Early Season Returns: Paul George’s Improved Ballhandling
With 7:15 left in a seven-point game last night against the Pelicans, Paul George isolated his defender at the top of the key, spun away from an incoming double team while knifing into the lane and alertly dished the ball to a wide-open George Hill under the basket for an easy layup. It was the type of play that makes you say, “Wow!” while heading to Twitter to see if others are sharing the same reaction.
Yesterday, new 8 Points, 9 Seconds writer Jalen Bishop mused, “Paul George is growing more and more as a ball handler.” Immediately, several fans came to George’s defense crying that he’s always been a good ball handler, even in college.
But he hasn’t.
Of course George has always been an adequate ball handler, especially for a guy his size, but last year he was much more of your classic wing dribble-driver. As is the case with Lance Stephenson, you could trust George to catch the ball, make one move, and beat his man to the basket — but you were never truly going to run the offense through him.
This became especially important as the playoffs wore on, and when Indiana played Miami, a Pacer weakness was exploited. The Heat applied much more pressure to George Hill and the Pacer point guards. The Heat love to blitz the screener and either hard show or trap the point guard with their athleticism and size, trusting in LeBron, Wade, Birdman, and Battier to be able to cover the floor by themselves. As it became evident that George Hill wasn’t able to handle the pressure by himself, the Pacers looked to George and Stephenson to try and run the show — and unfortunately, they were often unable to rise to the challenge.
As Miami ratcheted up the pressure in the Eastern Conference Finals, it became increasingly difficult for the Pacers to actually get into their offense. As great as George was, he had at least five turnovers in five of the seven games in that series. The Pacers’ lack of a reliable secondary ball handler/offensive initiator directly contributed to their inability to consistently exploit their advantages down low — one reason the Pacers ultimately lost the series.
That’s why the move George made late in the game against the Pelicans was so important.
Of course the Magic and Pelicans are nowhere near the caliber of the Miami Heat, but through two games, Paul George has shown a much better ability to not only take the ball and attack from the wing, but also create, a la LeBron James or Kevin Durant, from the top of the key. Unlike last year when most of his 3-pointers were of the catch-and-shoot variety, he has also shown the ability to create his own shot for himself, hitting several 3s over defenders near the end of quarters or possessions.
Larry Bird has maintained silence on the whole Danny Granger situation which I outlined here. However, Bird has long shown the tendency in the past to highly value players that can create their own shots. Pacers fans will remember that the lack of such a player was a critical reason the team never won a ring from 1998-2003. In 2011, Bird aggressively pursued OJ Mayo and Jamal Crawford (failing on both) before actually signing Leandro Barbosa (who was only marginally productive) a year later. The reasoning behind the failures still made sense though: players that can create baskets out of nothing are incredibly valuable come playoff time. As poorly as Barbosa performed that postseason, the Pacers may have actually beaten the Heat in 2012 if he had lived up to expectations. Today, many people seem to think that if the Legend could flip Granger for a third guard, or even a more explosive point guard that would enable George Hill to come off the bench, he would do it.
But if Paul George maintains this level of improvement on his own, then the Pacers may not need to make that trade after all. And the Pacers will be much better off for it.