Where Does Paul George Rank Among the All-Time Greatest Pacers?
Through Essentially Just Six Seasons, PG-13 is Already One of the Most Decorated Players in Franchise History
So many great players have worn a Pacers uniform over the franchise's first 50 seasons.
The list of greatest Pacers players ever obviously begins with the four Hall of Famers — Roger Brown, Mel Daniels, Reggie Miller, and the newly elected George McGinnis.
Many others have taken a star turn for the Blue & Gold, from Chuck Person and Rik Smits to Jermaine O'Neal and Danny Granger.
Paul George has already established himself as a worthy member of that latter group. If his career continues along the same trajectory, George could one day see his name hanging in the rafters of Bankers Life Fieldhouse alongside Indiana's Hall of Fame quartet of players.
George added another memorable performance to his already impressive resume on Sunday night in Cleveland.
The 26-year-old forward scored 19 straight points for the Pacers over two overtime periods, matching four-time MVP LeBron James shot for shot down the stretch. Though the Pacers ultimately lost in double-overtime, George finished with a ridiculous stat line of 43 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists.
It wasn't the first time in George's young career that he's gone mano a mano with James. It won't be the last.
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Pacers fans have come to expect greatness from George over the last few seasons, especially in the game's biggest moments. Through essentially six NBA seasons, George has rapidly ascended the list of all-time Pacers greats — an ascension made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has continued to elevate his game even after suffering a devastating injury that sidelined him for almost an entire season.
The Pacers took George with the 10th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Typically, 10th overall draft picks are good NBA players, but not bona fide stars. In fact, since 2002, George is one of just two players taken 10th overall to make an All-NBA team (the other is Andrew Bynum, the 10th pick in 2005 and briefly George's teammate during the latter part of the 2013-14 season).
The night of the draft, Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird has famously said he was undecided between drafting George, an athletic but unproven swingman out of Fresno State, or Ed Davis, a bruising big man who had starred at one of the nation's premier college programs in North Carolina.
Bird ultimately gambled on George. With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly the right decision.
Davis wound up going to Toronto with the 13th overall pick and has had a journeyman's career. He has played for four teams over seven seasons, started just 94 total games, and has career averages of 6.8 points and 6.4 rebounds.
George, meanwhile, is a four-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA selection. He has started 395 of 443 career games and has career averages of 17.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.6 steals.
As a 20-year-old rookie, George's career got off to an inauspicious start. He got between 13 and 23 minutes in each of the Pacers' first six regular season games, but then fell out of head coach Jim O'Brien's rotation. George appeared in just two of the team's next 23 contests. He was inactive for 15 straight games. When he did suit up, he often registered a "DNP — Coach's Decision" in the box score.
Still, George continued to grind away in practice, soaking in as much as he could from veterans like All-Star forward Danny Granger and hard-working big man Jeff Foster.
George finally caught a break when O'Brien was fired and Frank Vogel took over as interim head coach. Vogel gave the rookie regular playing time and eventually moved him into the starting lineup. George wasn't asked to shoulder a heavy scoring load — Granger was the team's clear go-to option, averaging 20.5 points per game, and George actually finished the year seventh on the team in scoring average — but instead focused his efforts primarily on the defensive end, using his length and athleticism to harass smaller players on the perimeter.
George started all five games in Indiana's playoff series against Chicago in 2011 and returned for his sophomore season with a secure starting spot at shooting guard (in fact, George has only come off the bench for six games since his rookie season, all of them coming when he returned from a broken leg at the end of the 2014-15 campaign).
George's numbers went up across the board in his second year in the league. His scoring increased from 7.8 to 12.1 points per game, his rebounds increased from 3.7 to 5.6, his assists went up from 1.1 to 2.4, but his biggest improvement came from beyond the 3-point arc. After shooting just 29.7 percent from long distance as a rookie, George knocked down 38.5 percent of his 3-point shots in 2011-12.
The Pacers wound up taking the Heat to six games in the second round of that lockout-shortened campaign, but George's breakout season would come a year later.
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Even George himself likely didn't anticipate how the 2012-13 season would unfold. Knee injuries limited Granger to just five games, unexpectedly thrusting George into a starring role.
Though he was just 22 years old, George was more than ready for his moment. He put together a phenomenal all-around season, averaging 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.8 steals per game, leading the Pacers to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. George was named to his first All-Star team, the All-NBA third team, and the All-Defensive second team, in addition to being voted the NBA's Most Improved Player.
In the playoffs, George helped take Indiana on an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals, taking the eventual-champion Heat to seven games. It was in that series that George cemented himself as one of the league's brightest young stars, guarding James for virtually every possession while putting up strong numbers on the offensive end (Pacers fans won't soon forget his monster dunk over Chris "Birdman" Andersen or his clutch 3-pointer to send Game 1 in Miami into overtime).
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By the next season, the Pacers were unquestionably George's team. Already one of the NBA's best perimeter defenders, he continued to expand his game on the offensive end, increasing his scoring average by another 4.3 points per game and leading Indiana on another run to the Eastern Conference Finals. George was also chosen by the fans to start the 2014 All-Star Game and earned first team All-Defensive honors.
Heading into the summer of 2014, George already appeared on a trajectory to become one of the greatest Pacers players of all time. But that was all cast into doubt on August 1, 2014, when George suffered a gruesome injury, fracturing his right tibia and fibula while trying to get a chasedown block on James Harden in the USA Basketball Showcase in Las Vegas.
The 2014-15 season was essentially a lost campaign for the Pacers, who missed the playoffs for the first time since George joined the team. Their All-Star forward spent months rehabbing his injury, only able to play the final six games of the regular season, where he looked like only a shell of his former self.
The lateral quickness that made George one of the league's best two-way players was missing. He was essentially just a spot-up shooter over those final six contests.
Of course, those games were merely about getting George a taste of NBA competition heading into his continued rehabilitation during the summer of 2015. Still, no one knew exactly what to expect from him heading into last season. Coming off such a traumatic injury, could George ever regain his star status?
The answer was a resounding yes, and it happened sooner than anyone expected.
George put together the best month of his entire career in November of 2015. He averaged 29.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists over 13 games, shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 49 percent from 3-point range, earning Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors.
He continued to thrive throughout the season, the best complete campaign of his career. In the All-Star Game, George knocked down nine 3-pointers and scored 41 points, one shy of the then-record. In the playoffs, George was unquestionably the best player on the floor as the Pacers took second-seeded Toronto to seven games, averaging 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.6 assists while limiting Raptors All-Star DeMar DeRozan to under 32 percent shooting.
After helping lead the United States to the gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, George has been arguably even better this season than last.
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After Sunday night's outburst in Cleveland, George's scoring average is officially higher this season (23.2 points per game) than last (23.1), and his shooting percentages have improved across the board. George's shooting percentage is up from .418 to .453, his 3-point percentage has improved from .371 to .389, and his free throw percentage is up from .860 to .901.
George has also been at his best when it matters the most. In "clutch time" (defined as when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime), George is shooting 47.6 percent from the field, the fifth-best percentage of any player who has averaged at least two shots in clutch time over a minimum of 20 games, according to NBA.com/Stats.
Though he has essentially played just six seasons in a Pacers uniform, George is already one of the more decorated players in franchise history. His three All-NBA selections are tied for Miller and O'Neal for the most in franchise history and he has a good chance to earn the honors again this season. George's three All-Defensive team selections are more than any other Pacers player ever (Don Buse, Derrick McKey, and Ron Artest all earned the honor twice). His four All-Star selections are third, behind only O'Neal (six) and Miller (five).
George also already ranks among the franchise leaders in several statistical categories. He's third in 3-pointers made, trailing only Miller and Granger (the latter of whom he should pass early next season). He is fifth in steals and ninth in scoring average, hot on the heels of Brown and Miller. He should move into franchise top 10 in total points scored next season.
According to Basketball-Reference, George is also second in franchise history in Value Over Replacement Player, having earned the team an extra 20.7 wins over his career when compared to how they would have performed with a league-average player in his place (Miller is first by a wide margin at 63.2 thanks to having a starring role for most of his franchise-record 18 seasons with the team).
George, who won't turn 27 until May 2, is just now entering the prime of his career. He can enter free agency as early as next summer, though provisions in the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement allow the Pacers to offer George more money (perhaps drastically more) and a longer contract than any other team. Assuming George stays with the Pacers, he has a legitimate chance to end his career as the greatest player in franchise history.
The easy comparison to make is between George and Miller, but in truth, they are different styles of players. Miller was a prolific shooter, but George's all-around game more closely mirrors that of Brown or McGinnis. As good as those players were, one could make the argument that George's game is even more well-rounded, given his defensive prowess.
Picking the greatest Pacers player is a fun debate, though truthfully, we won't know exactly how George stacks up against the other Pacers legends until after his career is over. But make no mistake — he is already in that conversation.