Be Warned, LeBron, Paul George Is Finally Finding His Inner Badass

As fascinating a season as it has been for Russell Westbrook, Paul George’s somewhat fruitless one has been far richer from a character-development standpoint.

From the start of the season, Westbrook took his undermanned, small-market situation and embraced the freedom it allows: Do you the best that you can.

Play like a leader and act like a leader. Enjoy and maximize your season. Live with the results and use them to decide your future.

George is just getting to that place for himself and the Indiana Pacers now, and it’s exciting to see, wherever it leads him.

You might think the Pacers’ first-round series with Cleveland, which leads 2-0, is already done. Bank on George pushing back, however, in Game 3 on Thursday and working to get the most he can out of this series, both for his individual growth and with this precious opportunity to evaluate his teammates.

George largely took the opposite approach from Westbrook at the start of the season, trying to acquiesce to the leaguewide trend of team-first play, seeing if less was more. He gave space to incoming point guard Jeff Teague to set his career high in assists and hoped Larry Bird’s vision for faster, harmonic team play would mesh with new coach Nate McMillan’s defensive tutelage of Myles Turner.

While Westbrook (41.7) set out to blow away Bryant’s 2005-06 all-time record for usage percentage (38.7), George stepped back and finished at 28.9, 20th in the league, per Basketball Reference.

As the team went away from him, George was half in, half out. He was sort of banged up, sort of burned out. He dramatically improved his efficiency—George’s field-goal percentage went from 41.8 to 46.1—but he didn’t dominate individually. Even when he stepped it up from March to early April, the Pacers didn’t win consecutive games a single time.

Truth be told, George has always been torn between the team and individual. Growing up outside Los Angeles, George went against his family’s love of the Lakers and rooted for the Clippers because he was so caught up in the way they had fun together as a team (Lamar Odom, Darius Miles, Elton Brand). Yet George far more deeply revered the individual drive and excellence of Kobe Bryant, from the facial expressions to the assertiveness over teammates to the late-game shots. So he is well patterned to excel as the individual driving himself to dominate and inspiring his teammates to come with him. And the last few months, and days, have offered a glimpse of what George can and should do with more of a Westbrook/Kobe mentality.

His comments thus far in the playoffs reflect his returning to the roots of that mentality, even though his quotes have been largely overblown and misconstrued as ripping teammates. George, in fact, has offered a nuanced context about greater growth amid playoff urgency, one that has been left in the margins.

George said he wanted the ball back from CJ Miles at the end of Game 1 because George has a long history of being open and honest in interviews—and because he believed he could lift the team to victory.

Yes, George is 0-of-15 shooting on potential go-ahead shots in the final 20 seconds, according to B/R Insights. But this is hardly some guy who goes shaky at crunch time. He has gone shot for shot with LeBron before in far more meaningful playoff games. And if you dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that George killed it this season in clutch time, the final five minutes of games within five points.

He shot 47.6 percent this season in clutch time despite launching 33 three-pointers. Compare that with the shooting percentages of wings or guards such as Westbrook (44.6), Kawhi Leonard (40.0), Kyrie Irving (39.8), Gordon Hayward (39.7) Damian Lillard (36.4), James Harden (35.5) and George’s teammate Teague (27.5).

George had more makes per possession in clutch time than any other regular starter in the league but Westbrook, Isaiah Thomas and DeMar DeRozan.

George also has been one of the most open of NBA stars, sitting at his locker for 20 minutes in front of the press when other stars are hiding, and pausing his walk to answer a question when others blow by rather than talk. It has all happened with limited fanfare given his locale in Indianapolis.

Such sincerity is why we know, although few noticed at the time, how conflicted George felt about this season when the Pacers were on a losing streak near the midpoint and he told reporters he was “trying to work through it. It has been one of the most frustrating seasons I’ve been a part of. … Maybe I have to do more, and maybe that’s just what it is.”

And it’s why he expressed support for Miles the day after his post-Game 1 criticism, when the frustration had calmed—and Miles wasn’t one bit mad at George.

George’s NBA career arc has always been one of figuring it out during the season, not right away, and that’s what eventually happened this season. His Eastern Conference Player of the Month honor came at the last possible moment in April, and he probably didn’t do enough to beat out a crowded field of candidates for the six All-NBA forward spots.

On my official ballot submitted to the league, I had James, Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler (ineligible at guard) as All-NBA forwards, with Anthony Davis placed at center. Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap, among others, had credible claims, too.

If George carries on next season with what he figured out late this season, however, he’s a lock to have a monster year and make All-NBA. That would secure the super-max salary via the “designated player” provision, provided he wants to sign an extension with the Pacers.

That means everything that is happening now in the Pacers-Cavs series will be a part of his decision-making process for next summer. Does George come away impressed by McMillan’s radical defensive scheme to limit help and switch eagerly against James and Irving? If the Pacers are eliminated, is there anything Bird can do this offseason, with Teague already a free agent, to keep George?

This is a franchise where even owner Herb Simon’s daring proclamation to the Indianapolis Star that “When the day comes we need one player to win a championship, we may even go over the cap” comes across as tight-fisted. Would the Celtics’ struggles against the Bulls prompt Boston GM Danny Ainge to make an offer Bird couldn’t refuse with the star-hungry Lakers lurking the following summer?

Trade or no trade, the ultimate power will lie with George where he plays.
He has already figured out how he will play.

George turns 27 in two weeks and is coming into his voice after a season uncertain what it meant for him to do the right thing.

It was at 27 that Bryant felt his most potent, became “just locked in” to be his absolute best…scored 81 and kept building the legend from there.

Whether George succeeds Bryant as the next Lakers superstar or locks in more than ever on bringing a championship to Indiana, the guy has already become the beast he’ll be next season.

Enjoy the preview right now, because even more greatness is coming.