By George, he’s back…sort of!

“I didn’t know I’d be here so soon,” says Paul George.

And he wasn’t supposed to be. Not after that horrific injury on August 1, 2014 left an ashen-faced James Harden shaking his head in disbelief. Not after the entire NBA community, and countless Pacers’ fans, held their collective breath, hoping against all hope that George’s NBA career did not end that day.

“I’ve only watched it once and I won’t watch it again. It’s a one-time thing,’ says George. “[I] just had to see what happened.”

Paul George addressed international media via teleconference last week – on his comeback from a broken leg and a range of other topics, including his third All-Star berth, and the adjustments the Pacers have made on the fly with their identity.

After a scorching month of November, when George averaged 29.5 points-per-game on 47.5 percent shooting, his shooting numbers and usage rate have declined over the proceeding months. Those declines in efficiency have been met by spikes in turnover ratio.

November-Paul George breathed fire from all over the floor, en route to 29.5 points-per-game, including 49 percent from downtown.

PG November

December-PG through February 6 was a lot more ragged.

PG December plus

That early-season offensive barrage, accompanied with MVP chatter, has now given way to whispers of frustration, particularly amongst the Pacers’ faithful. There’s a feeling that George is forcing the action, trying too hard, and trying too much; that he overcomplicates things, at times.

“PG’s really been struggling with his shot and ball handling,” says Howard Shih of Pacers Pulse, an Indiana Pacers blog. “Lots of really bad turnovers arising from inability to cope with ball pressure and trying to force the issue on drives.”

 

George himself dismisses the early-season MVP chatter.

“I wouldn’t even be satisfied if I was in the conversations right now.”

And despite the gaudy numbers, that seems like a fair self-assessment. Whilst the PG-13 comeback story has been full of good vibes, there’s a sense that he’s garnering somewhat empty numbers. What matters is team results (just ask Kevin Love), and the Pacers have been below .500 since an impressive 11-2 run in November, a slump that has coincided with George’s own troubles.

“I mean if we won the games that we should have and we were where we’re supposed to be then yes,” says George, when asked if he felt he should be receiving more MVP buzz. “But right now I’m not doing a good enough job of finishing games for this team, and you look at the top guys that are performing well and in the MVP conversation, they’re doing an amazing job with their respective teams and that’s the point I’m trying to get to right now.”

Per NBA.com, George is shooting a ghastly 41.1 percent from the field, whilst jacking up 18 shots a game. And there’s empirical evident to suggest that many of those attempts are off-the-bounce doozies, some of the toughest shots in basketball.

The table below breaks down the type of shot attempted by George, and also the frequency of those shot attempts this season, as compared with his previous full season in the league, in the 2013-14 campaign, with data collated from NBA.com.

Type of shotFrequency of shot (2015-16)Frequency of shot (2013-14)
Catch-and-shoot29.8%31.9%
After > 2 dribbles39.7%33.2%
Holding the ball > 2 seconds56.9%52.4%

 

When comparing his last full season in the league to his present campaign, you can see that those juicy catch-and-shoot attempts have declined, whilst shots of the higher-degree-of-difficulty types, the surveying of the defense before jacking up prayer (let’s just call them, the Carmelos), and the off-the-bounce doozies, have ramped up this season.

Those shots are hard.

 

Sure, in the above clip PG makes that baby, but he’s shooting over two Grizzlies. Up through February 3, George had an overall field goal percentage of 40.8 percent, including a ghastly 37.2 percent clip for shots taken after holding the ball for 6 second or more.

He’s even struggling at the rim, something that seems at-odds when you consider his natural size and length. George is shooting at just 56.9 percent within the restricted area, a low figure for an elite wing, often barfing up layups that have no hope amidst the tall timber.

 

Those frustrations have led to forced shots and overcomplicating things, rather than making the simple play. In the clip below, George over-dribbles, trying to split two Clippers and drives directly into the path of the rolling Myles Turner, neutering an easy Turner rim run.

 

Here, he looks off a wide open George Hill at the top of the arc to squeeze up a shot off the double team.

 

George doesn’t see his shooting woes as a long term problem.

“It’s more so of just not being in competition for a little over a year. I think I’m still just getting adjusted to this,” he says. “[I’m just] trying to work my way through it, battling fatigue and legs tiring out. So just trying to build my legs back up and getting that endurance back up.”

Maybe.

Since researching this piece, George has poured in 61 points across back-to-back games against the Hawks and Pistons, including shooting 18-of-34 from the field. Still, that’s a small sample size; we can’t overlook his complete body of work thus far over the course of the season, and that bigger picture still has him shooting at just 41.1 percent from the field.

All that fruitless chucking has led to declining efficiency that has some Pacers observers questioning his choices.

“Just about every game there’s a couple of times where he turns it over dribbling it off his leg trying to make a tough move or passing it to no-one off a miscommunication,” says Shih, of Pacers Pulse. “Cut those out and his TO numbers aren’t too bad.”

About those turnovers

Oh, those turnovers. Those horrible, horrible turnovers. George is averaging 3.7 turnovers per 36 minutes, and it’s something that’s threatening to define his play, more so than any other accomplishment this season.

 

This season, George ranks among the leaders in percentage of their team’s turnovers whilst on the court, across all players in the league with at least 1000 minutes played, and a usage rate above 25 percent. He’s a turnover machine.

Turnovers are usually a sign of a player overreaching, and generally denote a player trying to do too much, and either trying too hard to score, or trying too hard to thread a pass through to a teammate. Yet for all of his pressing, George’s playmaking has yielded very little in the form of overall value to the team.

 

Amongst all those players this season, only Boogie Cousins of the Kings has assisted on a lower share of his team’s assists whilst on the court. Which makes sense when you consider that George ranks 50th across the league in assist-to-turnover ratio amongst small forwards at 1.08. Basically, it’s a dead heat between his dimes and giveaways.

And that’s a super tough thing to do! Trawl through the NBA records and you’ll be hard-pressed to find players in the history of the league who have shot under 41 percent from the field, turned the ball over on 15 percent of their possessions, used at least 30 percent of a team’s possessions, and managed to stay on the floor for major minutes.

As of February 5, only one player in the history of the league had played over a thousand minutes and melded such a high propensity for turnovers, with a sky-high usage and low shooting efficiency. 2011-12 Deron Williams. 2015-16 Paul George was on track to join him, until that aforementioned back-to-back scoring binge against the Hawks and Pistons eked his field goal percentage just above 41 percent.

And man, that’s a lethal concoction. Basically, you’re shooting the ball a lot (and doing that poorly, overall), and chucking the ball all over the place, whilst averaging over 35 minutes a night. What infuriates Pacers fans is that they’re often mindless giveaways.

 

In part, those ugly turnover numbers may be due to an assortment of factors that are go beyond George; integrating new roster personnel, a changing of the team’s identity on the fly.

That identity, was for years carved from the slow-footedness of Roy Hibbert and David West. The Pacers ranked in 20th in pace in 2013-14, George’s last full year in the league, and 19thlast season. This season, they nestle in at 8th in the league.

With the team reinventing itself and playing at a faster tempo, the required adjustment was bound to be a steep learning curve. Additionally, the team have needed to blend in newcomers into the rotation, from the draft (Myles Turner, Jo Young and Glenn Robinson III), free agency (Monta Ellis and Jordan Hill) and even introduce George himself, back into the mix.

Consequently, the Pacers rank 10th in the league in turnover ratio, and on a related note, rank 9th in haemorrhaging points off of turnovers.

“It’s a tough game, but again, it’s just our inexperience with us being together sort of our first year,” says George.

“I think we’re doing a well job. We all here at Indiana think we should be a lot better than what we are, but bigger picture we’ve lost a lot of close games that we possibly could have won. Just, you know, us being a new group and not understanding how to put it together yet and close games.”

That newfound understanding also comes in the form of running more pick-and-rolls this season, a play type that constitutes almost one-fifth of Indy’s possessions, and something that George himself has increased his diet on, during the post-Hibbert era.

 

“The Pacers’ bread and butter plays used to start with feeding the ball to David West on the elbow, but now they rely on a quicker tempo for fast break opportunities and easy points,” says Shih of Pacers Pulse.

“If he gets free on the pick he usually pulls up for a three or long two; if the screener rolls to the basket he likes to zip a bullet bounce pass that looks great when it works but often doesn’t.”

What must drive Pacers fans crazy is that George grades out as above average in pick-and-roll action, as the ballhandler, at a robust 0.88 points-per-possession – if only he’d make the right choices!

All that flinging the ball across the gym has had a visible impact on this defense.

George has rightfully garnered praise for his defense over the years, and ascension into the discussion of premier two-way players in the league. But watch the Pacers play this season and you’ll find that there’s a dissonance between reality and reputation.

“When he’s locked in he’s as good as any wing defender in the league not named Kawhi Leonard,” says Shih of Pacers Pulse. “But I’ve noticed that he’s had more defensive lapses this season than in previous years — like overplaying his man, losing his man on cuts, forgetting to box out”

George will go through those lazy bouts of inattentiveness, even when tasked with assignments that would usually trigger the highest of highs of attention and threat levels.

PG Defense

I mean, that’s Kyle Korver! PG just turned his back on him!

Then there’s this clip in which George just flat out abandons Jeff Teague to chase the defensive rebound.

 

That becomes doubly frustrating when you consider that he’s a really really good defender! Watch him navigate through a thicket of screens, pinballing his way to chase and recover on Andrew Wiggins, and ultimately swallow him up whole.

 

That stuff takes real talent – to slither past all those giant humans, close out on Wiggins, stop on a dime, keep his balance, and not bite on any shot fake takes real discipline and athletic gift. George has all the tools to be better than what he is displaying on this end of the court.

Maybe it’s the fatigue factor. It’s tough to run up and down the floor, let alone do it night-in, night-out, after essentially taking a season off to recover from a broken leg. Or maybe it’s a part of the wider-learning process, teammates trusting one another, when integrating different pieces into a scheme. Or perhaps it’s a combination of everything.

“We took some growing pains and some learning pains but this is the type of group that if we continue to play well, we continue to learn each other, going into playoff time this is one of those teams that really ignites,” says George. “[We will] come together at the right time and learn from our mistakes earlier in the season.”

We’ll also learn if Paul George really belongs in the MVP discussion. Those per-game numbers, on face value, look impressive, but dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover some warts that threaten to derail the Pacers’ designs for a deep playoff run. Still, what we’ve been reminded of so far this season is that PG is back…well…sort of.

It’s a heck of an achievement to reclaim a seat with the rest of the league’s elite, and he’s a deserving All-Star. The league is a better place with PG-13 back in the fold at full health.

Written by

Warren Yiu is a senior writer for The Pick and Roll. He writes feature articles that cover Aussie Hoops across both the NBA and the NBL. He's also working on a book. Follow him on Twitter: @WarrenYiu

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