The real threat to LeBron’s throne
The greatest threat to any throne is the one the ruler doesn’t see.
Many lovers of my favorite TV show "The Wire" were disappointed by Omar’s demise at the tiny trigger finger of a child. It was brilliant. Robert Baratheon, the king in season one of "Game of Thrones," fell victim to his queen’s conniving. He underestimated her ambition. Tupac warred with the East while his problems festered in his beloved West.
As this NBA season turns for the homestretch, I wonder what King James sees. There is a threat to his throne that no one sees, an enemy so infantile and raw that I’m reluctant to mention his name out of fear of being ridiculed, an adversary without a national following and a lukewarm local one.
Does King James see Paul George coming?
No one else does. On Sunday, the Pacers’ 22-year-old, 6-foot-8 swingman made his All-Star Game debut. He was spectacular, scoring 17 points —which included dropping two 3-pointers in the final two minutes as the East frantically closed a double-digit deficit to within reasonable striking distance.
No one took notice of 2013’s most unlikely All-Star. There was more discussion of Kyrie Irving’s premiere and Kobe’s two fourth-quarter blocks of LeBron shots. We missed the story.
Paul George is Lil Kenard, the baby Omar assassin who no one saw coming despite the clever hints David Simon, creator of "The Wire," placed throughout seasons four and five. Sunday’s All-Star Game stands as a hint that George has an assassin’s heart. Feel free to dismiss the NBA All-Star Game as a glorified pickup game. It is. But that does not make the game irrelevant for picking up clues about the psyche of its combatants.
NBA All-Star Weekend is unlike all the other meaningless all-star affairs. Winning the home-run derby tells you nothing about what Prince Fielder is going to do in the clutch. Larry Bird’s dominance of the 3-point shooting contest and Michael Jordan’s victory over Dominique Wilkins in the dunk contest explained Larry Legend’s and Air Jordan’s souls.
OK, the stars no longer compete in the NBA skills competitions. All we have left is the game. The game is still significant. It’s perhaps the greatest televised clash of ginormous egos outside of our nation’s capital. Winning may be irrelevant. Shining is not. Guys want to shine. Normally they must wait.
Jordan scored seven points in his All-Star debut. OK, Isiah Thomas allegedly organized a freeze out. Jordan scored 11 points in his second All-Star Game. Bird tallied seven points in his debut. So did Charles Barkley. Magic put up 12. LeBron scored 13.
Since 1980, the arrival of the new NBA era, 19 men have won the league’s regular-season MVP award. Of those winners, only four — Kobe, Dr. J, Allen Iverson and Karl Malone — have scored more points in their All-Star Game debut than Paul George. Dr. J was a grown-ass man, an ABA legend and a superstar when he dropped 30 points in the 1977 NBA All-Star Game. Malone (22 points) feasted on Magic’s 19 assists in the ’88 game. Iverson and Kobe scored 26 and 20, respectively.
What George accomplished is rare. The list of great names who did less in their All-Star debuts is impressive and endless. It takes a massive ego, a great deal of talent and uncontrolled ambition to take shots away from LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in an All-Star Game. It takes big paws on a puppy.
Paul George has that. He’s been displaying them this season. But it’s the NBA, and no one pays attention to the regular season, especially the portion of the season that takes place before the All-Star Game, before the NFL relinquishes its stranglehold on our attention.
Before I go further, let me admit that I’m a lifelong Pacers fan. The Pacers can and do make me cry tears of joy and sorrow. I grew up going to Pacers ABA games at The Fairgrounds with my dad and brother. I had my mother run a hot comb through my hair so I could mimic Darnell Hillman’s afro. I had “B.Knight” emblazoned on the back of my favorite T-shirt to honor Billy Knight, not Bobby. I loved Alex English before he was a star in Denver. I hated George Irvine for trying to make Wayman Tisdale a put-it-on-the-floor, face-the-basket small forward. I cussed at Donnie Walsh for not drafting Adrian Branch in the second round. I cried like a baby when Reggie beat down the Knicks and Spike Lee.
I’m a Pacers homer. But I never saw Paul George coming. I began this season convinced the Pacers were fatally flawed pretenders. Last year’s entertaining and competitive second-round playoff series with LeBron and the Heat was fool’s gold, in my mind. King James erupted for 40 in Game 4 and the Pacers folded.
Larry Bird, then the team’s president, basically called the Pacers cowards. I saw a team that was poorly constructed, a team built for Bird’s 1980s. No one could put it on the floor, attack the rim and get to the free-throw line. Danny Granger, the team’s best player, was a spot-up shooter — a poor man’s Reggie Miller. Roy Hibbert was a decent option on the low block, but he was a turnover waiting to happen at crunch time. The bench offered few solutions. George didn’t know how to complete a simple entry pass into the low post, and his shaky ball-handling skills prevented him from getting into the lane.
When they were bounced from the playoffs, I went on Indianapolis radio and called for the roster to be overhauled. You can’t win in the modern NBA without at least one player who can consistently get to the rim and create his own shot or a shot for others. When the Pacers started 10-11 this season, I went back on Indianapolis radio and again called for the roster to be blown up.
I didn’t see Paul George coming. Who knew? Who knew Granger’s sore knee, an injury that has kept him sidelined the first 53 games of the season, would be the greatest gift in Pacers history?
With no Granger and a 10-11 season start, Pacers coach Frank Vogel overhauled his offense (adding more free-wheeling motion) and turned the team over to a third-year kid from Fresno State. Who knew? Who knew these changes would lead George to unveil a Kevin Durant impersonation?
I’m not calling George the next Durant. He doesn’t have Durant’s flawless, lightning release. No one does. But I’m not sure Durant gets to the rim as well as George does now or will in the future when he gets more respect from the refs and when Granger’s floor-spacing jump shot returns to the lineup. Durant certainly doesn’t defend as well as George.
Vogel is Khaleesi, the mother of dragons, and George is his baby dragon. This three-star recruit who chose Fresno State over Pepperdine has all the necessary ingredients to be the greatest Pacer. Reggie Miller is in the Hall of Fame and led the Pacers to the NBA Finals with 75 percent of George’s raw talent.
Yeah, maybe I’m dreaming, but I truly believe anything is possible with Paul George, including a playoff upset of the Heat this season.
The Pacers have gone 22-10 since their awful start. They inexplicably gave away two home games right before the All-Star break. My point is they are five or six wins better than their 32-21 record. If they were 37-16 and nipping at the Heat, someone might suspect Indiana was a real threat to the crown. If they were 37-16 and poised to get the services of a 29-year-old former All-Star capable of scoring 20 points a night (Granger), someone might send a raven to King James warning that an army is headed for King’s Landing.
The Pacers are one of the best defensive teams in the league. Hibbert, for all of his offensive shortcomings and mental collapse since receiving a max contract, protects the rim. Vogel is a really good coach. David West is a terrific offensive option in the final four minutes. Lance Stephenson is the right kind of idiot. He’s fearless, athletic and super competitive. He’s the perfect guy to defend Dwyane Wade. Granger is going to dramatically improve Indiana’s depth and inconsistent offense.
Obviously the Baby Dragon is the key. George has to continue to evolve. Granger’s addition should improve George’s offensive numbers — scoring and shooting percentage — not inhibit them. Most important, George should leave All-Star weekend feeling like a legitimate superstar. What Kobe Bryant did late in the All-Star Game — taking the fight to King James — is what the Baby Dragon should emulate moving forward. George has the youth, energy, tools and athleticism to challenge King James for four quarters. George can bother James in ways Durant simply cannot.
The Pacers are the threat no one sees. They play defense better than the Heat. They rebound better than the Heat. They have a better coach than the Heat. They have far more size than the Heat. Their "trade-deadline" acquisition (adding a healthy Granger) is exactly what they need (a scorer), as long as he’s willing to accept playing second fiddle to George.
OK, there’s no substitute for King James. None. What he’s doing this year is unprecedented.
But I’m telling you we’re looking in all the wrong places for his greatest threat. It’s not the Thunder. LeBron has OKC figured out. It’s not the Celtics. They’re too beat up. It’s not the Bulls. LeBron swallowed a perfectly healthy Derrick Rose. It’s not the Knicks. Carmelo doesn’t really want the throne. It’s not the Spurs. They made the mistake of standing pat.
This is a completely different Pacers team from a year ago. Last season, Granger pretended to be a trash-talking tough guy, and the Pacers jumped to a 2-1 advantage over the Heat. Paul George is not a pretender. He’s a real baby dragon. He’s the problem LeBron doesn’t see.