When Paul George said back in August that he still aimed to win MVP this season, his declaration was mostly met with bemusement and polite optimism. After all, the last time we saw George get meaningful run on a basketball court, he was snapping his leg in half, then returning as a shell of himself for a handful of games last April. Sure, everyone hoped that George would eventually return to MVP form, just not everyone believed that he might enjoy that status very soon.
To the contrary, PG has proved everyone wrong with his start to this season, getting off to what’s been a strikingly MVP-like start. Through the Pacers’ first 13 games, George is averaging 24.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 43.6 percent overall and a lethal 41.7 percent from deep. Indiana has been trying to switch to a smaller, faster style of play at both ends of the floor, but injuries have already limited the team’s ability to go with the new style and personnel. George has handled most of the scoring load as a result, which has allowed for a huge sigh of relief considering his injury, as well as provided some very necessary offense for a transitioning team.
As the Pacers continue to learn how to best space the floor for one another, he’s been doing it the hard way in many cases. The dude doesn’t like analytics, so he’s not bashful about putting up what some might consider dicey looks.
The small forward is taking nearly 78 percent of his shots away from the rim, a rate that’s a few ticks higher than even an elite jump-shooter like Kevin Durant, who takes about 74 percent of his shots outside the restricted area. And while he’s shooting an efficient 50.7 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, those only account for 27.8 percent of George’s shot attempts.
He’s taking it upon himself to create a lot of his offense, and what he’s not converting at an efficient rate, he’s making up for with free throws by getting to the line at a career-high rate, according to Basketball Reference, and shooting a tick above 85 percent once he gets there. That’s necessary for his efficiency, since George is shooting just 33 percent on pull-up jumpers, which account for 46.5 percent of his shot attempts. That number is distorted to a degree, since nearly a quarter of George’s attempts have come late in or without the shot clock on, but even considering that, his pull-up rate might be a bit too high.
Although the mid-range jumper goes against the grain of today’s popular basketball thinking, it’s a shot George has shown he can make, and despite his middling efficiency, he provides a necessary safety valve for Indiana’s offense as a guy who can create his own shot or draw a double team.
Once Monta Ellis (hopefully) comes around for this team, Indiana should be able to take some of the playmaking pressure off George, which should free him up for easier looks. Ellis has been finding his footing with a new team and system while playing both guard positions with George Hill and Rodney Stuckey both already missing time.
The question for both George and the Pacers is whether or not he can continue his one-man work for the entire season. The last time George played a full season in 2013-14, he averaged 24.2 points through his first 13 games to go along a 46/36 shooting split, numbers that closely resemble the types of strong rates he’s posted to start this season. That season, however, everyone remembers how much that Indiana team fell off during the second half of the season, and George was equally affected by those troubles, as his scoring numbers and rates tanked. This current version of the Pacers doesn’t have as lofty of aspirations as that team did, but they want to make the playoffs, and George can’t fall off again if they want to get there.
The good news is that George’s beginning from back then seems like far more of an anomaly than the one he’s enjoying now for several reasons. The first is his shooting percentage from mid-range, which was extremely high to start that season, up near 60 percent. This year, it’s been far more modest, somewhere in the mid-40s, a rate that’s much closer to the mean, and thus much more potentially sustainable. Considering that this also now marks the second time George has put together a sustained stretch of good mid-range shooting, it’s much easier to believe that he’s simply a good shooter from that area.
George’s improved free throw rate and increased attempts from inside – although still not enough – also suggest that he’s figuring out how to draw fouls and pick his spots, and as George continues to establish himself with both the rest of the league and the referees, he’ll continue to get foul calls.
Indiana has finally put together a strong offense outside of George as well. Even as the team waits for Ellis to start scoring, he provides valuable penetration-and-pass chances that create a lot of offense for this team. When they’ve been healthy, each of George Hill, C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey have gotten off to strong starts scoring the ball for the Pacers. Coach Frank Vogel has already done a great job of juggling the transition with the realities of Indiana’s personnel, and this team should get better the more they play together.
For now, the Pacers are surely content to let George go to work, especially with the incredible start he’s having at both ends and in all areas. He really does believe he’s the MVP, and he’ll continue to handle a superstar-level load on offense until someone makes him think otherwise.
**All stats courtesy of NBA Stats unless otherwise noted.**