LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Chris Paul.
That’s the comprehensive list of the players in the NBA that are better than Paul George. There’s no arguing against Tier 1 of the league’s best, but the next group of George, Kevin Love, and Stephen Curry have solidified themselves as the 4-6th best players, in no particular order.
Last season, George and Curry probably wouldn’t have appeared on anyone’s list of the top six players in the league. For Curry, the difference has been relative health (and exposure). Sure, his game has improved, but everyone already knew he was likely the best long range assassin in the NBA prior to his entrance into the realm of superstars down the stretch last season, and a higher volume of shot attempts would equal success.
So what has Paul George done to catapult himself into the conversation of the league’s best players? What’s better about his game this year versus last year? Let’s take a look.
George was a very good player in 2012-13. He made the Eastern Conference All-Star team, in fact, whether or not it was truly warranted, as his offensive inefficiencies were quite glaring. Part of it had to do with the Pacers’ grind-it-out style offense and the complete and utter reliance on George to create anything and everything that Indiana could offer on the offensive end of the floor.
The eye test would tell us that George had a very good 2012-13, but take a quick look at even his crude offense statistics and you’ll see a different story: he shot just 41.9% from the floor last year. His decent 36.2% rate from long range and 80.7% mark at the charity stripe helped buoy his True Shooting Percentage, which held at 53.1%.
But for a player whose game most closely resembles Kevin Durant’s when it comes to the game’s superstars, an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 49.1% just wouldn’t cut it. Which meant one thing: George had to become more efficient, and do more of his work off of the ball in 2013-14.
Of course, this idea flies in the face of conventional, isolation-centric ‘superstar’ thinking. But watch Durant or James. Sure, they get their share of isolation plays, but the Heat offense is a thing of beauty with of it’s cutting and screening and spot-up shooting. The Thunder are the same way when they are rolling with a healthy Russell Westbrook facilitating the offense. Both Miami and Oklahoma City run plays for their superstars to get open looks in a number of places on the floor.
And the Pacers have begun to do that with George. The emergence of Lance Stephenson as the starting shooting guard for the Pacers has allowed George to play small forward in nearly all of his minutes in 2013-14, and consequently, handle the ball a lot less. While his usage rate has shot up to a very high 28.2% after settling in at 23.5% last year, his turnover rate has bottomed out at 11.6%, which would be by far the lowest of his young career and a huge drop from his unsightly 15.2% mark of last season.
The first reason for George’s rapid improvement and ascension into superstar status? The emergence of Stephenson as a facilitator and distributor in the back court, allowing George to play off the ball more often. Additionally, the Pacers’ willingness to run more offensive sets for George has also helped a great deal, contributing George’s plummeting turnover rate.
The second reason? It’s simple. George has simply made more shots so far this season. It’d be easier and cleaner to point to something more specific and less obvious, like shot selection or something of that nature. But he’s actually shot mid-range jump shots (generally an inefficient shot) at a much higher rate thus far in 2013-14 than in the past. In fact, 31% of George’s shots have come from mid-range (8-24 feet, according to NBA.com) after shooting just 24.6% of his shots from that range last year.
It all goes back to the quality of shots, however. Since Indiana is running more plays for George and he’s coming off screens and finding consistently beatable one-on-one matchups, he’s finding more makeable shots, even if they are coming from mid-range. And because of George handling the ball less this year, he’s actually getting less opportunities at the rim. But again, the difference is that he’s making the shots at a higher rate. Check out his simplified shot chart from 2012-13, via NBA.com:
Very league-average, wouldn’t you say? The perception was that he had a better season than he really did, but he’s cleaned up his game in 2013-14. See below.
That’s a nice season. As bad as mid-range shots typically are, George’s improvement seems to be legitimate. Unlike LaMarcus Aldridge’s inflated mid-range shooting percentage so far this season, George’s have come due to an adjustment in playing style. Aldridge has been hoisting the same mid-range shots his entire career, and all of a sudden he’s making them at an unsustainably high rate. George, on the other hand, has gotten his shots in a different way.
Not all shots (including mid-range jumpers) are created equally. Open shots off the catch and around screens are going to go in more often than turnaround fadeaways, and George has proven that this season. He still shoots too many mid-range, post-up fadeaways, but since he’s making pretty much everything else it hasn’t affected his overall performance and output all that much.
Yes, Paul George is a superstar. His improvement seems to lend credit to a) his team and coach Frank Vogel’s offensive improvement and the quality of shots they’ve gotten him, and b) his own commitment to shot-making and efficiency. Clearly, his shooting has improved, and having passed the 1/3 point of the season, it isn’t as small of a sample size anymore.
Look for George to continue to improve (he’s just 23 years old!); the sky is legitimately the limit. His defense is already well above average (all though playing in a system with Roy Hibbert doesn’t hurt, of course), and his offensive game is catching up rapidly. It’s tough to see George getting ahead of James, Durant, and Paul in the league’s best player hierarchy, but he’s solidly in that 4-6 range. And he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.