Next season will be a big one for Paul George. Not only will he be fully returning from the devastating compound leg fracture that caused him to miss nearly all of last season, he’ll be returning to a completely new team as well. George is one of only three significant members remaining from the 2013-14 Pacers team that won 56 games, along with George Hill and Ian Mahinmi.
This offseason, as George continued to work back from both his injury and a calf strain that ended his modest comeback last spring, Indiana’s front office oversaw a dramatic transition from a lengthy, lumbering defense-first squad they had been to a smaller, quicker offense-first group. Gone are David West, Roy Hibbert and Luis Scola, aboard are Monta Ellis, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill.
Team president Larry Bird wants to score more points and be more versatile, which are two things a healthy George can do. Based on their current roster and Bird’s public comments, George’s role in all of this will be to man the power-forward position. Bird has talked about how, with the team’s new spacing, playing that spot should afford George many new opportunities and mismatches on offense.
Bird first talked about the strategy at the end of the season, and he reiterated it last week after George seemed apathetic about his potential new role in an interview with The Indy Star. The possibility of a flap between George and Bird –– not to mention the possibility of George guarding larger, stronger players at that position –– has many Pacers fans feeling pretty worried. But right now, it’s only July; the only people who have any idea how many minutes George will spend at power forward are Frank Vogel and Bird, and even they might not have much of an idea right now.
For his part, George was recently in China on behalf of Nike and China Pacers, both looking and sounding ready for next season, no matter where he lines up. He finally flashed some of his signature athleticism in throwing down a between-the-legs tomahawk, and in another interview with the Star, remained resolute about his desire to win MVP next season, telling Chinese fans, via reporter Matthew Glenesk:
“After being draft into the NBA, I was playing from the bench and then tried to be a starter, then an All-Star. My goal now is set to be MVP. This year, that hasn’t changed.”
Barring a miracle, George isn’t winning the MVP this year, if for no other reason than the Pacers probably won’t be good enough for him to be in the discussion. More than that, he’s less than a year removed from a serious leg injury that caused him to miss a lot of basketball. He was very limited during his short return in late March, and he even strained his calf so badly that he had to shut down that comeback early. Still, the confidence he’s showing here should be a great sign after all the rehab and physical adversity. It also begs the question of what to expect from George next season.
The speed of his comeback has already been somewhat superhuman, given that he somehow managed last season’s eight-game tryout only eight months after the injury occurred. Both he and Bird have talked about how they thought that experience was valuable, to get George back on the court and experiencing live NBA action. Following his surgery, doctors said there was no additional damage beyond the fracture and that it should heal in a way that would leave him at 100 percent of the athlete he used to be. Even George himself said at a recent basketball camp that he feels nearly there and should be full-blow by the time training camp rolls around, via the AP.
In short, there are a lot of reasons to be encouraged about the possibility of a very healthy and very ready Paul George to start this NBA season.
But we’re still a long ways away from the season, and we’re one “George Sits Out Training Camp Practice” headline away from all of that optimism being forgotten faster than Roy Hibbert. George hasn’t consistently played NBA ball in a long time, and there’s some belief that there will be a mental aspect to overcome for George. Look hard enough, and there are reasons to doubt. It’s the safest strategy for fan expectations, that’s for sure.
That said, George is only 25, and he was one of the best athletes in the NBA before his injury. His recovery trajectory has been insane, and assuming that it continues that way, it’s not unreasonable to believe that he’d be able to find his footing quickly this season and largely return to his previous level for the Pacers.
Kevin Ware, the former Louisville and current Georgia State player who used to be the poster boy for basketball compound fractures, found himself craving a return to real, full-speed action by this time in his recovery. It was part of the reason he left Louisville: to find a place where guys didn’t treat him like he was made of glass. If George is in a similar place, he’ll find that on a nightly basis in the league.
Sure, he’ll have some rust, but even in terms of his mental recovery, the fact that George’s injury was the result of a clear cause-and-effect should enable him to feel better sooner. Dr. Robert Klapper of LA’s Cedars Sinai Medical Center joined “The Barbershop” radio show on 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis and talked about how George’s break, caused by the basket stanchion, makes for an easier mental comeback than something like Derrick Rose’s freak meniscus tear two years ago, since George can better understand why his injury happened. For something seemingly random, Klapper claims that a feeling of being betrayed by one’s body can linger. It’s interesting stuff, even if you don’t buy into the theory.
As with his minutes at power forward, no one will know what to expect from George until we know. Maybe he’ll take awhile to return to form, maybe he won’t. Thankfully for Pacers fans, the rhetoric from his doctors and his speedy recovery so far seem to indicate that eventually, he’ll get there.
Indiana would then be welcoming back a guy who was one of the top 10 two-way players in the league before his injury, perfect (and essential) for centering their new direction around. Through this process, George has again demonstrated his good attitude and should step into a leadership role this season. If everything comes together both on and off the court for the young player, both he and the franchise’s continuing recoveries will become a whole lot easier.