It was during Game 2 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals when Paul George earned the respect of the NBA’s best player, LeBron James. At the end of the third quarter, James had given George the fist pound, acknowledging the fashion in which George did not back down from the challenge of taking him one-on-one.
After the loss, James stated that the 23-year-old George was “going to be a great one”.
Eighteen games into this season, it is clear James’ prognosis of George was right on the money, except he’s no longer going to be great – he already is.
The Indiana Pacers are off to a sizzling 16-2 start, the best record in the league, primarily because of George’s rise to superstar status in just about a seven-month span. With his play, he’s become a top candidate for both Most Valuable Player and Most Improved Player.
Just like when Tracy McGrady made the significant jump to becoming an elite player in 2000 after signing with the Orlando Magic as a free agent, George has earned every bit of the $80 million to $90 million extension he signed before the season started. The Magic knew McGrady would be a star and were willing to pay him – so did the Pacers with George.
George’s play this season has been revelatory. How many great two-way players does the league have these days? James? Chris Paul? What about Dwyane Wade - he used to be. Kevin Durant is great offensively, but not spectacular on defense yet. Carmelo Anthony?
The Pacers may have lost on Monday night at Portland, the hottest team in the Western Conference, but it was George who dropped 43 points, hitting one big time shot after another. Back on Nov. 20, it was George outshining Anthony and the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in overtime, scoring 35 points with five rebounds, four assists, five steals, and two blocks. This happened under the bright lights in New York City, the Mecca for the basketball gods. And George let everybody know who the best player on the court was.
Put George on the Knicks and Anthony on the Pacers. Think the Knicks would still be a three-win team destined for a lottery pick?
Superstars in the NBA have a greater impact than just scoring, they can do more than just create for themselves and they play defense. Michael Jordan did it. Kobe Bryant did it. James still does. This is what separates George from Anthony and any other tier-two star.
Fans of the game always seem to forget that there are two sides to the game, yet offense mainly gets the highlights and the praise. The great ones play both sides. George’s scoring has increased from 17.4 points per game last season to 24.9 this season. He also ranks sixth in the league in steals per game.
In the next week, the Pacers play San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Miami in that order. George will go head to head against Durant and James for the first time all season. The matchup against James will be the first since Indiana’s Game 7 blowout loss in Miami last June.
Now, six months later, George gets to show James just how great he’s become.