NBA AM: George Thriving Despite Changes

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George Thriving in Comeback Season Despite Big Changes

Paul George is clearly the face of the Indiana Pacers, but that wasn’t the case earlier in his career.

At one point, veterans like Danny Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert were the stars of Indiana’s defensive-minded attack. It wasn’t until George’s third NBA season, the 2012-13 campaign, that he became an All-Star and first led the Pacers in scoring (averaging 17.4 points). But even still, Granger, West and Hibbert were on the roster and had more experience than the young forward.

Over the offseason, the Pacers lost West (who opted out of the final $12.6 million of his contract with Indiana to sign a minimum contract with the San Antonio Spurs) and Hibbert (who was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for a second-round pick). For the first time in his career, George entered this season as Indiana’s longest-tenured player and had to adjust to not having West and Hibbert alongside him.

George has stepped up in a big way. Despite transitioning to power forward and playing with a handful of new players, he’s averaging career-highs in points (24.8), rebounds (8.5), assists (4.8) and three-point percentage (41.7 percent). George has led Indiana to an 8-5 start, which is good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. But he isn’t just producing on the court. George has also emerged as the team’s leader and embraced the added responsibilities that come with the title.

“Now I know what’s being expected of me,” George said in an interview with Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe. “So I come in more on a professional mind-set. Back in my younger days, I knew who the go-to guys were, where the ball was going, so it was a different approach. But now I want to be the leader, I want to be that guy for the team, and I have to lead by example. So a lot of the stuff I do, I do because these guys look up to me, and for them to have a long career, they have to do the things that I’m doing.

“That’s showing up early. That’s being in the weight room. That’s getting up extra shots. I’ve been doing all of that now. Every year I’m adding something new to my approach to the game and it’s been working.”

George has been the anchor of Indiana’s defense, which ranks third in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions (95.7). That’s impressive for any team, but it’s downright remarkable for the Pacers considering they lost two key starters over the summer and are still adjusting to significant changes like George’s position switch and the addition of several new players like Monta Ellis, Myles Turner, Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger.

Getting through that adjustment period is easier when one of the NBA’s best two-way players is on your side. These days, there’s no question that George fits that description. He is currently ranked sixth in the NBA in scoring, fifth in win shares, fifth in box plus-minus, fifth in value over replacement player and 11th in player efficiency rating.

George enjoys being labeled as one of the NBA’s elite and as the Pacers’ franchise player since it fulfills a childhood dream of his.

“I’m very comfortable with that,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be in the position where I’m ‘the guy’ for an organization. As a kid, I just didn’t want to be in the NBA, I wanted to be a superstar in this league.

“It’s definitely a position I love to be in and I’m just happy to be the face of a good organization. I dreamed of it, but coming from where I come from, it doesn’t happen often. It was just a blessing, that’s all I can say about it.”

This is a huge bounce-back season for George, who was only able to play six games last year due to the gruesome leg injury he suffered while scrimmaging with Team USA in August of 2014. In those six games, George was rusty in his limited minutes, averaging a career-low 8.8 points on 36.7 percent shooting from the field. There was some doubt about whether he’d be the same player due to the severity of the injury and George’s reliance on his athleticism. However, he spent the offseason working hard in Los Angeles and then used the preseason to return to form.

“It’s been a weekly thing, honestly,” George said of getting his confidence back. “I remember starting out the first preseason game and I was a little hesitant to guard because I didn’t know how well I was going to be able to move or cut or be explosive. But as weeks go by, the more confident I’m getting doing the same stuff I’ve done. It’s getting there. It’s coming around.”

George believes that his desire to be great and continue his ascent to superstardom is what allowed him to make a full recovery from the injury.

“I think the key was wanting to get back to the same level as opposed to just being satisfied with being healthy again,” George said. “I know where I want to go and where I want to be when this is all said and done. I just happened to have to go through a little hiccup.”

No Timetable for Coach Kerr’s Return

The Golden State Warriors are now 15-0, which ties the record for most consecutive wins to start a season. They’re just the third team in NBA history (and the first defending champions) to win their first 15 games. They can set a new record for best start in NBA history with a victory on Tuesday over the Los Angeles Lakers, who are currently 2-11 and sit at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

The Warriors clearly haven’t gotten complacent after hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in June and they don’t appear to be worn out despite having a shorter offseason than all of their West peers. Reigning MVP Stephen Curry has been incredible (averaging 33.6 points, 5.7 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 steals) and many of the same contributors who propelled Golden State to the championship are powering this strong start.

However, one key piece is missing: head coach Steve Kerr.

Over the offseason, the second-year sideline general had multiple back surgeries. Kerr has been dealing with some complications, including a spinal fluid leak.

Because the Warriors are winning and playing so well on the both ends of the court – they have the NBA’s first-ranked offense (scoring 111.8 points per 100 possessions) and fifth-ranked defense (allowing 96.8 points per 100 possessions) – it’s easy to forget that they have been without Kerr and are being coached by Luke Walton, who is just 35 years old and had zero games of head coaching experience prior to this year.

Kerr recently talked to sideline reporter Rachel Nichols, saying that there’s no timetable for his return and describing his recovery as “slow.”

He added that the pain from his spinal fluid leak is “like having a headache for three months straight.”

Lately, he has been able to be around the team more, attending some shootarounds and the Warriors’ recent game against the Los Angeles Clippers (a terrific comeback win). That progress is good to see, but it’s unfortunate to hear that there’s no timetable for Kerr to return to the sideline.

Nichols said that Kerr is waiting for his “condition to lift” and there’s no way of knowing when exactly that will happen. The good news is that the Warriors’ strong start means Kerr can take the time he needs to get back to 100 percent (rather than rushing his recovery) and ease his way back into the mix throughout the season, as his health is obviously most important.