The Gradual Improvement Of Paul George
(Erich Schlegel, USA TODAY SPORTS)

The Gradual Improvement Of Paul George

Indiana Pacers superstar Paul George 'hit the wall' following his MVP caliber month of November. But since then, George has seen gradual improvement.

Grant Afseth

INDIANAPOLIS, IN -- Indiana Pacers superstar Paul George had an MVP caliber month during November and was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month. However, that all changed for a few main reasons: Teams realized that George was struggling to fight through contact, teams started trapping George in various key situations that resulted in success during November (pick-and-rolls, drives, etc.), George physically 'hit the wall' and was having problems dealing with fatigue, and his teammates' effectiveness greatly diminished past November. George is currently at a great place in March and the near future looks bright for both him and his team. 

Month-by-Month Breakdown

During the month of November, Paul George averaged 29.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.5 steals, and 0.2 blocks per game. George shot 47.5% from the field, 49.0% from the perimeter, and 84.7% from the free throw line. As previously mentioned, George's performance was so great that the NBA named him the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for November. Teams just simply didn't figure out how to stop George from his all-around success yet, but that quickly changed as the season progressed. Indiana finished the month of November with an 11-2 record. 

George's play noticably declined in December and it was his worst month of the season. George averaged 21.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.2 steals, and 0.5 blocks per game. George shot just 37.1% from the field, 35.9% from the perimeter, and 81.4% from the free throw line. Half-way through the month, teams started double teaming Paul George on drives, in pick-and-roll situations, and they made it a mission to force someone else other than George to beat them. It was a good strategy considering the fact that a clear number two option couldn't consistently step-up for the Pacers in December. George hitting rock bottom physically made matters dramatically worse as well. It became quite evident that it would take patience for George to slowly get back to his November levels of execution. The Pacers concluded December with a 7-9 record. 

The opposition continued their consistent strategy of sending additional pressure to Paul George in an attempt to force someone else to beat them. It continued to work. George averaged 21.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.2 steals, and 0.5 blocks. George shot 40.6% from the field, 32.7% from the perimeter, and 89.3% from the free throw line. There was some slight improvement in a few areas in January, but it looked an awful lot like December. More time was needed for George to get used to the continued fatigue of a whole season again. Also, George needed to continue to improve his ability to take contact and fight through it. Indiana finished the month of January with a 7-8 record. There was plenty of room for improvement for both George and his supporting caste. 

February was a more promising month for both George and the Pacers. George averaged 22.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.4 blocks. George shot 41.3% from the field, 34.1% from the perimeter, and 88.6% from the free throw line. What really helped George during this month was the All-Star break. George appeared re-charged due to the time off and it really showed in his game. George started to be utilized more frequently in off-ball situations, which really helped take the pressure off of him to create off the dribble. However, teams continued to send additional pressure to George on pick-and-rolls and drives, but not to the same extent as previous months. This was largely due to the fact that his supporting group was starting to play better on the offensive end and opposing teams could not afford to leave them open. Indiana managed to finish with a 6-7 record during February. 

Paul George Post All-Star Break Highlights

March is not done yet, but George has shown positive improvement. George is currently averaging 23.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2.1 steals, and 0.6 blocks. George is shooting 42.5% from the field, 45.5% from the perimeter, and 85.4% from the free throw line. Indiana's supporting cast has seen improvement in their play and that has helped relieve pressure off of George. Teams have amplified the pressure on George's high pick-and-roll situations to the degree that it basically gives him nothing to attack. However, the mid pick-and-roll has given George the opportunity to find his teammates for quality shots since the opposition consistently sends a trap and leaves a hole in their defense. The same applies for George's dribble penetration, there are plenty of exploitable holes to pass to since the help-defense is playing out of rotation to seal him off. George has amplified pressure when driving the lane, but this hasn't been as much of a problem for George considering the fact that he's improved at fighting through contact. George's defense has seen dramatic all-around improvement as he has seen improvements in his overall athleticism and stamina. Indiana has continued to use George off the ball in read-and-react situations. They have also used George off the ball by running him through weak-side screens to get open jump shots. Arguably the best difference in George's usage is the fact that they have utilized his length and height by giving him mid-range and close jump shots. George is able to get these shots through attacking his man off the dribble and by curling off of screens. Indiana has even used George in post-up situations, which has resulted in success since he almost always has a size advantage. But the biggest difference in George's execution has been his shooting effeciency. It is quite noticable that George struggles to get his feet set on his jump shot when he's fatigued. George has done a significantly better job of managing to get his feet set in catch-and-shoot situations, as well as in off the dribble shooting scenarios. Personally, it appears that improved team chemistry has helped all of the Pacers. There has been better timing in off-ball movements, better usage of screens in both on-ball and off-ball situations,  The Pacers currently hold a 5-2 record during March and there is plenty of reason for optimism for the remainder of the season. 

There is no reason to believe that Paul George won't continue to see improvements in overall efficiency and scoring as the season continues to progress. George's game has improved as his body's muscles have adapted to his recovering leg. This theory has been solidified by various medical experts sharing their opinion, but the most popular has been the continued input of Dr. Robert Klapper on Twitter. Dr. Klapper said on March 8th, "#Paul George. 23 points but it was the last 3 that put his mark on the win over Spurs! Fractured Tibia healed long ago. Now muscles tuned!!" As George's muscles continue to adapt and improve, his athleticism will follow that trend and improve as well. This is important considering the fact that George will be able to have more physical consistency from his body, as well as more of a dynamic element to his athleticism. This should all tie-in to improved defensive effectiveness and more offensive consistency. The numbers have suggested a gradual improvement for George on both sides of the ball as the season has progressed, but at this point of his recovery, George could start to see rapid improvement in his game since his muscles could be tuned to his body at any point now. 

There will have to be at least one reliable second offensive option for George to have pressure relieved from the defense. With the weak-side vulnerable from the additional pressure sent to George, Monta Ellis has been able to exploit it. Ellis seems to be the best candidate to be the second offensive option for the Pacers and he has done nothing to alter this perception during March. Ellis is averaging 15.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.1 steals, and 0.4 blocks per game. Ellis is shooting 44.6% from the field, 28.6% from the perimeter, and 87.5% from the free throw line during March. This has been key for the Pacers since the team has been dealing with random injuries on an almost daily basis. The off-season vision was for Ellis to be the clear-cut second offensive option anyways, so it would be nice to see him reach that goal of 18.0 points per game to relieve pressure off of Paul George. 

George Hill has had his worst month of the season by far as he has been dealing with a toe injury. Hill is averaging 10.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.3 blocks, and 0.4 steals per game. Hill is shooting 35.3% from the field, 30.3% from the perimeter, and 80.0% from the free throw line. Myles Turner hasn't been too sharp this month either as he is averaging 9.9 points per game, 5.0 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.6 steals, and 2.4 blocks per game. Turner is shooting 37.7% from the field, 40.0% from the perimeter, and 88.2% from the free throw line. This has made it absolutely crucial that Paul George and Monta Ellis lead the Pacers with quality offensive performances. This trend of poor efficiency likely won't continue for Turner or Hill, but they are almost always used as complimentary pieces with the exception of small stretches throughout the game. With defenses deciding to send additional help from near the basket on drives by Ellis and George, Ian Mahinmi has seen plenty of benefit. Mahinmi has basically kept the Pacers together with his increased production while Turner and Hill have struggled. During the month of March, Mahinmi is averaging 10.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.6 blocks. and 0.7 steals. Mahinmi is shooting 51.9% from the field and 77.8% from the free throw line. Indiana should see increased production from their starting unit as they continue to get closer to healthy. As the starters continue to improve their execution, opposing teams will not be able to afford to send additional defensive help against Paul George and Monta Ellis. That is very crucial for the Pacers since George and Ellis can be very dynamic scorers. 

The Pacers have seen a boost from a few key bench players. This has helped George mainly during the second half when the team uses a 'plug-in and play' substitution method. That basically means that the team doesn't substitute in units during the second half. Jordan Hill and Rodney Stuckey have been big this month for Indiana. Hill is averaging 10.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.1 blocks, and 0.1 steals. Hill is shooting 55.0% from the field and 81.8% from the free throw line. Stuckey is averaging 8.4 points, 1.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.1 blocks, and 0.7 steals. Stuckey is shooting 47.5% from the field, 44.4% from the perimeter, and 89.5% from the free throw line. The Pacers should see even more support from their bench once Ty Lawson is able to play again. Also, C.J. Miles has only played two games this month and is expected to play against the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night. Miles has played in just three games since the All-Star break. Miles is mainly a '3-and-D' player that takes what the defense gives him, so his complimentary skill-set could really help since the Pacers have gotten great play out of their play-makers lately. With another shooting threat on the bench for the Pacers, they could arguably see one of the deepest benches in the NBA. However, the key will be for them to stay healthy, because it doesn't matter how things look on-paper if it never plays out on the court. With all of that being said, Indiana could have a quality player at each starting and bench position. This should really help with forcing the opposing teams to play with an 'honest defensive game-plan' and should open up the game for Indiana's key players. 

Indiana has an easy remaining schedule so that will only help Paul George and company. The Pacers have 15-games left and only 5-games are against teams that are currently in the playoff picture. Also, this doesn't account for the fact that those playoff teams could rest some of their key players when they face the Pacers, so their remaining could be even easier than originally anticipated. Regardless, this easy remaining schedule should help the Pacers play their best basketball heading into the playoffs. This easy remaining schedule could even help the Pacers in regards to potential resting opportunities for their key players. With all of the injuries that the team has been dealing with, resting opportunities could be crucial. 

Prior to the beginning of the season, experts shared an opinion that the Pacers will go as far as Paul George can take them. That has held true throughout the season, so it will be important for George to continue to see improvement in his individual play. The best part about the remaining schedule is that the Pacers only have three sequences of back-to-backs and only have two sequences of three games in four nights. That should limit the amount of poor play as a result of fatigue. With the bench starting to play great basketball, and Monta Ellis and Ian Mahinmi being key contributors to relieve pressure off of Paul George, Indiana has a lot of potential to make a deep playoff run. George Hill and Myles Turner are two of the Pacers' top shooters, so it shouldn't be expected that their slumps will last much longer. With plenty of games to get Hill healthy and Turner to get back to efficient shooting, the Pacers could truly be firing on all cylinders heading into the playoffs.