I commented the other night that Paul George is really blossoming. If that sounds Brent Musburger-level creepy, then I apologize, but it’s hard not to take notice of how well George has played over the last month. He’s performing to the point now where Pacers fans are wishing the team could take Roy Hibbert’s huge contract extension (which is looking like a mistake) and give it to him instead.
Since putting up an embarrassing doughnut at Golden State on December 1st, George has averaged 20 points and 8.5 rebounds per game over his last nineteen outings, including a superb 24-point, 11-rebound, 6-assist, 5-steal effort in last night’s 81-76 win over the Knicks. The Pacers have gone 14-5 in those games to climb to first place in the Central Division, and currently sit just two games back of the East-leading Heat.
In Year Three, George is starting to become a star
The most important result from all of this is that the Pacers may have finally found their next franchise player in the form of George. Ever since Reggie Miller’s decline in the early 2000s, the Pacers have been searching for that player. Jermaine O’Neal was an All-NBA performer from 2002-04, but only led Indiana to the Eastern Conference Finals once. Danny Granger earned an All-Star appearance in 2009 when he averaged almost 26 points per game, but as the team has gotten better, his numbers have gotten worse. Roy Hibbert? While he’s still defending at a high level, I’m not sure a 7-footer shooting under 40% qualifies as “the franchise”. That means that George, who Mike Wells speculated may be the best all-around player in the Pacers’ NBA history, is Indiana’s new face of the franchise.
The NBA is a star-driven league, and that’s exactly what the Pacers have lacked through this era of sagging attendance. There hasn't been a Pacers' player that the casual fans have wanted to pay to see. That’s why the importance of George’s rise to stardom – both on the court and off of it - can’t be understated. At just 22 years old, George is setting career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals, while playing the best basketball of his career. As Bill Simmons tweeted last night, his potential is being realized.
It's unlikely that the Pacers will ever be as popular as they were at their peak in the 1990s. However, small-market NBA teams need two things to succeed: a winner on the court, and a star that fans can embrace.
The Pacers are becoming a winner, and Paul George is becoming a star. Hopefully, the fans are taking notice.