rotations every night.
As Indiana’s franchise star, George’s health is vital to the long-term success of the franchise, so it’s a safe bet to believe that his minutes at the 4 will be regulated based on the opposing matchup. In the right situations, though, George is perfectly suited to wreck opponents as a playmaking 4 in small lineups, similar to LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Force feeding him into post-ups might not be a great idea, especially in a division where he’ll match up with the likes of Tristan Thompson, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and several other hybrid 4 types like himself, but George can certainly expect to eat on the block a little more this season, and that’s fine. Having a post-up game can extend a career, and in general, it’s a crucial weapon that can kill smaller defenders.
George is already a great shooter and slasher, so even when he’s playing off the ball, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to make an impact on offense in a variety of ways, especially with the huge improvement in the talent of his teammates on that end. Bird is right: things might never get easier for George on offense.
If George struggles with guarding bigger guys, count on Vogel to remove him from that situation, and count on Bird to understand.
One thing Bird enjoys on an almost delusional level is winning, and if he doesn’t see that method benefitting George or the team, he’ll change it. Ultimately he wants to win.
And that’s good, because winning in Indiana –– at least until another Pacer proves better than PG –– requires doing what’s best for George, because he’s the team’s most talented player and now their leader. Bird literally said he doesn’t want to fight George on playing, a statement that, at least from here, doesn’t imply Larry’s absolute authority as much as his willingness to communicate with his most important player.
As with most NBA matters in the middle of July, though, we’ll have to wait and see. The power-forward position has become the linchpin of small-ball-style teams, so in that regard it makes logical sense to play George there, even if he doesn’t seem jazzed about it now.
It would’ve been a drag to play power forward in Indiana given the team’s style the last few years. West did it, and he just left $11 million on the table so he didn’t have to again. But this is a new time for Indiana, one they’re hoping will have more points and more wins. As long as he’s healthy, Bird and company want George to be at the middle of all that winning, whether it’s at power forward or otherwise.