Why everyone (including Paul George) should be patient with Pacers' move to small-ball
By Andrew Perna
It isn't at all surprising that the Indiana Pacers are being criticized for undergoing a complete change in philosophy. Shunning the "smash mouth" style of basketball that produced three lengthy playoff appearances, including back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, and considerable individual accolades seems like a questionable decision on the surface.
Why not stick with what has worked?
Larry Bird and the Pacers made the decision to go from big to small this offseason with an eye not just on winning more games in 2015-16, but also years from now. Paul George, Indiana's franchise cornerstone, is making the most drastic (and public) move as he spends significant time at power forward.
George, 25, is the reason so much doubt surrounds the decision to go full "small ball" so quickly. He was among the best players in the world before fracturing his right leg in Las Vegas 15 months ago and has shown he's close to, if not all the way back, despite logging just 91 minutes last season. Only eight players scored more points than George during the 2013-14 campaign and no one questions his elite defensive ability.
Scheme aside, George has shown he's an MVP-caliber player on the wing. So why put a confident, comfortable player -- who still has room to take even another step forward -- in an uncomfortable situation?
The NBA has been going position-less more and more and the success of the Golden State Warriors last season has made going small trendy. These types of inclinations are cyclical in many ways, but versatility is never a bad thing. It's worth noting that Bird made his public decree to go small in mid-April, two months before the Warriors legitimized their regular season approach by winning a championship and going even smaller in The Finals.
The Pacers don't have a track record of success playing fast and small, but they have been very successful wholeheartedly embracing a philosophy with Frank Vogel at the helm and Paul George as the superstar.
After promoting Vogel following the firing of Jim O'Brien in 2011, the front office embraced a hard-nosed, defense-first approach. The foundation to build such a roster was already in place (George, Roy Hibbert), but Bird drafted (Solomon Hill), signed (David West) and traded for players (Ian Mahinmi) that almost exclusively fit a scheme designed to beat the Miami Heat.
The Heat adopted a small approach five years ago when LeBron James and Chris Bosh agreed to join forces with Dwyane Wade in Miami. While an emerging George teamed with Lance Stephenson to battle against LeBron and Wade on the perimeter, the Pacers used the size of West and Hibbert to create an advantage that made Bosh uncomfortable while helping Indiana dominate the rebounding battle.
You can't fault the Pacers for having tunnel vision in terms of roster construction. They couldn't win an NBA title without getting past the Heat and while they weren't able to reach their goal, they were successful in the context of Miami's run. If you discount 2011, before Indiana began to blossom, when the Dallas Mavericks beat Miami in the NBA Finals, only the San Antonio Spurs had more success against the Heat during the Big Three Era.
Over the four seasons LeBron called Miami home, the Spurs and Pacers tied for the most postseason wins over the Heat with seven. Only two other teams -- the Boston Celtics (4) and Mavericks (4) -- were able to defeat the Heat more than once or twice in the playoffs.
Bosh, who saw how successful the Pacers were with a big, physical lineup, believes their new style could be just as fruitful.
"I mean, it's kind of been like that," Bosh told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Seeing the league and how it is, if you have a dynamic guy like Paul George to where you can create mismatches with him at the four, it's pretty good.
"As much as he's fighting it, no, I don't have sympathy because I've been in there pretty much my whole career. It started in Toronto and they were like, ‘You've got to play the five.' And I'm like, ‘No, no, no.' You can fight it all you want, but he looks pretty good to me."
As he mentioned, Bosh is familiar not only position change but also excelling despite a physical disadvantage. He has just two inches and about fifteen pounds on George, but played center early in his career when more old-school, back-to-the-basket big men called the NBA home.
"It's not going to be a bunch of nights where he plays a banging guy," Bosh added. "I mean; there's not too many banging fours any more."
The physicality of the position is George's biggest concern, especially with the memory of a lost season still so vivid. Supremely athletic and extremely long, George has plenty of room to add upper body strength as he ages -- which can only help his longevity. Playing the power forward doesn't only mean having to score on and defend bigger, stronger players, it also brings constant banging against those players with more traditional box out responsibilities. Indiana is going to have to rebound fairly well if they want to get out and run offensively.
Things will change for George defensively as well. Some of the skills he uses as an elite perimeter defender -- agility, anticipation, length -- will carry over in the post, but how quickly can he recover when someone like Greg Monroe repeatedly puts a shoulder into his chest?
"It's just being outmatched strength-wise with guys at the four spot is really the only concern," George told the Indianapolis Star this past summer. "It's not really the concern for one game. It's the concern just over the course of a season just how my body would take it, especially coming off the injury that I had and a whole year of rehabbing. Just not sure of how it's going to take it. (We'll) start camp, see how camp goes. Again, I'm not too thrilled on it, but it could change the more comfortable I get at the position. But we'll see. But again, I could very much end up loving it, so it's all up in the air. I'm open to the position."
Those concerns aren't unfounded. George struggled and came away frustrated following Indiana's first preseason game, a 110-105 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. In less than 24 minutes he totaled 18 points and five rebounds, but was left beaten down by Anthony Davis.
George set off alarms when he issued strong displeasure about his new role just minutes after, in his words, Davis "kicked his ass." The list of players that Davis has beaten up is lengthy and growing. George is still young and has rarely shied from being honest with the media. George is going to get banged up, he's going to struggle on the glass and he will have some 4-for-20 nights on the other end as a result of the mental and physical toll of trying to defend a bigger four, but Bird and Vogel are not simply putting George in a one-dimensional role.
He will still guard players on the perimeter at times, Bird and Vogel have said as much, making him more of a swiss-army knife than flat-out power forward. If Jordan Hill, Lavoy Allen and Myles Turner earn minutes that force Vogel to use them alongside Mahinmi, George will further keep his toe dipped into the perimeter.
There will also be several games in which George faces a bigger opposing player, but is able to use that size "disadvantage" to his advantage. George exploded for 20 points in the first quarter last week against the Detroit Pistons, who feature slower fours in Ersan Ilyasova and Anthony Tolliver. He also stepped out to guard on the perimeter against Detroit with Solomon Hill and C.J. Miles bodying up in the paint a few times.
"With a four on me, I have that confidence that I'm going to be able to get a shot," George told the Star. "When you got that confidence that you're going to get a shot, you're going to make those shots. My teammates did a great job of finding me. We have attackers and that lane is just wide open and it allows me to play freely."
Indiana's preseason battle with Detroit may be more of a harbinger than what we saw against New Orleans. George's presence closer to the basket, instead of a slow-moving plodder like West, opens things up for slashers like Monta Ellis and even George Hill. George's defender has to be aware that he is a threat to set up shop almost anywhere on the court.
George isn't the only one with a lot on the line as the Pacers morph into Bird's vision on the court. Vogel has earned acclaim as a very good head coach for his defensive capabilities, but has also taken heat for a lack of offensive creativity. You can certainly pin some of those issues on personnel, but in Vogel's first four full seasons Indiana ranked seventh, 20th, 23rd and 23rd in Offensive Rating.
Over that span, the Pacers ninth, first, first and seventh in Defensive Rating.
Aside from George's concerns, the Pacers have shown a united front as they transition into a different team. This isn't a change being made to matchup with a playoff opponent or to cover holes created by injury, it's the new long-term philosophy.
"[George] knows the big picture, we're all on the same page," Vogel told Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star. "I don't have any problem with him speaking his mind -- as long as he's communicating with me too, which he is."
As long as everyone remains on the same page, the Pacers can efficiently begin writing a new chapter.
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