Wednesday, April 23rd, 2013

George's Improvement Only the Beginning?

Mark Montieth | April 23, 2013

When Paul George met with Pacers coach Frank Vogel after last season, he promised to make major improvement over the summer. When George met with reporters on Media Day back in October, he vowed to make the All-Star team.

George now has officially backed up both of his declarations with Tuesday's announcement that he had won the NBA's Most Improved Player award. The third-year swingman became the fourth Pacer to win the honor and did so in a landslide by finishing with 156 more points than second-place Greivis Vasquez of New Orleans.

Not to put too much pressure on this Nostradamus of the hardwood or anything, but the question must be asked: What's next?

“I think I can play at an MVP level,” he said following the press conference in the lobby of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “That's very much in my reach. For me it's just being able to be consistent and having that aggressive mindset. But I feel I can … lead a team to a championship and be the league's MVP.”

George makes such statements calmly and quietly, without a hint of bluster, which only seems to add to his credibility. He's clearly capable of dominating NBA games against much older and more experienced players, such as he did with a triple-double in Sunday's opening game of the playoff series against Atlanta. But he's still capable of displays of youthful innocence. The pants of the suit he wore for Tuesday's announcement were so long they swept the lobby floor, giving him the appearance of a little kid expected to grow into his clothes. And he drew chuckles from the gathered masses when he thanked his teammates “all the way down to (Jeff) Pendergraph.” Realizing his unintended slight, he stopped, shrugged and smiled.

George made another prediction following the press conference, one that seems every bit as legitimate as those already fulfilled. He intends to win the Defensive Player of the Year award at some point in his career. He thought he might win it this year, but Memphis center Marc Gasol reportedly will receive that honor.

“I will get that award one year, I know that,” George said.

If NBA players voted on the award, George likely would get support from some of the league's better scorers who struggled to score against him this season. For example, Rudy Gay, of Memphis and Toronto, hit 19-of-64 shots in his first three games against the Pacers. Chicago's Luol Deng hit 21of-60 shots in two games. Houston's James Harden hit 11-of-43 in two games.

“I had to guard the best players,” George said. “There wasn't a night off for me. So I did think Defensive Player of the Year was the one that was going to come (first).”

George becomes the fourth Pacer to win the MIP award, following Jalen Rose (2000), Jermaine O'Neal (2002) and Danny Granger (2009). The Pacers have had more players win the honor, which began in 1986, than any other NBA team except Orlando, which has had five winners. The common thread among the Pacers' MIPs is that they represent some of the organization's savviest personnel decisions, and raised their scoring averages by at least five points per game the year they won the award.

Rose was acquired in a multi-player trade with Denver in 1996 that sent, primarily, Mark Jackson to the Nuggets. Jackson was re-acquired the following season as part of multi-player deal in which the Pacers gave up Eddie Johnson, Vincent Askew and two second-round picks.

The combination of those two deals propelled the Pacers toward three consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference finals under coach Larry Bird from 1998-2000, including a run to the NBA Finals the final year. Rose, essentially, was acquired for the cost of loaning out Jackson to the Nuggets for half of a season. He played sparingly his first year with the Pacers under coach Larry Brown, then came off the bench behind Chris Mullin for two seasons, and then got his starting opportunity in 1999-2000. He won the award that season by improving his scoring average from 11.1 to 18.2 points. (Teammate Austin Croshere finished fourth in the voting that year.)

The Pacers traded Dale Davis to Portland in 2000 to acquire O'Neal, who had played a limited role in four seasons with the Blazers. Davis was coming off his only All-Star season, but the team that had reached the NBA Finals that year was breaking up. Rik Smits retired and Jackson had signed a free agent contract with Toronto, so team president Donnie Walsh instituted a youth movement. Davis, 31, was traded for the 21-year-old O'Neal, who went on to earn six All-Star selections in eight seasons with the Pacers. He won the MIP award his second season in Indiana, when his scoring average improved from 12.9 points to 19 despite only a slight increase in playing time.

Granger became the only player in league history to improve his scoring average by at least five points in three consecutive seasons in 2008-09, when he won his MIP. His average had jumped from 19.6 to 25.8 that season, when he was voted to the All-Star game. The Pacers had acquired him with the 17th pick in the draft, after he fell to them because of concerns about an injured knee.

Granger's absence this season because of an unrelated knee injury opened the door for George to assume the lead offensive role. George averaged 12.1 points as a starter last year, but raised that to 17.4 while playing an additional eight minutes per game. His shooting percentages – from the field, the three-point line and the foul line – all dropped under the burden of his ramped-up responsibilities, but it was a small sacrifice for the team given his other contributions. He was the Pacers' second-leading rebounder behind center Roy Hibbert, ranked second in assists behind point guard George Hill, and was the clear leader in steals (1.8 per game) and turnovers (2.9).

George also came to the Pacers relatively cheaply, as the 10th pick in the draft. He is the only player from that draft to be selected to an All-Star team so far, although No. 1 pick John Wall might have earned the honor this season if not for an injury.

Regardless of his All-Star status, regardless of his MIP award, regardless of the fact he's capable of producing one of only two playoff triple-doubles in franchise history, regardless of his quiet confidence, George's best quality is this: he's 22 years old, turning 23 on May 2. He has plenty of time to grow, get better and fulfill more predictions.

He's accomplished plenty already, but he doesn't seem to be checking his rear-view mirror yet.

“This is only going to push me to work even harder,” he said.